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Venturing into teaching

ImageAre you new to university teaching – whether it is tutoring, demonstrating or lecturing? Or are you planning to undertake some in the future?

If so, we hope these pages will be of interest to you.

The material drawn on here is derived from a recent studyOpens new window into the teaching experiences of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) as novice academic practitioners. The study focused on a sample of Graduate Teaching Assistants in BioSciences and Economics in three different research-intensive UK universities. The experiences they describe may well resonate with your own – whatever your academic discipline.

What makes a good teacher?

Reflect on the teaching YOU enjoyed as a student...

  • Think about your time as an undergraduate. Can you recall the best learning experiences you had? What makes them stand out in your mind?
  • Can you remember a lecture series you particularly enjoyed? Was there something about the format or the delivery that made it exceptional?
  • Note down the key ingredients of the exemplary teaching you have experienced
  • How many of them could you draw on in your own teaching?
  • Which do you need to develop or work on?
  • How will you go about this?

Handling the class can be one of the biggest areas of concern for new teachers. The Following quotes, based loosely on interviews with teachers, exemplify a range of experiences people have of teaching large and diverse groups – download the summary report, available hereOpens in new window. They don’t represent right or wrong approaches. Read through them – does anything resonate with your own teaching experience? How do these approaches fit with or differ from your own teaching practice?

As John found, it can be difficult to get a large group to overcome its initial awkwardness

...And I think it’s also a challenge, I can tell there are some people in the class that are bored and some that aren’t. So people will ask a question that we’d just answered, I’d thought, completely and fully and people are ready to move on but then we have to go over it again because a couple of people just didn’t get it, and so sometimes I wonder how to balance that with teaching to the people that are listening and are understanding everything already.

But others talk about the strategies they have found useful

…the way I give the lessons on how they’ve done in the quiz so if, if we get to the stage where we’ve got a question everybody got right then I might try and make it look a bit more technical, just sort of generalise the result that they’ve been asked to show, having to kind of give those who’ve got bit more of Maths background something to think about and something that if they really wanted they could remember it and hence use in an exam which would allow them to show off a little bit. And just asking a lot of questions really because the people who do sort of Government or whatever, they’ve got really good knowledge of the history, and just specific examples, whereas the people who are most Maths inclined can shift all the curves and diagrams and things like that. So just trying to ask questions that cater to both fields I suppose.
It was a very standard question sheet with I think six or seven questions that the students were supposed to work through, or actually they were supposed to have worked through it but they never do so. And then as usual I asked them to work through the questions in small groups of three to five people. I walked around during that period, in case they had questions and I helped them through whatever they didn’t understand and after twenty-five minutes I asked each group to present their answer or if they didn’t feel comfortable going through the board I told them to tell me what to write on the board and to explain to the others what they did. And if they get stuck anywhere I kind of jump start or try and jump start the discussion and in that case they got stuck on one question and I just ended up doing it on the board. ... Initially I felt I was forcing them to something they didn’t want to do but after about three weeks, in one group it started working in the second week and then one group took a bit longer but ultimately they got comfortable and then they wanted to present on the board and they were actively asking questions.
They were first year students … in the Geology department, and I found it very difficult to get them to say their opinions or to speak. So this is quite challenging to get them talking … most of them were just bored or [laughs] want to go home, really, but, if you … yeah I ended up just like asking questions and by asking questions you end up … somebody will speak and say a few sentences here and a few sentences there … and then you end up having a conversation…

Reflect on your own teaching experience

  • Describe what happened in the last discussion group workshop/ tutorial you lead.
  • Does this experience match what you anticipated?
  • Looking back on your experiences, describe two aspects of teaching which you found rewarding.
  • Describe two typical challenges you encountered in this teaching.
  • When you encounter these challenges: what options are
    open to you for meeting them?
  • How useful are these options in terms of coping with
    these challenges?
  • Is there anything you would like to be different in terms of the support that is available to you?

This resource is based on interviews completed by participants in a research project entitled: ‘Graduate Teaching Assistants as Novice Academic Practitioners: Perceptions and Experiences of Teaching,’ Knottenbelt, M., Hounsell, D. & Kreber, C., Centre for Teaching, Learning & Assessment, University of Edinburgh. The full report is available to download from the University of Edinburgh's pagesOPens new window.

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