5 Lessons from Teaching Undergrads

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Answers to the Map Quiz – Apparently Disney World Africa Exists

I have always enjoyed teaching but after this semester I know this is what I want to do for rest of my life. Having taught in 3 different ountries, this is the first semester I was teaching at a large state university in the US with a class size of over 65. 85 students to be exact. I thought I share the top 5 lessons I have learned from this experience as I want to start a conversation on the best practices so teachers can contribute and learn from it. So as a start, I am sharing my lessons.

  1. Go the High Risk Route – There are two kinds of teachers; those who follow the book to the letter and those who try to teach the concepts not chapters. Be the one who teaches concepts and ideas instead of chapters. As a teacher at a large state university my class size is huge and the diversity of students is rich. The whole point of my class is to introduce them to global issues and make some of it stick so when they leave this class and have conversations about these issues they sound knowledgeable. It is harder for me to go off book because I have to come up with solid material from variety of resources to help them understand the ideas. Also the book presents one side of the story, if I expect them to understand a concept they need to know all sides and decide for themselves. Most importantly, the students really respect that. It is hard for them to ‘learn’ concepts and actually write them out as they are used to cramming and spitting it on to multiple choice exams. But it is worth it at the end. All my students greatly appreciated it and every single one of them walked out more comfortable explaining their thoughts in words.
  2. Opt for Short Answer Questions – Please do not do what everyone does… do not rely solely on multiple choice questions for your undergraduate classes. Do the short answer questions because:
    1. They are a better indicator of what your students have actually learned. It allows them to share their take on the concept and how they comprehend it. Their answers are helpful in adapting your teaching approach in a manner that helps them understand more things.
    2. Short answer questions allow you to give partial credit. Not only are they a good measure of how well your students understand the concept, these questions also help you give partial credits to students who understand some of it but not all of it. I give credit to students who can at least give me examples as that shows they can envision the concept in action.
    3. Helps students who are nervous test takers. There are students who are good with multiple choice questions and then there are those who are not. Short answer questions help build confidence of students who get nervous taking standardized tests. Half my midterm was short answer and the other half was multiple choice. I had cases where students aced one portion and totally messed up the other one. Point is, give them an option to shine.
  3. Class Exercises have huge dividends – These are a must. If you are serious about getting your students interested in a concept, you need to class exercises and class group projects. Back in Business School, we used to spend half our class period doing short group assignments and then making quick presentations. The whole exercise was focused on not only understanding the concept but coming up with an application of it … all the while being on the clock. The urgency element led to quick and bullet point debates within the group and a base understanding of issues. And that is exactly what an intro level class is trying to achieve i.e. a base understanding of core issues.

    And this is what it's all about
    And this is what it’s all about
  4. Make them write a Reflective Essay – At the end of the semester, I ask my students to write a reflective essay that simply asks – ‘What did you learn? What was your favorite topic?’. It is 10% of the total grade & is about a 1000 words long. Why do I do it? Because I want them to review everything they have learned and think about what struck them the most, without them actually realizing it. The cool thing about this essay is, it is the easiest assignment on the face of it. But it makes them think and review much more than they realize.
  5. Start Strict, End Lenient – Start out as harsh as you wish to be because that helps with developing discipline in class. But for the love of everything holy, do not try getting harsh and discipline oriented towards the end of the semester. That is a recipe for disaster and you will lose control of the class in no time. Plus if you try being harsh towards the end, the teaching reviews are going to be horrible irrespective of how awesome you were during the first part of the semester. People tend to remember the last bit in an experience, they forget the earlier parts. Do not make this mistake.

Being funny helps. Not professor jokes but just good old fashioned banter helps. Letting your students know you laugh as well, humanizes you in their eyes and they respect that.

So these are my top lessons and I would love to hear yours. Comment on this post, email me or write a guest post. Let’s continue this convo.

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