Don't Throw Them to the Wolves

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I recently heard Michael Koelle (Associate Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale) give a very interesting presentation on teaching. He led by saying he wasn’t going to talk about anything trendy like MOOC’s or flipping the classroom or project-based learning, but would instead focus on how how he teaches traditional big lecture courses. He proceeded to tell us about the most progressive lecture courses I’ve ever heard of. Among other things, he never lectures for more than 15 minutes at a time and peppers his classes with interactivity and small group exercises. While his whole talk was inspiring and full of concrete advice and ideas, I want to write today about something he brought up almost in passing.

Professor Koehlle’s department introduces junior faculty to teaching big lectures by having them co-teach with someone senior the first few times. The junior sees first-hand what goes into a good lecture, learns the nuts and bolts with a safety net, and has someone right there who can answer questions and critique individual classes. What a great model!

The far more common practice is to throw junior faculty to the wolves in a big course. If you happen to be a natural or are willing to invest far more than makes sense for someone hoping to get tenure, it might result in a decent class. More often than not, it’s a train wreck. It occurs to me that while many departments can’t afford to have two faculty teaching their big classes, there are other (cheaper) ways to mentor juniors:

  1. Have experienced senior faculty pay attention to juniors while they are teaching a challenging class for the first time. That means observing lectures, having lunch meetings about how things are going, and encouraging juniors to ask questions about teaching.

  2. When a junior takes over an existing class, give them as much of the previous instructor’s materials as possible. Lecture slides are a start, but notes, problem sets and old exams are also helpful. If the department has ownership of the materials, this is easy.

  3. Let juniors get their first teaching experience in a high-level class. It sounds weird to people outside academia, but the more advanced classes are much easier to teach. The students in these classes are more bought into the discipline’s norms, and the material is closer to what the instructor works on every day while doing their research. Introductory classes need to be far more polished and have a much more diverse group of students. I love diversity but it’s a lot harder to teach. Electives are easiest of all because every student in the class wants to be there.

  4. Exploit university resources outside the department for helping teachers. At Yale, the Yale Teaching Center will help instructors learn from their evaluations, review syllabi, and even do classroom observation. Letting faculty know about these services is a nice first step, but my experience is that only the above average teachers take advantage of them. It should be mandatory for all juniors (and probably seniors too).

Junior faculty in top departments are evaluated for promotion based on their research productivity. Mentoring is a way to improve their teaching without having to take time away from their research. In fact, there are techniques many juniors don’t know that will save them time spent teaching. Starting with high-quality course materials means less time preparing class. Clearer lectures mean fewer confused students visiting during office hours. A better match between lecture content and exam content means fewer irate student emails.

If a department is serious about upgrading the quality of its undergraduate instruction, doing a better job of mentoring junior faculty is low hanging fruit.