Friday, October 02, 2009


Team-teaching has its perils and rewards. I have team-taught quite a lot over the years, mostly with compatible people, and, with few exceptions, I have found the benefits to exceed the chaotic or unsavory elements.

There are some classes I have team-taught many times over the years. There is one class in particular that I have team-taught at least 15 times. In this and other oft-(team)-taught classes, when I am not teaching and am sitting among the students listening to someone else teach, I may or may not take notes. If I do take notes, it may be to note new and interesting things in my colleague's lecture or to jot down something that will help me figure out what I need to teach when it is my turn. In some cases, I take notes to help keep me awake and alert.

The person with whom I typically team-teach is an excellent teacher, but there are a few lectures in particular that I'm not sure I can face a 16th time. I suppose it would be rude if I sat in the back of the room, sent text messages to my cats, and read blogs.

My team-teaching experience this term has thus far been very different because I am team-teaching a new class. In this new class, the primary classroom activities are talking and writing on a board. My colleague and I don't use lecture notes or Powerpoint in this class and we recently realized, after the first class, that we will have no visual 'record' of what we teach, for use when next we teach this class. It would, however, be useful to have such a record.

Creating and teaching a new class is a lot of work, and 2-3 years from now when I/we teach this course again, it would like to refer back to an archive of course materials from this term.

We therefore decided that one person would take notes while the other person is teaching. We both participate in every class in which we are both present, but typically one person is at the front of the class leading the discussion and the other is sitting with the students, mostly listening.

We decided to try to make these notes as complete as possible so as to have a good record of what exactly we covered. This will help us gauge the amount we can reasonably discuss in each class, what types of topics needed greater coverage (perhaps guided by questions from students), and what worked/what didn't.

Of particular interest for future improvements of the course will be keeping track of how we make transitions between topics and how effective we are at explaining certain concepts. These are difficult things to make notes about while also trying to copy everything that is written on the board. This type of note taking involves the same issues that students face when taking notes in a fast-paced course on a difficult topic, with some additional challenges.

During my student career, I was pretty good at taking notes that proved useful for later studying, but I have struggled with note-taking of the sort needed for this team-taught class. I know that I should write down everything, but sometimes, if my colleague is discussing something that I know extremely well and/or find obvious, I forget that I need to write it down anyway. Then I suddenly realize that I have a gap in the notes and I try to jot a few things down as a reminder, but while I do that I am missing some of the new information being presented.

Other times, my mind wanders as I ponder how my colleague has chosen to explain something and I consider whether/how to add to the discussion, either at that moment or later, and then I find a few more minutes have gone by and I have not been taking notes. Once again, my colleague is erasing the board of things I have not written down.

No, we are not going to do anything of an audio/video sort. We are going to accomplish this (or not) with notes.

I would give myself a C for note-taking so far in this class, but the academic year is still young and I hope to redeem myself by mid-term. My colleague isn't doing any better with his notes, but that doesn't make me feel any better. It will not be a disaster if we fail at our note-taking, but it would be nice if we could create some kind of useful record.


Michael Hultström said...

While I haven't team-taught that much, I will often ask the students if anyone would like to give me a copy of their notes. This is especially useful when teaching a new course, even one where you have all your notes and slides on file.

In a situation, such as you describe, I think it may be very useful. The ambitious students will always write everything down, so that way you have the permanent record, and you and your colleague will have the time to consider the things you should be spending your time on, considering how and when to present different material.



Anonymous said...

You should videotape the classes. All of our core graduate courses are taped and I found it quite helpful when I needed to fill in the gaps in my notes as well.

Anonymous said...

When I was a student I found it useful to record lectures so that I could fill in spotty notes. Unobtrusive recording technology is now available - some of your students may be using it to record the class already.

DrDoyenne said...

I can understand the reluctance about audio/video recording, but why not snap photos of the notes on the board (with your phone, for example)? These can be transcribed later and supplemented with the notes you are taking during class.

quasarpulse said...

Perhaps it would help to reduce your expectations for completeness? As a student, I often find that it's not entirely necessary to write down every single thing that gets written on the board, unless the board work consists of mathematical problem solving/derivations (and if you're doing math on the board with no lecture notes, I have to assume that it's the sort of math that you could easily reproduce on demand, so you probably wouldn't need the whole thing for your own use). You can probably create a useful set of notes for yourself by summarizing each board full of information into a sentence or two: "Derived equations of kinematics" or "Listed common metamorphic rocks."

Another option, if you're certain that you do need a complete set of student-style notes, is to compare your record of a lecture with another record; either video/audiotape a single lecture (for comparison purposes only) or recruit a student to let you compare your notes with his/hers. You can get a better sense of the exact gaps and how they occur by doing this.

