Sunday, September 25, 2016

5 Takeaways from a Symposium on Effective Teaching

As a postdoc with keen interest in teaching, I attended the Symposium for Effective Teaching and Learning in the Sciences, 1 September 2016, at University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). The speakers were experienced educators in various sciences -- physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, forensic science, computer science, among others. Added to my inexperience as a teacher, I was perhaps the only engineer in a room of scientists. However, with plans to offer some courses in coming terms, I brushed aside any concerns and went on to glean some handy tips from the seasoned teachers.

1. Apply your research skills to teaching

Keynote speaker, Dr. Simon Bates points out that collaboration and experimentation is something we do as researchers, not so much as educators. That needs to change if you want to become a better educator. You need not create all the course content on your own. There is plenty of
good quality, open, free content created by others available on the internet. You can save a lot of hours, for yourself and for your students, by curating and separating the good content from the not-so-good.

Traditionally, teachers have despised gadgets in class. However, experimenting with use of new technology in teaching is worth a try because the next generation is most at ease with tech. E.g. It is possible to get instantaneous feedback from students at mid-course stage, not merely at end-of-course. In one of his courses, Dr. Bates garnered 8000 words of feedback in 3 minutes via smartphones. On similar lines, senior lecturer Kimberley Nugent demonstrated live polling for multiple-choice questions in class using Socrative. Other approaches to explore are - encouraging students to come up with test questions, gamification of learning, various other active learning techniques. But how do we accommodate all these new methods in the limited lecture hours? Therein comes your own judgment on how to ration time. In extenuating circumstances, it may be required to cut some content. As Walter Lewin would say, “What counts is not what you cover, but what you uncover.”

2. Don't settle merely at being a good lecturer

Dr. Rupinder Brar, a TVO Best Lecturer awardee, identifies that a good lecturer isn't necessarily a good educator. Making use of results from educational research and even conducting educational research take a lecturer closer to being a effective educator. There are specific grants available for carrying out such research. E.g. Teaching Innovation Fund at UOIT. Several good lecturing practices, live demonstrations for instance, are great for capturing students' attention. However, engagement happens to be only a necessary, not sufficient, condition for learning. Dr. Joseph MacMillan explains, “In-class demos work if done using predict-observe-discuss (POD) method. Else only entertainment, no learning.”


3. Get off the podium

Dr. Yuri Bolshan asserts it's important to make students solve problems in classroom, individually and in groups. While they're at it, get off the podium, move around in the class, interact with students, help them out. Talk to about 2-5 students per problem. Any more, and you're left with little time to lecture. Counter-intuitively, this method can actually reduce Professor Fear as the students notice you're only trying to help.

4. Try Slack

Dr. Jeremy Bradbury proposes that Slack, a team-messaging app popular in the industry, can be put to good use in classrooms. Compared to conventional learning management systems like Blackboard (Bb), Slack can offer orders of magnitude higher student engagement. E.g. 130 messages on Bb versus 10,000 messages on Slack over a completed course involving 70 students. It is faster than email, and students like it when personal (Facebook, Twitter) and professional (Slack) stuff are kept separate.

5. Create training videos

Master lecturer in mathematics, Ilona Kletskin advocates creating training videos of any procedural stuff such as worked out examples. This also resonates with the engineering ethos to automate the repetitive stuff. I should probably start with some training videos of how to use and configure lab equipment for the grad students in our research group. 

Do you use any of these methods in your teaching? May be you have some tried and tested techniques of your own. Please do share. I'm all ears.