(Each month, I write a “From the Director” column for the UBC Okanagan Centre for Teaching and Learning’s newsletter. This is from November 2017, adapted slightly for a wider audience.)
In my conversations with faculty about teaching and learning, they often mutter, “…but I have no training in how to teach.” I’ve heard this from all ranks in the research and teaching streams. It makes people avoid discussions about effective and excellent teaching because it’s hard to have those conversations without comparing everything to our own successes (and failures.)
Teaching should be exciting and invigorating, not dissatisfying or discouraging. I’d like you to know:
Being an excellent, even an effective, teacher isn’t something you’re born with or something that happens overnight. It takes time and practice to build your expertise, one small step at a time, just like every other skill you’ve learned. If you want to start making some changes, drop by your institution’s Center for Teaching.
Rest assured that if you contact your Center or drop by to visit, you will never be judged or evaluated by anyone here. We welcome all instructors, no matter the level of your expertise or your enthusiasm for teaching.
When you’re ready for a longer and more deliberate path to improving your teaching, make an appointment with someone in your Center. Meeting face-to-face with course instructors is our highest priority (and most welcome) conversation so we’ll re-arrange our schedules. We’re happy to help you figure out what’s achievable in the time you’ve got and how they can support you.
Yesterday, September 6, 2017, was the first day of classes at UBC Okanagan. I’ve been Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning for just over a year so this is my first real experience with the beginning of the Fall term.
On top of the usual visitors looking for help with their courses, we adopted Canvas as our learning technology ecosystem in June so this is the first term with the new LMS. The Centre was buzzing. Four of the Centre staff plus 3 student workers were consulting with just as many course instructors. People were coming and going, jostling to get around and find chairs to sit in.
And I was sitting 10 feet away in my office, door wide open, doing…nothing? Well, not nothing but I wasn’t sitting out there with a course instructor, troubleshooting course design or learning technology issues. It felt really strange, like I was…unnecessary?
I spent last night trying to justify to myself that I do, in fact, have an important role to play. “…created welcoming space for consultation…”, “…ensured Centre consultants are trained and enabled…”, “…allocated time, resources, personnel to handle peak periods…” And more leadership/management phrases that popped into my head. Nothing was sticking.
This morning, it all became clear.
During my commute to work, I was listening to the latest episode of
Bonni Stachowiak’s terrific Teaching in Higher Ed podcast (highly recommended, btw!) Bonni recounted a time when her students were so engaged in an activity, she felt she’d “disappeared”. I’ve had that happen to me, too. At first, it felt really weird. And then the educator in me realized that’s exactly what I strive for: setting up the learning environment, creating a lesson, preparing the students to engage, and then handing over the class to them to engage, collaborate, and build their own knowledge while I did…nothing.
That’s what happened yesterday. I disappeared. It was awkward. And, I guess, awesome.
Academic jobs are scarce. Candidates who make the short-list and get an in-person interview have a lot to prepare. You travel to the place, go to a lot of meetings with Department Heads, Deans, the Search Committee, have any number of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, give a research talk if you’re looking for a position with a research component, and do a “teaching demo.”
Someone I’ve been helping just landed an awesome, tenure-track teaching position. Before their interview, I shared this long list of advice on the teaching demo. I’m not suggesting causation or anything – this person is super talented – but apparently this advice didn’t hurt.
So, if you’re interviewing for a post-secondary, academic position with a teaching demo, here are some things to think about.
Do the background reading…
Higher ed is shifting (thankfully) towards evidence-based instructional strategies. You need to be familiar with the Freeman et al. Active Learning study (item #6 here. Also read the summary by Aatish Bhatia and the commentary by Carl Wieman.) Sure, it’s STEM but it easily applies to Social Sciences and the Humanities. While you’re there, you might look at #5 (Wieman) and check if there’s anything applicable in #4 (DBER)
this amazing article, “Getting under the hood” by Sarah Eddy and Kelly Hogan about the importance of the instructor providing structure in the classroom
Review the institution’s statements about equity, diversity and inclusion. If you use their language and phrases, it’ll show you did your homework and you genuinely care about these things.
