Friday, January 28, 2011

Teach It Again

Someone I know recently had the experience of a not-so-great second time teaching a class, even though the first time had gone really well. However difficult it is to teach (including TA) a course the first time, I think the second (or nineteenth) time can also be difficult.


There are many possible reasons, including:

Class dynamics can change a lot from year to year. This is particularly true of small classes, but also applies to even very large classes. A few students can influence the atmosphere of a class, for good or not. So, maybe the first time you teach a class you are lucky to have a really nice group of motivated, polite, and happy students. But another time.. you get some less happy students (maybe for reasons unrelated to the class and your teaching), and some of them are vocal about their unhappiness, or maybe they are quiet and sullen and stifle class discussions by their glowering hostility. Just when you were starting to feel more confident about teaching this class, you start to doubt how you are handling the class. This can be an issue no matter how many times you teach a class, but after many years, you may develop strategies for dealing with it.

Perhaps you spent so much time preparing for the class the first time that you thought you could spend much less time the second time around. In fact, you may well be able to spend a lot less prep time the second time around, but beware: you may think that a lecture or lab that you spent hours creating and organizing the first time is fresh in your mind, but then when you're standing in front of the class, you realize you should have spent more time thinking about how to explain the concepts, the logic of the order in which you present the concepts, and in-class questions/activities to engage the class in the lecture material. You likely don't have to spend as much time as you did when you first taught the class, but, for some people (i.e., me), it can still take a lot of preparation to teach something again. It's easy to underestimate the time required.

The first time you taught the class, your life was simpler. You did not have as many other courses to teach, you weren't on so many committees, you didn't have as many (or any) children or pets or research grants or graduate students or postdocs. Things have gotten more complicated and hectic, and you don't have as much time to devote to preparing for the class or to helping students. You don't feel as organized and coherent as you did when you had time to prepare and teach the course the first time. The students sense that you are extremely busy, and some interpret this to mean that you care more about other things than about them.

There are some courses that I have taught so many times and with a reasonable amount of success (based on teaching evaluations) that I wonder how I would recognize if I needed to make a major change in the course and how I teach it. For example, if there were more than a few unhappy students in one of these oft-taught courses, would I just think to myself "I've taught this course n > 10 times without these problems, it must be their fault, not mine"? Maybe I would. Maybe I would be right, but maybe I would be wrong.

Early in my career, I thought that when I had taught a course n > 5 (or 10) times, I would eventually find the "best" way to teach the course, and then I would teach it that way forever. Now I think that the best way for me to teach is to find a happy balance between being sufficiently prepared (but not obsessively so), confident (but not too confident), and alert to the need for adjustments in the course depending on changes in the student population, course material (new advances in Science), life, the universe, and everything and anything.


Alex said...

When I first started teaching, I found that the second (and even third) iteration of a class was actually harder, because I recognized all my mistakes from the first time and had grand ideas for ways to revise it. The first time, by contrast, I was just trying to keep my head above water.

Unknown said...

FSP, what would you say is the typical drop off from prep between the first and second time teaching a course? Also, how much work did you do during your initial prep for a new class? I've heard stories where prof's are well prepared and others where they're only a week (if that) in front of the class.

Anonymous said...

There is no one best way to teach a course. Students will be different every time - they're different people with different experiences so why would we expect them all to learn the same way. Even if it's not to the point of hostility or resentment, different students likely require different strategies. Respecting students' lives (past and present) has always seemed like a good way to earn their interest and hard work.

Jen said...

Student dynamics have a lot to do with it, too. I have found that teaching strategies that worked very well for one class bombed with another class.

Siz said...

Wow. Super relevant to me today. Up for reappointment this year (third year review) and my chair I felt was harping over zealously on a low teaching evaluation I received on a course the second time I taught it. First time, glowing evals. 2nd time, less than stellar. I actually thought I did better the second time, but there were 1 or 2 very vocal students (not to me, to their peers) that DID NOT LIKE ME. In a class of 20 grad students 3 or 4 people with issues can make what would other wise be very good to excellent evals poor to good. The evals literally ranged from "Best teacher I've ever had" to "This was the worst course I've ever took."

The weirdest aspect was that they evaluated me personally (the instructor portion) low but the course portion of the evaluation as very good. I tried to explain to my chair that those two sections are actually linked. He, however, does not see it that way.

To give an example of one said issue, a first year graduate student (This woman is 31, my age) actually stormed out of one of the exam review sessions screaming at me and crying because I told her if she had questions not relevant to the exam, she should come talk to me in office hours.

inBetween said...

Seriously -- never underestimate the power of classroom chemistry. Sometimes it just doesn't click with a class and sometimes it does. I teach a lecture course with 300 students and it is amazing the personality difference of the group from year to year.

Anonymous said...

im learning all about this right now. One course, this is the 3rd iteration and its going great. Another course (upper division seminar style) 2nd time teaching and it feels like a train wreck. No matter what I do to try to salvage it the 2-4 poopy face students are ruining it for the rest of the group. Really really disheartening.

Anonymous said...

I teach the same class fall and spring, and have for nearly 10 years. I've noticed a seasonal trend, too. That is, spring students (and I) are just a little more, shall we say... tired.

Minos said...

In software, the "crappy second version" is a well known phenomenon. The 1.0 version, well, you're on a deadline. There's lots and lots and lots of stuff you want to do. But you can't. You don't have time. It needs to ship to-mor-row. So you end up having to say "OK, what's really critical, and what can we leave until the 2.0 release?" (or even 1.1)

So, version 2 comes around. *ALL* your cool ideas get stuffed in...*this* time, you can put in all the bells and whistles! And as a result, the thing is a behemoth. You aren't thinking about what's important, and what really distracts from the core function of the software. It ends up a cluttered mess.

On version 3 and later, sanity returns.

Well, I've noticed the same thing teaching. The first time, because you're trying to survive, you cut preparation that isn't vital, so the course is focused. The second time, every cool anecdote, every wacky idea for a class project, every unit on your pet subtopic...they all go in. The students are left confused and muddled. On time three, I regain that focus, innovating a little bit, but having a solid sense for the "irreplaceable iron core" of the course and the amount of effective innovation in one semester.