Learning to Teach: A Revelation in How Little I Knew

 February 23, 2016


Sometimes, in a dream, I find myself onstage, faking my way through a dance routine I have never learned. This is not a problem I am likely to face in real life, as I am no dancer, delinquent or otherwise. I am a teacher, and I have been since starting at Duke nearly five years ago, but the familiar, alarming realization that I don’t know the moves has begun to encroach on my waking life. Perhaps because, for the first time, I am being taught how to teach.

This semester, I enrolled in a course called College Teaching and Course Design, as part of the Graduate School’s Certificate in College Teaching. My introduction to pedagogical theory has been both exhilarating and mortifying. It turns out that there is more to teaching than mastery and communication of content, which have been the only real tenets of my teaching practice so far. I have never really considered the specific learning outcomes for a course, let alone designed a course around them. As a TA and novice instructor, I have typically been handed an existing syllabus and made only minor modifications. In retrospect, my goals for each class period had more to do with not looking like an idiot than building deep understanding in my students. And when I think back on the assessments I have used—quiz questions pulled from lecture slides, lab reports designed the day before lab, research papers assigned without a clear rubric—I shudder at the aimlessness of it all. That is why this influx of new-to-me information has been so overwhelming, and such a relief. I see now that I have been flying blind all these years, and I know now that I don’t have to.

I am just a beginner, and clearly there are more experienced teachers in the department and the university at large. However, I think that the problem of teaching without philosophy or purpose, without strategy or structure, teaching to get through the material rather than to get through to our students, is widespread. This may be especially true in the sciences, where research is often the priority and teaching merely an obligation. I came to my pedagogical training late in my graduate career, and I would advocate for a single semester of mandatory coursework on teaching practices in the first year of graduate school. I believe such a requirement would significantly improve the experience of the graduate instructor, and the quality of undergraduate education, without severely impeding research progress. There is so much to learn about learning—and isn’t that what we’re all here to do? 

(Image Credit: Duane Schoon via Flickr)


Emily Boehm
Emily Boehm

Ph.D. Candidate

Emily is a fifth-year graduate student studying evolutionary biology. She is working on a thesis exploring the social and sexual behavior of female chimpanzees, and she plans to graduate in September 2016 to pursue a career in college teaching.