Friday, May 6, 2016

Learning from teaching experience

I recently spoke to a colleague who has now been teaching for three years. I asked her,
"What have you learned from the experience? What would you do differently? What advice do you have for new faculty members?"
Here is what she said.

"I taught too slowly and did not cover enough material. Students complained about this. I assumed the students had weaker background knowledge than they did. I should have taught at a more advanced level. The exams I set were too easy and too many students got high grades. I should not have done so many worked examples in class. I should not have spent so much class time answering students questions. I followed the text book closely. It would have been better to challenge the students more by drawing material from a range of sources."

If you think this is surprising, it is because everything I wrote above is a lie. I have never heard anyone say anything like that!
In fact, I always hear people say the exact opposite.
Yet we all seem slow to learn from our experience and the experience of others.

So here is useful advice, particularly for beginners.
Whatever you are thinking or planning,
  • slow down
  • cover less material
  • don't assume students know or understand material from pre-requisite courses
  • simplify everything (explanations, assignment and exam questions, assessment)
  • keep repeating stuff
  • give more examples
  • listen to students questions and answer them
  • follow a text closely
  • make the exam questions clearer and easier


  1. This is very good advice.

    I was reading The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Shannon, Weaver) and somewhere about the end of the book Weaver explains that in a noisy communication process if you exceed the capacity of the channel (that of the medium of exchange, or that of the audience) the result will only be roundabout confusion about not just the part of information that exceeds the channel limit, but all of the transmitted information.

    I wished each and every lecturer in my school had read and understood that point.

    Sadly, they insist in covering lots of material.

    1. Erol,
      Thanks for the helpful comment.
      I think the connection with Shannon is a profound and noteworthy insight.