Teach the Students You Have

If you let it, teaching can soak up more time than you can spare–including hours you might otherwise devote to sleeping. Yet, especially if you’re at a research-intensive university, your tenure committee will value your research accomplishments more, often far more. So you can’t afford to let your teaching paralyze your research productivity. Some amount of compromise is necessary.

“To a large extent, we lose students when the material doesn’t have meaning, when they can’t find themselves in the subject.” –Shirley Malcom 

“I always want to spend more time on my teaching, and I always want to spend more time on my research,” says Tobin Munsat, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “I try to do as best I can with the limited number of hours in the day and try to sleep at night having fallen a little bit short on everything.”

Time is one big part of the challenge. Another is having the right attitude. While some students will be ready to soak up any new knowledge, others will be vastly underprepared for college-level science. Some will be perpetually confused. Still others won’t seem to care. And no force on Earth will keep a few students from cheating, skipping almost every lecture, complaining endlessly about grades that were generous in the first place, or generally doing whatever they can to make their professors’ lives miserable.

It’s easy to let the worst students get you down, especially those who are so plainly wasting your time. But you need to approach the job with a philosophy that is as elusive as it is obvious: Your job is to teach the students you have, not the students you might want. Just as in politics, you need to focus on the swing votes, not the best or the worst but the students who are educable and open to learning–and to keep in mind that it might not be obvious at first who those students are.

“We all know that some percentage are way off on the tail end of the distribution, and we’re never going to reach them,” says Steven Rissing, a professor of evolution, ecology, and organismal biology and a specialist in undergraduate education at Ohio State University, Columbus. “My job is to not let that keep me from reaching most of them.”

The basics

“It doesn’t take a whole lot more energy to teach well than it does to teach badly,” says Wayne Jacobson, interim director of the University of Washington’s Center for Instructional Development and Research. “There’s no way to teach without taking time, but there are some small steps you can take that have a high rate of return.”

Start by determining how much time you can afford to give to teaching, including grading, class and exam preparation, office hours, and e-mail consultation.

Make sure your expectations are clear, try to anticipate students’ questions, and give students feedback on their homework. Do those things and you’ll have fewer students complaining about every tenth of a point they lost on their exam grades.

Those people tend to approach teaching as a scholarly, or quasi-scholarly, challenge. Begin by making observations and asking colleagues how they’ve approached teaching challenges. Seek help from campus teaching centers, which typically offer workshops and one-on-one consultations. Experiment in the classroom. If you try something and it doesn’t work, approach it differently the next time. Assess your work–and make a few notes after each lecture about what worked well and what didn’t. These notes will save you time the next time you teach that course and make you a better teacher. “This is what scholars do,” Rissing says. “You never have to remind yourself of that in research, and it should also become part of teaching.”

Know your audience

Ask yourself: Who are my students and what do they need to know? “To fail to address those questions is to create a situation where students are uninterested and unfocused,” Rissing says.

Recognize that your students are not the same as you. Even those who intend to become scientists–and most don’t–have a long way to go before they are your intellectual peer. “Academics in general tend to spend a lot of time with people who love the things that we love,” Jacobson notes. “It’s easy to forget what it’s like to not love those things.” He adds: “If your goal is that your students will see and think about things the way you do, you will always be disappointed. But if you’re thinking, ‘Okay, here’s somebody who’s never done this before–where can they be in 8 weeks, or 16 weeks?’ That’s more of an intellectually engaging task.”

Another thing that can make your teaching more engaging, for you and your students, is offering them a piece of your scientific soul. “Of all the things I can offer my students, the thing that is least unique is the information I can tell them,” Jacobson says. “The unique thing I can offer is, how do you look at a problem, take it apart, and solve it when it doesn’t make sense.”

Jacobson recalls a robotics professor who set out one day to show his class how his robot worked. But that day, it didn’t. Frustrated and embarrassed, the professor worked the problem through, thinking out loud, and after about half an hour, the robot was working again. In the course evaluations, many students wrote that the best thing in the course was the day the robot didn’t work, Jacobson says. “Until then, all the work and troubleshooting he had done to get the robot working was invisible to the students.” This near failure gave his students a glimpse of what his work was really like.

Remove obstacles

about the other parts of your academic job:

Before you conclude that students are unreachable, consider what obstacles they might face, Jacobson advises. Some students may not speak up in class because they don’t want to look stupid in front of other students. Such barriers tend to be invisible to an instructor, but once identified they’re easy to remove. Consider the classroom standby, ‘Does anybody have any questions?’ Of all the ways to solicit feedback, this is one of the most intimidating. One way to encourage broader participation is to give students a minute to consult with the person next to them about what they’d like to review before moving on. “Changing the classroom dynamic like that doesn’t necessarily take more time or effort, just more thoughtfulness,” says Jacobson.

Classroom activities can help you determine in real time whether students understand difficult material, while creating a more relaxed, interactive classroom. When he’s covering particularly tricky material in his physics courses, Munsat periodically stops to flash a question in front of the class, asking students to “vote” on the correct answer using a classroom clicker. Then, he has the class break into groups of three or four for a couple of minutes to discuss the question further until they come to a consensus on an answer, at which point they vote again. “The smarter kids end up helping the struggling students figure it out, and that process ends up helping both groups of students,” Munsat says.

Jun “Kelly” Liu, an associate professor of molecular biology and genetics at Cornell University, seeks to engage those struggling students outside of class. She reaches out by e-mail to those who do poorly on the first exam. She invites them to come see her during her office hours, and they talk together about what isn’t working. Then Liu asks students to meet with her one-on-one for half an hour a week, as an experiment. During that time, the student shares what he or she learned that week, and the two discuss what the student missed and what study strategies might help. This approach seemed time-consuming at first, she says, but ultimately has saved her time because students don’t overwhelm her at the end of the semester. “They sort of get the hang of how they should be learning the material.”

Be relevant

What seems like lack of preparation or disinterest might mean that the subject you’re teaching seems to students purely abstract and irrelevant to problems that would motivate them. One way to connect course material with things students naturally care about, says Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources programs for AAAS, which publishes Science Careers, is to highlight the historic context in which discoveries were made. “What were the times like? What made the science difficult?” Another tactic is to show why basic processes matter in real life. For most introductory biology students, for example, the phases of cell division are just terms to memorize for a test. “But if you’re going to talk about cancer, then it’ll be different,” Rissing says. “They’ll listen to you when you talk about that.”

“To a large extent, we lose students when the material doesn’t have meaning, when they can’t find themselves in the subject,” Malcom says. “You’ve got to find out what they are interested in. I’m not one of those people that says, ‘I put it out there and it’s your responsibility to learn it.’ Learning has to be a dance between the learner and the teacher. What do I have to do to get you to a point where you want to put forth the effort?”

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