Lessons from my First Year of University Teaching

Last term I taught the 3rd year data analysis course for nursing students at Western.  Boy, was it a ton of work!  Overall, I really enjoyed the experience and learned a lot about how teaching and learning has changed since I first began university back in 2001.  Currently I am teaching a graduate-level course in post-positivist (quantitative) research methodology and that is a super fun!  I really enjoy in-depth intellectual discussions about research with a small group (18 students) rather than talking at 120 undergrads who don’t care about statistics at all and want the “right answer” (which isn’t always possible).

Here are the top lessons I learned about teaching so far (I am sure there are many more to come!)

1. I am a dinosaur.  I grew up going to the library, reading hard copy books, writing out essays on paper with a pencil, etc. Students these days have always had the internet at their fingertips and they will sit there and Google everything that you say like fact-checkers at a political debate. Take home message: I need to learn how to use technology to my advantage and not waste valuable time in class lecturing off of PowerPoint slides when I could be using more engaging activities during face-to-face time.

2. Students need structure more than I realized.  One of the assignments last term was to do a content analysis of transcripts from interviews or online forum discussions by patients with different conditions.  Rather than embrace the freedom of interpreting the data for themselves, many students were frustrated because there was no certain correct answer (like so many things in real life).  We gave them a reference for an article that told them step-by-step how to conduct a content analysis and about 1/3 of the class did not read it, resulting in them doing the assignment in a way that did not make sense. Somehow the fact that they did not read the article that they were explicitly told to read was my fault. Interesting.  Take home message: Repeat key instructions in class, post them on slides, etc. Give them explicit instructions.

3. TAs are like a box of chocolates. Seriously though, you never know what your TA will be like and they may not know the course material or mark assignments the way that you would like them to be marked.  They are also graduate students with their own coursework, lives, etc. so be realistic about expectations. Despite having good rubrics, the assignments that we had in the course were lengthy and complex which also made it challenging for the TAs. Also, students will blame you for delays in marking and mistakes on their rubrics, even if you make sure they know their TA does the marking.  Take home message: Design assignments that are staged so that they are easier to evaluate by someone with little content knowledge of your course.

4. PhDs do not prepare people to be awesome teachers.  I really thought that my experience teaching lifeguarding and first aid, personal training, and coaching basketball would make teaching easier but university teaching is very different.  It is kind of sad that students pay so much money for school and the quality of teaching is so varied.  I really like that tenure-track teaching positions are becoming more prevalent and that most schools are providing support for teaching.  I feel lucky to be able to gain some teaching experience and attend workshops and courses at Western’s Teaching Support Centre during my doctoral program. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to pop into a tenure-track job and try teaching for the first time while trying to apply for grants, publish articles, and commit to service.  This job is crazy.  Don’t get me wrong, it is what I want to do (and as an RN I know that I have lots of other options), but I am also not naive to the demands of the career path I am pursuing. Take home message: I need to devote more time to learning to be an effective teacher so I can have a successful transition into a tenure-track position.

Now to get back to working on that dissertation proposal!  (It is almost done and I am planning to defend in the Spring so that I can get started on data collection!).


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