Just in case you’re tempted to talk about learning styles, read this letter debunking the myth of learning styles (and be prepared to debunk learning styles if someone asks). To me, and many of my colleagues in Centres for Teaching and Learning, the presence of “learning styles” in a candidate’s presentation or application is a litmus test – if they describe how they tailor their instruction to students’ learning styles, that’s not a good thing. Seriously, don’t do that – it could cost you the job. What you can say, by the way, when someone asks about learning styles is something like,
it’s true that students feel they learn best by reading or drawing or listening or hands-on, etc. They have preferences. The theory of “Learning styles” – that if an instructor knows a student’s style, they can personalize the instruction for that student – has been debunked. Incorporating learning styles can be harmful because if an instructor uses them, they give a student an easy excuse: “Oh, I’m a visual learner and the instructor only did auditory. Not my fault I failed that test…” What we DO know is people learn from seeing the same concept in more than one context: if you have an important concept, teach it visually and talk about it and give students hands-on practice and…
Very likely you’ll have to teach a demo lesson. Might be 20 min, might be longer. They might give you a topic, or ask you to pick.
Some things I’ve seen in successful ones (and things that would’ve helped in unsuccessful ones):
Ask the interview organizer about the audience of the course – what students would take this course. Even better, find out what course your topic would be part of, research the prerequisites, and find any learning outcomes from other instructors at that institution. Imagine if you could introduce your demo with, “I’ll be talking about A, B, C, something I believe students typically cover in ANTH 102 [that’s the interviewing institution’s course code] so I’m going to assume they’ve all passed ANTH 101.” Everyone talks in course codes, not course names, so use the familiar language.
Ask about the audience at the interview – like how many people to expect, if they’re real students or faculty asked to observe. Whatever they are, though, you have to teach to them like they’re the students who’d take the course you’re teaching.
You need to role play, and you should ask them to play along. You’re the prof, they’re your students – ask them to think like typical students who’d take that course.
Take a minute or two at the beginning of the demo to set the stage. Talk to the interview audience as colleagues:
Let me set the context for this lesson. This is the 4th class of the term. We’ve already covered A, B, C. Next week we’ll be moving onto G, H, J so today’s class is about D, E, F. If you were in this course, last night you would have read about d, e, f and answered some questions. I know you here today didn’t but I’m going to assume you all know the definitions of this, that, and the other thing and also that know the widget procedure described in the reading. Okay, now, on with today’s class.
Great to see you all again, everyone. I hope you had a chance to do the readings – we’re going to rely on that today. Recall…
Even though you won’t get to it all, carefully design the entire lesson. Write learning outcomes, select background readings, write the reading quiz, make up in-class, homework, and exam questions, choose active learning strategies that support the learning outcomes. Create PPT slides with the content (notice how that’s the last thing!) You might make some copies of the pre-readings (select pages from the text or primary literature) and the reading quiz (if you use a flipped model, which I highly recommend!). Give them to the people on the committee (not the entire audience, unless you want to make a lot of copies). Have the homework and exam questions “in your back pocket” (ie, in the extra slides at the end of your presentation) for when someone asks, “how would you assess this on the exam?” They might not ask that, but if they do, and you’ve got it, awesome!
Make sure the activities are active, and then get your audience to DO the activity like an authentic class. If you want to use clickers, arrange that with the interview organizer. If you’d like whiteboards, arrange it. Bring the worksheets or index cards or anything you need.
