Thursday, December 13, 2012

Top Ten Tips for Graduates Teaching Undergraduates

This past week I finished teaching a research methods class, a mandatory course for psychology majors. We covered a wide range of topics, including clinical treatments, the Stroop effect, and the Implicit Associations Test, with a focus on having the students design their own experiments, gather some data, and analyze the results. In all, it was a good experience, but it also presented several challenges, including four medium-length papers (about 10-14 pages on average for each one) spread across forty or so students. There might be a some English or Philosophy professors who will get a hearty guffaw out of this ("You think that's a lot of papers to read? Let me show you, boy!"), but for me, it was quite an adjustment.

Most graduate students will be called upon to teach at some point during their PhD career, and rightly so; in addition to inuring yourself to mindless drudgery and incessant complaints, teaching helps you to hone your public speaking skills and how you interact with an audience. Think of it as having benefits across a wide range of areas: Speaking, effectively dealing with complaints, and making yourself engaging and presentable. You will get far more out of it if you see it as an opportunity to improve your marketability.

That being said, teaching can be at times frustrating and challenging; however, there are several ways to make the experience less painful, more efficient, and maybe even enjoyable. The following is a list of rules and procedures I put in place to protect myself; some of them I got from previous teachers, while some of them I picked up along the way:

  1. Make your syllabus clear. Students are ingenious at finding loopholes and will exploit them if they can. (Just think back to when you were an undergraduate; wouldn't you do the same thing?) Think of your syllabus as a contract with the class; the more detailed and clearer you are, the less wiggle room there is to abuse the system.
  2. Set strict deadlines for turning in drafts of papers. My policy was to look at only one draft at least seventy-two hours before the paper deadline; likewise, students had only one week after receiving their grades to schedule a meeting to discuss their paper. One important policy I put in the syllabus was that, if students requested a meeting to contest their grade, I would regrade the entire paper; their final grade could go either way. Over the whole semester, not one student contested their paper grade. Then again, I am also an unstable and terrifying person.
  3. If you can, request electronic drafts and grade those. There may be some who like grading by hand, which is fine; however, grading electronic copies allows you to more easily store a copy of their graded papers (with comments) on a hard disk for future reference.
  4. Establish your superiority on the first day by asking a brainteaser, such as "What do you put into a toaster?" Most of the students will answer "Toast," when the answer is actually "Bread". This will severely demoralize them, and make them unwilling to challenge your authority.
  5. For God's sake, don't get your stones wound up too tight over grammatical errors like than/then and effect/affect. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a colleague say "Can you believe what this student wrote? It says here: 'My experimental manipulation effected the results'. How am I supposed to know what they mean?" It's pretty simple: They meant "affected". Most students are not clever enough to construct a sentence the other way around. I've seen some pretty horrific, sometimes humorous, butcherings of the English language, and this is a comparatively mild offense.
  6. Be patient. Sometimes you will be shocked by the kinds of mistakes the students make, and it will bewilder you how some of them appear to keep missing the point when you feel that you stated it so clearly. Sometimes they really just don't get it, and they might not still not get it even by the end of the semester. Sometimes it's because of you, and you really just don't explain some things very well, no matter what you think or what your colleagues tell you. You might think that if you were in their position, you would pick these things up quicker, because you're smarter, more motivated, and - dammit - you try! But, just to put things in perspective, you should also recall that there are some things that you are still laughably, ridiculously bad at - maybe mathematics, or music, or thawing food in the microwave - no matter how much work you put into it.
  7. Spend as much time as you need to grade, and no more. Honestly ask yourself: How many students will really look at the comments? Not many, and those that do, won't care that much. Use the comments more as an anchor for addressing concerns if students have questions about the grade they received; the comment will help you remember where they screwed up, and help you address it effectively. This is not a recommendation to slack off about grading; rather, realize that you can quickly enter a point of diminishing returns with the amount of detail in your feedback.
  8. Have fun. We all want our teachers to be fun and engaging; if you come in with a terrible attitude, the students will mentally check out. They might mentally check out no matter what, but as long as you're having fun, at least you don't have to suffer.
  9. Watch Saved by the Bell reruns. In addition to being an excellent TV show, Saved by the Bell will make you familiar with the archetypal students that you will encounter in your class: Zach, the preppy one; Slater, the jock; Screech, the nerd; and Kelly, the popular girl. The show will teach you how each one operates, and will allow you to deal with them accordingly. In addition, you will have a leg up on knowing all of the potential pranks and shenanigans they will try to pull on you, such as when Zack puts his clothes on the skeleton from anatomy class to hide his absence.
  10. Appreciate the good things that happen. Everyone complains about the bad things that happen to them that they don't deserve; few people take as much notice of the good things that happen to them that they also don't deserve. Some students will surprise you with their enthusiasm and insight, and genuinely want to learn more about the subject. Be grateful when you get students like this.
Those are my recommendations for how to approach a class, especially if you are teaching it for the first time. Above all, continually ask yourself whether this is something that you are interested in doing; some people find that they have a knack for it, and will find a teaching career a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Likewise, if you absolutely cannot stand it, also take note of that, and plan accordingly; there are few things more depressing than a man continuing to do a job he abominates.

1 comment:

  1. Just found your article and enjoyed it. I wrote one on a similar theme here (

    With grading, I have gotten to where I leave just a sentence or two of comments in most cases because, like you say, most don't read them. I always give general feedback to the class orally before I pass back papers, and then I add, please come by if you have any questions. For me, even if they would read detailed written comments, I would much rather have a live conversation about the paper.