HE Teaching hints and tips.

Over 20+ years I have developed a fairly visceral dislike of Edu-babble. It has been caused I think by being traumatized by a variety of fads that have breezed through HE, few of which in my opinion, have improved the experience of teaching or learning. 

These include vast matrices of learning outcomes, multi-guess tests are good/bad/good, reduce your teaching time, spend less time marking student assignments (I hate marking but it’s what we are there for and a carefully crafted student report deserves time spent on it), do formative assessment/don’t do formative assessment, we need skills modules/we don’t need skills modules, problem based learning (usually mis labelled),  call them students/learners/students, let students design the curriculum (do we need academics at all?), rote learning species names/drawing dissections to memorise diagnostic features are pointless what we need is postmodern contextualized, 21st Century digitalized literacy (I don’t even know what the latter is but I do know that the joints on a decapod limb are coxa, basic, ischium, merus, carpus, propus and dactyl which makes understanding keys much easier), we don’t need field trips we can immerse ourselves in a 3D world instead.  The recent one is that students only need to demonstrate competency in a skill once.  I hope my Dr or mechanic isn’t trained that way!

Counter to that I’ve learned many lessons by making mistakes and listening to old hands, students and new lecturers.  These are some, what I hope are, helpful hints for teaching in HE in no particular order:

  1. 3 x Tell ‘Em: Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you have told them.
  2. You only have 15 min of their attention in a lecture. “Why do people watch films then?” I hear you ask.  Because it’s entertaining.  So be entertaining – put on a show.  A lecture can only be a cartoon to get over key points and a pointer to sources of knowledge in other forms that will provide detail.  Use it to provide your personal experience and anecdotes, hints and tips or rules of thumb that students won’t get from books.
  3. As your lecture should be a cartoon, your slides, if you are using PowerPoint, should mostly be engaging pictures and key phrases/words rather than prose.  I recommend Beyond Bullet Points.  Make sure you have a note of what you were talking about during the slide that had a hippo, some kelp and a flamingo on it.  Do not read out the text on slides – the brain cannot handle the same information coming in two forms – visual and audible.  Pictures are anchors for the memory.
  4. Record your lectures – a few very vocal students will revisit them again and again and again.  If you don’t record them they will still be vocal. 
  5. Write down what you are going to say in a lecture and provide copious handouts.  Students love them and it lets you relax about making sure you cover every point you wanted to make.  If you miss something , it’s in the notes.  Let them see them in advance if they want, you are not imparting a detective novel and have to keep some things secret until you have said them, people learn at different speeds in different ways.
  6. Refresh your sessions/lectures every year.  Otherwise you will be bored delivering them and you will stumble when trying to explain that slightly complex but key point you really want to get across.
  7. Don’t use asynchronous teaching unless you really have to.  Students hate it and see it as lesser than having an academic live in front of them.  They pay for you to be there; be there.  If you have an asynchronous session with a follow up. ~ 50% of the class will not have watched the first bit. 
  8. FOFO: Teaching is what you do, learning is what they should do (obviously some two way but that’s the general direction).  Sometimes, for their own good, you need to tell them to go and find out and report back: “F**k off and find out”.
  9. Be really nice to the professional services staff who know how to make Canvas/Blackboard/the Timetable work and know who to speak to in order to get form 14v completed to change classrooms in order to get away from that seagull pecking at the window while you are trying to lecture.  They will save your bacon again and again and again and lots of people give them flak.  Be unusual.
  10. Teach to your personality.  I’m a gobby show off and after 20 years in the trade happy to wing it now and again.  If you are a shy introvert you will want to be completely prepared down to the last t crossed and i dotted.  I wouldn’t try to be you, don’t try to be me.  The combination of the two personalities teaching can work really well in class.
  11. To pass your PCrAP just make sure you use the P word frequently and mention Holstein-Svalbard’s 16 layers of cake model for teaching. This may be helpful.
  12. Don’t try and publish in the p******l literature unless that is where you see your career going.  It’ll be crap.  If I delivered a module on reflecting superposition compound eyes I wouldn’t expect my students to immediately be able to publish a quality paper in the Journal of Marine Biology.
  13. Don’t be rude to students, or tease them unless you know them really well.  They can take your well-intended jibe the completely wrong way and once you have lost them it’s a hard road to pull them back in.
  14. Be sympathetic when life throws a curve ball at your students.  Give that extension, do that 1:1 tutorial to help them out.  You will feel a better person and they will be happy.  Many students nowadays have lives outside university (children, partners, ageing parents, jobs).
  15. Don’t tell students you are disorganized thinking they will see you as a cute/avuncular slightly bumbling academic who actually has a razor sharp mind.  They will write in their module evaluations, “This person is disorganized” or (worse) say that your module is disorganized..
  16. When giving feedback, tell them you are giving them feedback.  Students think feedback = marks.  They rarely read your carefully worded constructive criticism.
  17. Keep assessment organization simple.  If you have 20 multichoice tests and an essay and a video, think how that interacts with the other two modules they are doing.
  18. Novel teaching methods are rarely better than good solid and well done traditional methods.  We have been communicating with each other for thousands of years.  I’ve seen a few modules cluttered with novelty so much so that students can’t see the substance of what is being taught (including my own).
  19. Be Socratic and conversational when you can.  It’s more fun for you and your students.
  20. Give students your time as much as possible.  It is the thing they crave most.
  21. When you read comments on a Module Evaluation remember you are 6 times more affected by negative comments than positive ones.  Sometimes students (or colleagues) are mean.  Module evaluations are pretty meaningless and not really comparable among modules.  If you run a field trip in Malaysia, you will get excellent responses.  If you teach stats you will probably get a lot of flak.
  22. If you are going to be late returning a piece of work, ask the students for an extension.  They are usually understanding.
  23. Find some good colleagues to have honest conversations with about what went wrong/right in your sessions.  No-one is perfect and you will have days when everything goes to pot.  But you will also have days when you are the best HE tutor ever.
  24. Reign in your expectations of your students sometimes or try to align them with the ability of each student.  Not every student in your class is that geeky, keen, ambitious person you were.  For some just getting through and graduating with a 3rd is a real achievement and something to celebrate.
  25. Watch out for the unexpected rough diamond who has all of the ability but didn’t have any of the advantages as a kid.  They are worth a bit of extra effort.  The same goes for mature students – they can often be overpoweringly keen initially.  Help them, they need it.  Often they will come to you 2 weeks after starting their degree and tell you “I can’t do it”.  Your job is to convince them they can, because they invariable can and just need a wee nudge/confidence boost.
  26. Be really fussy with the detail in your assessments – number of words, hand in date, exactly what is expected, some helpful literature.  Otherwise you will spend a lot of time answering silly questions.
  27. If your students don’t do well or don’t understand something, it’s not their fault, it’s yours.
  28. Don’t run session at 09:00, especially on a Monday morning, or Thursday morning (apres sports are on Weds night) or on Friday afternoon.
  29. Embrace observations – both receiving and delivering.  They are almost always interesting.  I once watched an arts lecture and the students didn’t take notes!  It made me write students’ notes for them from that day onwards so that they can sit back and be entertained.
  30. Have an open door policy and respond to emails instantly if you can.  Often only a few seconds chat or of thought can put someone’s mind at ease.  Students view their relationship with you as 1:1 not 1:200 and can’t understand really why you didn’t respond instantly.