PhD Life: What I Learnt on my Teaching Course
Back in January I embarked on a two-day teaching course offered by the graduate school at my university. It took a semester to get a place, but I undertook the course completely online, and I thought it’d be useful to share some of the main things that I learnt during the programme. As someone who is new to teaching in higher education, I’d done a lot of background reading beforehand on the theory of education, so the course fit nicely into my understanding and has given me a really solid foundation from which to work from in the future. Some of these things might sound obvious, but if you’re considering a PhD, these are some points I learnt for when I teach next year.
1. Engagement is key
We talked in one session about students taking notes passively, instead of making notes that help them in their understanding. I reflected back on my own notes at undergraduate, and found that I evolved from copying down slides and what the lecturer was saying to actually refining the notes into my own words and structure during the seminar. Once I’d learnt to touch-type, keeping up with a lecturer became very easy, and I was able to reformat my notes during the seminar so they’d be useful to me for exams.
Helping students to make useful notes is key to developing their independent thought and critical analysis, so I’ll make sure to set expectations at the start of class and encourage students to get back to me with any additional thoughts or questions. Being made to feel welcome can really break the ice for first-year students in particular, and this in itself could encourage students to come forwards with other things that they’re struggling with.
In terms of encouraging participation, I learned that this would vary widely due to the different personalities of students in the classroom. We discussed activities to help students get involved, as well as reinforcing learning objectives so students understand how these tasks will contribute to their learning, and also their assessments. I’ve seen lots of ways that lecturers have tried to encourage people to contribute, and I think that a gentle, frank approach towards students will be the way that I engage them.
2. It’s all trial and error
The people I studied alongside on the teaching course came from a variety of subject backgrounds with varying teaching experience. This was really useful to me as I got to make lots of notes on the challenges that people had faced regarding large-group teaching. I’ve never given a lecture to lots of people, so it’s hard to imagine how to tackle it, and it’s a bit daunting if I’m honest. Hearing people’s stories about the fails they’d encountered was comforting, as well as listening to top tips for success from the course leaders.
Online learning is here to stay in some format, and the course itself being online taught me a lot about how to engage with students when you’re not stood in front of them. Using quizzes, polls and keeping an eye on the chat box will hold a student’s interest for longer, as well as making the lecture a little more interesting. The technology for virtual learning is only going to evolve, so I’m looking forward to seeing how I use it in future teaching.
One of the biggest things I learnt from the teaching course is that all the training and theory in the world can only prepare you so much, and it’s getting out there and teaching yourself that’ll help to make you a better educator.
3. There are lots of guidelines and policies
This wasn’t especially news to me, but I thought that it’s important to explain that although universities are independent from mainstream education, they’ll still subject to review, so keeping on top of requirements for teaching and assessment is vital for holding down a job. Reading though all the jargon is a bit painful, but policies are written to make sure that students are getting good value for money, so it’s all worth it in the end, from a student perspective myself.
The paperwork element I’m sure will be a bit tedious, but I’m sure it’s a learning curve that is very manageable and I’ll get used to it over time. I totally understand why these guidelines exist, so I’ll be tackling them gradually over time.
4. A lot of teaching is self-explanatory
Alongside trial and error, getting on with teaching will help to establish my principles and methods as an educator. Making the teaching material and setting up preparation tasks should all link to the assessments at the end. I’ve been making some material already for a few different things, and it’s been nice to bring in advice about how to format slides for maximum effect.
Establishing expectations, going though assessment and its criteria as well as setting up a good contextual background can go a long way to settling your students down to learn, and it seems very logical to me. The creative aspect of designing a module is way off for me as of now, but I’m dipping in to the practice a little to build up my skills.
5. Nerves are normal
Everyone is nervous when they head into the unknown, and I do feel the pressure of teaching students who are paying to be here. Value for money is so important, and students can have their pick of universities, so it’s really important that they have a good experience. I feel like I have a close connection to the student experience, mainly because I’m only a few years out of undergrad. Drawing the line between that experience and my job as a lecturer will be the most challenging aspect, especially as I’m someone that wants to be liked. I’m sure I’ll have a few wobbles, but I do enjoy public speaking quite a lot, so I think it’ll be more the timekeeping element and getting students to engage rather than actually delivering the content.
Overall, I found the course a really great introduction to teaching, and I’m ready to start getting more involved. If you’re thinking about a PhD, teaching is a great way to enhance your experience, so see if your university offers a teaching programme like mine did.