I am new to teaching. Remembering from my own education how good teachers can inspire and bad ones can hinder learning, I was rather nervous for my first teaching position as a graduate teaching assistant in charge of Mammalogy lab. My nervousness stemmed from my lack of training as a teacher, but also from the fact that I was often learning the material only a few days before I was supposed teach it. However, rather to my surprise I found not only was teaching exciting and challenging, but it was often fun. Every time I stand in front of students I learn an immense amount about what works and what doesn’t, about me as a teacher and a learner, and about my students. Teaching and learning go hand in hand and being a student at the same time as a teacher gives me a useful perspective on technique and ensures that I actively strive to make my teaching student centered.
As a teacher my first job is to engage the students so they will want to learn the material. Without engagement even the best students will struggle, but with it anything can become exciting. The best classes are not necessarily taught by experts in the field, but by people who can communicate their enthusiasm about the material. I had a marine botany class where I had very little initial interest in the subject but by two weeks in, I was keenly memorizing the Latin names and lifecycles of 40+ seaweeds, purely based on the infectious enthusiasm of the professor. I’ve also had classes where my interest was quickly extinguished by boring lectures, pointless assignments, and professors who stifled discussion or questions. Once students are engaged, I can begin to teach them the two types of knowledge and skills that I have identified as important. The first are the foundational concepts of the class I am teaching, the ‘stuff’ that the students need to know in order to be successful in the field of ecology or wildlife. In Mammalogy lab this included knowing the skins and skulls, natural history, and taxonomy of the mammals of Virginia. The second are the skills that everyone should have regardless of where their future takes them. These include writing and communication skills, being able to work effectively in groups, critical thinking, being able to see many sides of the same issue, and the ability to learn on their own.
One of the key ways to engage your students is to be excited about the material yourself. I try to emphasize the aspect of the material that excites me, because if I am not engaged then there is no way that my students will be. At the same time I realize that the students will have different interests than I do, so I try to find out what drives them and incorporate that into how I present the material. In mammalogy lab I had a weekly slide show of the road kill pictures that students sent me which I used to teach species identification. Since many students were active hunters, I expanded this to include pictures of animals they had harvested. By doing so I hoped to link the information that I was teaching them to the mammals they were most likely to see in their everyday lives (which are often dead ones).
In order to reach students with a diverse array of interests and learning styles, I try to present material in a variety of ways. These include short lectures with lots of pictures, hands-on activities, and field trips if possible. I also stress that that their fellow students and the internet are the greatest sources of knowledge they have and encourage them to learn from each other and on their own instead of expecting to passively absorb knowledge from me. Once out of university, their future will rarely involve a teacher figure imparting knowledge. No matter if they go into the job market or to grad school, usually they will have to learn a vast majority of their knowledge and skills from colleagues or on their own.
Just as students have diverse ways of learning, the ways that they can best express what they have learned will vary as well. Assessments should provide the teacher with a way to quantify the learning objectives a student has accomplished. Therefore the assessments should be designed specifically to test learning objectives. I used a variety of assessment tools such as quizzes, practical exams, writing assignments, field journals, and specimen collection to gauge how much the students learned. This also allows students that do not do well with traditional assessments such as tests to show me what they have learned through other means. For example, some students excel at memorizing facts and scientific names, making them good at test taking. However, being a good ecologist requires keen observational and note-taking skills which are better demonstrated through the keeping of a field journal or writing a detailed report about a field trip. Thus I try to make sure students have multiple ways of showing me what they have learned so that their success in the class is not purely dependent on their ability to take tests.
It becomes quickly apparent to anyone who teaches that people have different ways of approaching material and learning which can be strongly influenced by their background. But there is a lot of distance between knowing that your students have diverse needs and being an effective teacher to them all. This is an area that I will have to work hard at improving throughout my time as a teacher. By using a variety of ways to present material and assess students I try to accommodate multiple learning styles, but I know I have just scratched the surface. One of the most effective ways for me to improve is student feedback. For example, I have used a style of exam review where students are in groups and compete against each other to answer questions. As we started a student told me she had an anxiety disorder and competition really did not help her learn. Thankfully my fellow TA was able to work with her one on one to review the material while I ran the rest of the class. If she hadn’t told me that my review method wasn’t going to work for her, she wouldn’t have learned anything that day and I wouldn’t have had to considered how to make my review effective for more learning styles.
My teaching accomplishments are rather modest at this point. I am delighted by the fact that several students told me they would never see road kill again without thinking of me. I am pleased that almost all of them can correctly identify the skins and skulls of Virginia’s carnivores. I was humbled on many levels when a student wrote me to say that my actions had made being in class with an anxiety disorder less difficult for her. I learned an immense amount about teaching and discovered a large number of ways that I can work to improve. These are the small things that will keep me excited about teaching.
Most students are no longer limited by access to knowledge, and the role of the teacher has moved beyond dispensing that knowledge. Today teachers should work to engage the student, help put information in context, to illuminate connections between subjects or concepts, and encourage students to think critically about their opinions, preconceptions, and the information being presented to them. Armed with curiosity and critical-thinking skills, a student is not restricted by the knowledge of teachers but can learn from a variety of sources throughout their life. I hope that no matter how much more teaching I do I will keep improving my technique, be responsive to my students’ needs, and be able to communicate my curiosity and passion for the world around us.