The hardest part of teaching?

Today was the faculty and staff Welcome Back BBQ at UBC Okanagan. My Centre for Teaching and Learning had an information table among 25 or so other campus organizations. Always on the lookout to inject a little interaction and teaching and learning, I set up a laptop and i>clicker gear to survey my new colleagues about teaching:

Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)
Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)

Lots of people stopped at our table to talk, both faculty and staff. Many had heard of clickers but this was their first time ever holding one and clicking. It was really interesting to hear people say, “All of the above!” and then struggle to select one answer. Which is the point of a good peer instruction question – to make you stop and think carefully and deliberately so you decide for yourself which answer to select.

I was pleased by the results:

Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)
Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

Here’s what I’m thinking about the responses and how my Centre can respond:

A) knowing the material (selected by 18% of the respondents)
It’s true that the instructor needs to know the material. That’s why they were hired/selected to teach the content, after all. What my Centre can add is “pedagogical content knowledge”, that is, knowledge about how people learn the content. For example, we can let an instructor know which topics students struggle with and what are the common misconceptions. We can help the instructor see through their expert blindness.
B) preparing the lessons (21%)
No question that preparing lessons (and the bigger task of designing the course) is hard. There’s nothing my Centre can do to create time for an instructor to prep but we can help make that time productive. We promote the “backward” approach to planning a course by 1) establishing learning outcomes, 2) creating summative and formative assessments aligned to those outcomes, and 3) selecting instructional strategies and education technologies to support the outcomes and assessment. I tell anyone who’ll listen that investing your time in creating learning outcomes pays off many times over. That’s where I recommend people spend time.
C) speaking in front of a group (4%)
As important and critical as this is, public speaking isn’t something my Centre teaches. Sure, we all have experience in front of groups and can offer our own advice but we’re not experts. And, it turns out, people aren’t so concerned about this. Whew.
D) connecting and interacting with students (32%)
This is the answer I pick. There’s technology and templates and guidance for making the other answers easier. Connecting and interacting with students in a meaningful way, which to me means recognizing each student as an individual with their own strengths, that’s hard. It requires sparking a relationship the moment they walk through the door on the first day and then every day, building and maintaining that trust. I distilled some great advice from another group of colleagues about connecting with your diverse collection of students. My Centre is always ready to have conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and learning communities.
E) keeping up with the marking (25%)
Ahh, yes, marking. When there’s a lot to do, it’s a circle of Hell. And my Centre isn’t going to do it for you. But we’re ready to help instructors re-imagine and re-design their assessment techniques so that in the limited amount of time available, they can provide formative feedback that supports learning. Maybe that means getting the computer to autograde multiple-choice, not because multiple-choice is a such a good tool but because that could free up time to mark short- and long-answer questions. Maybe there’s a way students evaluate each others’ work. Maybe it’s better to ask fewer, but more probing, questions. My Centre’s goal isn’t to help instructors find ways to do the same marking faster but rather, to help create different assessments.

All in all, I’m really pleased with the responses I got from my colleagues today. And by the enthusiasm for, and recognition of, excellence in teaching and learning.

What do you find the hardest? And what choices should I put on the survey next year?

2 Replies to “The hardest part of teaching?”

  1. Great question. I am putting together a survey my faculty also. I work in a Center for Teaching Excellence. I do not think I had this question on the list.

    One think I hear a lot is, that students are not engaged. So I would add that, although it is close to connecting with students. Faculty want engaged students, who come to class having done the readings, and who do not pull out their cell phones all class.

    1. It would be interesting to include an open question like this on your survey. When instructors use a flipped learning model that includes a pre-class reading quiz, I always recommend they include the open question, “What did you find most confusing? [about the readings]” Students’ answers can reveal things that never occurred to the instructor (or else they would have included resources for that concept.) And I bet a question like “What do you think is the hardest part of teaching?” would reveal things that never occurred to people like me in teaching centers.

      As for student engagement, I admit I’m biased on that one: I see disengagement first as a sign there’s something (not) happening in the class. It’s not that the students are disengaged, it’s that the instructor is not engaging them. Student engagement is a great conversation starter.

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