7 Years Later Excerpt #3: Teaching Competently

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In the previous post in this series, I discussed how to approach leading discussion sections. This time around, I’m broadening the scope to the fundamentals of teaching competently. I’ll have at least one more post on teaching after this. Afterwards, I’ll probably turn to some other aspects of graduate school, such as long-term planning or job market preparation. 

When you first start teaching, you might think you should aspire to do it well. By teaching well, I mean teaching in ways that captivate students, educate them effectively, assess their mastery fairly and comprehensively, provide ample support to students in need, and respect university guidelines and regulations. In the abstract, this all sounds great, and it’s an admirable ambition to want to teach well. However, for those new to teaching, it’s not realistic. Teaching well requires a level of skill and expertise that early career teachers will almost never be able to achieve. Even the few newcomers to teaching who have the ability to teach well should probably not try to teach well at that stage of their careers. This notion might strike you as counterintuitive, so let me elaborate a bit.

Teaching well is difficult and requires a substantial amount of time if you aren’t an experienced instructor. I recall anecdotes of graduate students telling me about how they devoted 30-40 hours per week to teaching a single course of 25-30 students. Those courses may have been amazing, but this behavior is not admirable or prudent. As a graduate student, you must balance teaching responsibilities with a variety of other goals: making progress toward your degree, submitting papers to conferences and journals, participating in department events, and so on. Devoting 30-40 hours per week to teaching a single course does not leave enough time to adequately prioritize these other commitments – at least not if one wants to maintain good mental health and avoid burnout. Moreover, once you finish graduate school, you will never be able to devote that amount of time to a single course. If you obtain a faculty position, you will probably teach at least 3 courses per term, and they might all be different subjects: you definitely won’t be able to devote 30-40 hours to each one. That means you should aim to develop teaching strategies that can later be extended to contexts where your teaching load is significantly higher.

Here’s the general point: trying to be an exemplary teacher when you’re just getting started with solo teaching is not an appropriate goal. Instead, you should aim to teach competently. As I use this phrase, teaching competently means to teach in a satisfactory or acceptable, but not outstanding, way. Teaching competently involves the same general goals as teaching well but sets the standard for success a bit lower. You don’t need to captivate students to teach competently: it suffices to maintain the motivation of those who are engaged and avoid turning off the remaining students. Teaching competently does not require that you be a master of test design and assessment –  something that requires many courses’ worth of exam creation and refinement – it is enough to design your exams so that course content and exam material align and that students have clear expectations regarding exam content.

Teaching competently is still a reasonably high standard: in my experience interacting with other professors, I suspect that many of them fall short of this threshold. There are even some who I would say were nowhere close to it. (If you reflect back on your own undergraduate education, you probably remember a professor or two who were thoroughly disorganized, graded in ways that seemed opaque or unfair, or were otherwise unprofessional in their conduct – those types of professors are probably falling far short of teaching competently.) The good news is that it is not unreasonably difficult to teach competently – even as a teaching novice. Thus, teaching competently is a reasonable goal for early-career instructors. Here are some general practices that will push you toward teaching competently without requiring you to minimize your other commitments.

If you have control of the grading standards in your course, make them transparent to students. Take time in class to explain to students common mistakes on major assessments, leave short comments on assignments to explain grading judgments, and correct genuine grading errors that students identify (e.g., grade entry errors, incorrectly scored questions). This sounds fairly basic, but I have heard many students complain that they do not understand a professor’s grading standards and/or are not given feedback on their assignments. Don’t be that professor. 
Respond to student emails within a reasonable amount of time – no longer than 48 hours after they are received. Some students expect near instant responses to their messages. That isn’t reasonable, but taking longer than 2 days to respond to student emails communicates that you are not that invested in answering their questions. Some student inquiries are also significant and time-sensitive (such as a notification that they will miss an exam due to a medical emergency) and should not be neglected.
Hold consistent office hours (whether in person or virtual) and encourage students to visit them. I am consistently surprised by how many faculty members are only available for office hours by appointment. Don’t do this: it conveys the message to students that you are too busy to talk to them. Students still won’t visit your office hours often even if you are there and encourage them to come, but part of teaching competently is being available to help students who want your help.
Use active learning techniques in the classroom. We’ve probably all had classes where 90% of the class was simply listening to a professor present material. Don’t teach this way: make sure that a significant portion of class time is devoted to making the students engage directly with course content. The most common way this is done in philosophy courses involves discussion, but for the reasons mentioned in the next list item, this should not be the only method you use. If you need ideas for active learning activities beyond class discussion, perhaps consult Iowa State’s list of 226 active learning techniques or some other resource.
Do not overuse unstructured discussion. Philosophical discussion can be very fun and rewarding, but the standard method of soliciting voluntary contributions from students can result in a handful of students dominating the discussion, especially in larger classes. Find ways to engage the students who are more reluctant to participate in the class discussion. Put them into small groups, give short individual writing assignments, have them outline an argument from a prose passage, or ask a simple open-ended question and solicit a quick response from every student in the class. Alternatively, give students some tokens or other currency that they surrender every time they speak in class. This essentially puts a limit on the number of comments a student can make in a given class session and will prevent a handful of students dominating the entire class session.
Prepare your students for your major assessments. If your exams feature a section where they are required to identify informal fallacies in written passages, then do an exercise on that in class at some point. If your course features a term paper, give them small assignments, such as crafting a thesis statement or writing a paragraph that explains their supporting argument, weeks before they are required to submit that paper. Whatever major assessments you use, do not expect your students to just figure out the material and develop the necessary skills on their own: use lower-stakes assignments to get them practice at these things before the high-stakes assessments later in the course.
Use your university’s learning platform and keep your course site current. As my career as an instructor has progressed, I have been persistently surprised by the number of professors who do not use Blackboard, Canvas, or whatever other digital platform the university provides to manage their courses. Even for an in-person class, these learning platforms provide an easy way for students to view their grades, submit assignments, review course documents, and so on. Learn how to use these platforms, even if only at a rudimentary level, and keep your course materials up to date as the term progresses.
Grade assignments punctually. For exams and papers, a turnaround time of two weeks is reasonable. For shorter assignments (in-class exercises, quizzes, etc.), grade them within one week. Students will often inquire about when large assessments will be graded, but do not be pressured by them to accelerate your grading timetable beyond these parameters.
Do not binge-grade. You will be busy as a graduate student. It is easy for a week to go by before you remember that stack of exams that you need to grade. But grading all of your exams in a 48-hour blitz is not a formula for consistent or accurate grading. Under such circumstances, you will be grading some exams when you are cognitively “fresh” and others when you are very tired. This increases the likelihood of misreading student responses or making mathematical errors in how exams should be scored. It is also not a sustainable practice if you pursue an academic career: you will not be able to binge-grade later when you have a greater teaching load, so do not get in the habit of it during graduate school.
Check in with students who are struggling. If you notice that a student is faring poorly on assessments or has stopped attending consistently, send them an email reminding them that you are there to help if they need it. Often, an encouraging nudge in this direction can help the student get back on track. If you do not hear back from them, consider reporting this to the student’s advisor or the relevant academic support staff in your college or department.
Respect university guidelines and policies. Competent instructors know what conduct the university prohibits. Familiarize yourself with the standard policies – what constitutes academic dishonesty, when grades are due for graduating students, what responsibilities you have under Title IX, and so on – and follow these standards.

While this is not an exhaustive list of what teaching competently requires, I think it’s a good start. What would you all add to this list? What would you consider some of the fundamentals of teaching competently that are not captured in this list?

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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