Okay, it has to be active but not Every Active Learning Strategy Ever. Pick one or two active things you’re comfortable with and do that. Not clickers and whiteboards and worksheets and keep-quit-start cards and a jigsaw and and and. That’s not realistic or authentic. (By the way, if you want to use peer instruction, you might want to review my peer instruction recommendations (humble brag))
It’s totally okay (maybe even necessary) that for some of your time, the audience is working on something. That’s active learning. That’s teaching. That’s what they want to see. But be careful not to overdo the active learning – the committee needs to see you perform and share your expertise about the content and how people learn the content.
Stick to the time allotted. If they give you 20 minutes, use 20 minutes. Not 15. Not 25. Don’t try to stuff a 50-minute lesson into 20 minutes, though. When you’re near the end of the allotted time, stop at a natural break, and break out of the teacher-student role playing.
That’s what we’d do in the first 20 minutes or so. In a real class, we’d continue on with a second example of E, I’d give a mini-lecture on concept F and we’d finish with G.
The people in the audience who know the content will totally understand why you stopped where you did and why F and G are the next logical parts of the lesson. The people who don’t know the content will appreciate you sticking to the schedule and your awareness of the situation.
Find out where you’ll be presenting and check out the room ahead of time. They’ll very likely build time into your interview schedule to prep for your demo. Do everything – connect your laptop, figure out how to get your stuff on the screen, get the audio working if you’re showing a video (and queue the YouTube video so you don’t have to watch the ad at the beginning), figure out the lights, window blinds, try the clicker, find the wall clock or get your phone clock running.
Don’t use technology you’re not familiar with, like if you’ve never used polleverywhere before, this is not the moment to figure it out. Don’t let a trivial technical problem wreck your presentation.
If the furniture is flexible, arrange the tables and chair into reasonable, feasible configurations. If the course you’re demo’ing is the one with 400 students, don’t plan your lesson for people in groups of 4 around separate tables – that’s not how the course is taught at this university. If your demo demands a very special classroom configuration and they don’t have that at the institution, you might be hurting your chances. Here’s an idea, poke around on the institution’s website and see what kinds of classrooms they have (for your course) and mimic that.
Don’t be afraid or embarrassed about getting fully into the role-playing. For the next 20 minutes, you’re the prof and they’re your students. Own it. No one is going to complain that you taught too hard. But if you only half-teach, awkwardly flipping between researcher settling on a teaching job, instructor, colleague, peer, recent graduate,… that’ll show, and not in a good way.
Be prepared for two rounds of questions, one immediately after you finish your demo and another later with the “teaching committee” (likely a group of teaching-focused instructors and someone from the institution’s Teaching and Learning Centre). And maybe a third round of questions if you have dinner later with the host and a select group.
Immediately after the demo, you’re not likely to get questions about the content from faculty members in the audience (“Can you explain the difference between meiosis and mitosis, again?”) That would take an audience member role playing as a student and if they’re not, they won’t (unless Dr. Smith is being an a**hole, as usual, and then you let the audience sigh, and you answer him as if he’s a student.) You should expect some questions about the design and delivery of the lesson.
“How do ensure students will come to class prepared?”
“Can you tell me why you chose to use [technology] in this situation?”
“What were your learning outcomes for this lesson?”
“How would you assess this?”
“How have you addressed [the common misconception]?” (This might be from someone familiar with the discipline-based education research, testing to see if you’ve done your homework.)
“I think I caught it but just in case, how did you address the diversity of the students you could expect here at Institution?”
“What’s your approach to students on their phones and laptops, Twitterbooking and chatsnapping all the whole time?”
For these questions, and others you hope (that is, anticipate) they’ll ask you, prepare some slides for the end of your presentation. When they ask about assessment, flip to the slide with the homework and exam questions. When they ask why you chose active learning, flip to the slide with the graphs from Freeman et al., Eddy & Hogan, Wieman. SHOW THEM YOU DID YOUR HOMEWORK.
This is a lot of work
Yes. It is. Just like the hard work you put into your CV, cover letter, and research talk.
My point is this: don’t give the Search Committee any reason to reject you. Instead, give them every reason to hire you.