Or you could even include your students in the process at a deeper level. Tell them that you're building a record of the course for the next time it's taught, and invite them to contribute their notes at the end of the term (or in realtime, using one of the online collaboration gimmick thingies your school probably has and nobody ever uses).

Anonymous said...

Find a premed in your class and ask for their notes. Offer them 1 extra credit point for copying their notes for you. Not only will you have a detailed transcript that would hold up in court, but you get them to shut up about extra credit.

two problems solved with one point.

Anonymous said...

You could really use a student's notes. A student who is already taking notes could help you a lot. And you can concentrate on taking notes on how to add to the class and students questions and what not.

You could also see if the students were able to catch up with the note taking, and if they realized the important pts ;)

lost academic said...

I understand your desire not to videotape the lectures, but I do know plenty of students, often those without English as a first language, who routinely audiotape lectures so they can go back over their notes and not have missed anything critical. Perhaps a very small recorder would be useful, especially something that wasn't particularly obvious to the students.

Anonymous said...

"I suppose it would be rude if I sat in the back of the room, sent text messages to my cats, and read blogs."

Au contraire; it would make you fit in better. Seriously, I read journals and manuscripts in this same situation so I think no one would think badly of it. Especially if every so often you surface and harass your colleague for something they said [this only works if you're friends from the start, which in my case is true].

"You should videotape the classes. All of our core graduate courses are taped and I found it quite helpful when I needed to fill in the gaps in my notes as well."

I would die rather than watch myself on tape.

Mark P

Pagan Topologist said...

The only person I have ever team taught with is a high school math teacher. We taught a math course emphasizing creativity and topics not usually taught to freshmen (Euler characteristic and solving cubic and quartic equations exactly, for example.)

We taught this in a summer program for high school students the summer before their senior year from 1986 through 1996. It had a reputation of being a difficult course.

The experience was wonderful. The two of us had very different ways of communicating, and we did changed which topics each one presented year to year. The students learned more than they would have with either of us alone, I think, even though each of us has taught the course alone a time or two at other times.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the purpose of team-teaching especially if both instructors have to be there at every class? why not jsut have one person teach the whole class rather than taking turns to sit in the audience??

I've never had nor even seen a team-taught class. With the exception of when TAs would teach different sections but that's not the same thing as what you're describing because it's still only one person at a time not both instructors showing up at the same time.

Female Science Professor said...

In some advanced classes that are team-taught (senior/grad level), it makes sense for both faculty to be in the class. For example, it will help me a lot in this class to know exactly what the students have been told, as each class builds on the previous one. Also, sometimes the non-teaching professor provides helpful information or explanation about a certain topic. This type of interaction makes for a better class.

quasarpulse said...

@ Anonymous 01:23:
In some fields (I think most notably the earth sciences) where the interests and expertise of the faculty diverge fairly significantly at a relatively early stage in the curriculum, and where it's useful to present material from different specialties as part of a coherent course, team-teaching in the manner described makes a lot of sense. A course about (for instance) ice age environments might be well-taught by a glaciologist, but the paleoclimatologists and paleontologists and geophysicists would be able to add a lot more depth (and possibly benefit professionally from working closely together).

That being said, there are situations where team-teaching of this sort makes no sense whatsoever and yet is still used. It's situational, and it does seem like FSP feels the situations in which she team-teaches are appropriate.

Ms.PhD said...

I really don't understand your insistence on using notes. I take fantabulous notes, complete with snide comments in the margins about what worked and what didn't, but the way you write about this... it sounds like a stubborn insistence on only using notes, which just comes across as very Luddite. I don't get it. Aren't scientists supposed to appreciate the value of technology???

Especially since it sounds like you would definitely need a third person so you could divide the work of noting the substance of the lecture vs. noting the style/possible improvements to the pedagogy.

Seems to me you have two options:
1) come in the 21st century and use a piece of technology DESIGNED TO MAKE YOUR LIFE EASIER

2) get another person to fill in the gaps (where a computer with a camera and a microphone would probably still do a better job)

your choice. The third option is you can keep complaining about a totally solvable problem.

Gingerale said...

Where I teach we supposedly have access to all kinds of tech equipment including cameras to capture lectures.

But where I teach it isn't actually feasible to do all that. The rooms aren't equipped, the AV staff won't set up equipment, there aren't teaching assistants available, etc. In fact if we team teach our chair has to go to the dean first and defend the "unproductive" use of faculty time.

I wonder to what extent this describes others' experiences. (FSP?)

Anonymous said...

"No, we are not going to do anything of an audio/video sort. We are going to accomplish this (or not) with notes."

so you would rather not achieve your goal, than use A/V to achieve your goal. This sounds very strange to me. the goal must not be important then.

Anonymous said...

