Learning to teach

I just got back home from giving my first ever real lecture. I’ve been bouncing around on adrenaline since 1pm or so, cycled there, did the thing, cycled home. Stumbled into the bathtub with a lot of chocolate and did nothing for the next hour.

To set the scene: I was to teach fresh MSc students all about molecular biology. Not a big deal, right? Trouble is, some of them did undergrads in medicine, some in basic science. Meaning that their existing knowledge was quite diverse. I tried to get them all to the same level by starting out with really basic things and slowly building up. I invited them to ask questions and make it all a bit interactive.

Interestingly, the slides I had expected to be difficult went down quite smoothly. Not many questions asked, but also no puzzled looks. The slides I thought were gonna be easy, resulted in more questions. Maybe because I was really well prepared for the difficult ones and less so for the easier ones? But of course – that I cloned a million plasmids doesn’t mean it’s easy for them to grasp, and that I’ve never handled an electron microscope doesn’t mean I can’t explain the basics. Some of the slides went pretty badly IMO, but maybe only because I know the techniques involved very well? I knew I was leaving out details, but they of course didn’t…

The interactive bit worked out quite well, so well that I didn’t have enough time to cover the last two slides and in the end had to resort to “okay, know what? Forget about this – we’ll not include it on the exam”. Which I could do, because I haven’t handed in the questions yet. Two of them grunted at this though – they were the ones with the most advanced knowledge who were a bit upset about discussing so many “basic” things and then skipping over the finally interesting slides…

Because I might want to develop a teaching portfolio, I asked them to fill out a short evaluation form. I’m happy, because on a scale of 1-5 on how well I explained things, I got only a few 3s, mostly 4s and even some 5s. Not too bad, for a first lecture, right?! They also liked the structure and material used.

Interesting parts are difficulty: even though the survey was anonymous, I can tell that the medics rated it as too difficult, the scientists either as neutral or too easy. No idea how to resolve that issue. It really went from “too difficult, so maybe split into two lectures” to “it was too easy, maybe include additional topic X”? Which isn’t really up to me to solve – that’s for the course director. Still interesting case to spend some thought on. And a great thing for a teaching portfolio – how would you best handle such a situation?

Which has given me a great solution to a first-world dilemma: I’ve decided to spend Christmas at my parents’. The first two weeks spent at my parents’ since early 2007….. I was afraid I would grow very bored, but now I can work on this portfolio there. Sounds good to me 🙂

The most important message for me right now though, it that this lecture reminded me that I should try to be less of a perfectionist. Of course I didn’t say everything I had planned, and yes, some explanations probably could’ve been better. But in the end that didn’t matter. The feedback tells me it was okay for the students, they said they understand the material and the exam will tell whether they actually learned something. For a first lecture, I should be happy. I’ve learned a lot, there are things I would do differently in the future. The students didn’t complain. What more can you really want?!

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