So if the rationale for team teaching is that the course requires specialty in areas A and B and Professor A doesn't know enough about area B to teach that section and vice versa...then does this mean that by the end of the course the students know more about area A than Professor B does, and more about area B than Professor A does? I mean, otherwise, why couldn't each professor adequately cover other areas outside their own specialty but which are still obviously relevant enough to even be included in a single course?

I guess I just don't see advantages to team teaching. Either the course is so narrowly focused and specialized in which case why not break it up into two courses - one on topic A and one on topic B. Or else the course not that narrow and specialized if both A and B are covered in the same course in one semester in which case why can't one professor cover everything?

Kevin said...

I have team taught a few times.

Sometimes the purpose of the team teaching was to develop a new course, where each of the participants had part of the expertise needed, but not all of it. For example, a writing instructor and I team taught a tech writing class for engineers for a few years, before I taught it by myself.

Team teaching is also used to transfer a course from one instructor to another.

Sometimes team teaching is used to get some teaching out of someone who doesn't have an obligation to teach. For example, an HMMI investigator at our campus who is an excellent teacher but is very, very busy teaches half a course, together with another faculty member whose expertise is overlapping but complementary.

We are creating a new course this year which involves a couple of weeks of lectures by each of 5 faculty who have expertise in different aspects of the field. The hope is that in a few years it will be teachable by one of the faculty, but right now none of them have the expertise to teach the whole thing.

Indeed it is our fervent hope that our PhD students graduate knowing more about something than we do. How else will the field advance?

FemgineerPhD said...

"My colleague and I don't use lecture notes..."

I know some faculty skip this, especially after teaching a course for the millionth time, but it seems risky. I can't count the number of times this has meant typos in equations, and less than perfect descriptions/definitions of phenomena. All of which gets transcribed directly by students (let's ignore the problem of mindless notetaking for now). It may be more boring for the professor, but I think it's a lot better for the student if the professor writes down a perfect set of lecture notes, and then periodically refers to them rather than winging it each time.

quasarpulse said...

I suppose it depends both on the content of the course and on the style of the lecture, but in cases where the lecture consists partly or mostly of working problems or doing derivations, I have to argue in favour of doing this 'live' rather than from canned lecture notes. as a student, I get a lot more out of seeing my professor's actual thought process rather then merely the results of it (which I could get from reading a book). Same goes for any course where the lectures involve (or could involve) modeling a scientific thought process for students.

Of course, I don't necessarily think you can go wrong with writing out a simple outline of 'stuff I plan to cover today,' perhaps including some of the laws and/or formulae you're going to want students to transcribe correctly. But I'm not sure that's what's meant by a "perfect set of lecture notes," as I've seen more than a few instructors who have literally written down every word they planned to say and everything they planned to write on the board, colour-coded, with a timeline and indications of when to pause for questions. I have to say those lectures were...less than thrilling...and I found sneaking peeks at the lecture notes more informative than listening to the lecturer.

Kevin said...

I'm with quasarpulse on this one. Live extemporaneous talks are much more engaging than canned talks read from the lecture notes. The extemporaneous talks are not always good (live improv theater involves some risk, especially when it includes live-action math), but the heavily scripted talks are almost always dull.

Different people find different styles to work for them, both as audience and as lecturer, so I would not dictate my style, which is largely extemporaneous, on someone who is more comfortable giving a fully scripted talk.

Of course, giving extemporaneous lectures, following tangents that come up as a result of student questions, does require a solid mastery of the material. If you are only a few pages ahead of your students, it is very dangerous to try.

Getting back to the original subject, team teaching is one way to get the high level of expertise needed for extemporaneous lecturing, particularly in graduate courses.

Doctor Pion said...

What an interesting challenge! It reminds me of the even bigger challenge of making some sort of record of some insight I had in mid lecture that led to a different approach that proved really effective. Sometimes I make a note right during the lecture!

My suggestion is that you (and your teammate) take on the well-known and effective challenge of copying over your notes each night. I know that I can recall points of discussion or fill in gaps in a presentation based on cryptic notes if I sit down with it that same day. In your case, the lecturer ought to be able to fill in a gap just by replaying the mental tape of what was done that day.

kate vander wiede said...

Why not try audio or video recording? Some very well-regarded schools are using lecture capture to help themselves and their students. What makes you adverse to the idea?

Anonymous said...

I recently stared using a livescribe pen to take notes during a class I co-teach. We have 10 faculty involved and since I give the last few lectures in the class I want to hit on all of the points that are covered by my collegues. Check it out:

Anonymous said...

When I taught a class where there was no textbook, I had part of the credit of the class go towards the students writing lecture notes. Each lecture was assigned to a different student, who wrote everything nicely, I went with the student over the write up and suggested changes, etc, and this was made available to the entire class. Very useful for the students and for me in subsequent years.