Three lessons learned from a Bass instructional fellowship

 April 4, 2014

Their eyes were upon me, and I was stuck. I had just given students a worksheet that had them calculate the relatedness of haploid-diploid bees. In my ideal lesson plan, the students would have worked together to discover that female bees may actually be more related to their sisters than their own offspring. Instead, the students told me that they didn’t know how to calculate relatedness in humans, yet alone weird bees. I had made an incorrect assumption about their prior knowledge, and now I was struggling to figure out how to best teach the basics before making things more complicated. I panicked, made a mistake on the board, went through stuff too quickly, and my body language fell apart. After class I returned to lab feeling defeated. In the end, the students got the concept, but the above situation was probably the lowest point in my Bass undergraduate teaching fellowship. The Bass fellowship is a program where graduate students become the primary instructor for an undergraduate class at Duke. While the program was revamped last year, my experience essentially let me design and teach my own class (Extreme Animal Adaptations) from the bottom up. During my fellowship I learned three lessons which I felt were worth sharing with other graduate students looking to go down the teaching path:

  1. It is hardest to teach what you know best. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but I found that the class sections on my own specialty were harder to instruct. When you are teaching your specialty, it is very hard to remove all your previous knowledge from your head and place yourself as the (somewhat) naïve student. Like that really ultra-cool tangent about how chromophore substitutions can also be used to crack private signals? It doesn’t help the student get the basics of how color vision evolves.  And doesn’t everybody know that black widows hang upside down with their hourglass directed towards the sky? Nope. Using classroom assessment techniques frequently can make sure you haven’t overlooked a foundational building block that your students need.
  2. Informality can be your best approach. As a young instructor, many people advise us to take the formal approach. Over-dress with a bow tie, grade extra-harshly, and don’t show weakness. The logic behind this is that as a young instructor we need to earn the respect that is given to those who appear older so that students don’t take advantage of us. I’d argue that this approach ruins one of the greatest strengths of being young: our ability to directly relate with the students. If you keep an informal approach, you can honestly discuss with your students how to better structure the course to their needs. And you can connect the material to the student’s own lives. For example I explained song sparrow fight escalation through Hurricane Chris lyrics, wrote exam questions about the seal in Arrested Development (turned out that was too old for undergrads), and found my students comfortable enough to discuss the Shooter’s dance floor when talking about mating systems.
  3.  Remember the good. Unless you are some kind of alien, teaching your first class from start to finish will be stressful and imperfect. You will almost always be your own worst critic. But even as you take notes after class on what you would improve for next time, remember what went well. And when a student causes problems or doesn’t seem to care, remember the good ones. Despite most of my focus after each class relating to how I could have done better, in the end the student evaluations made me realize there was a ton of good as well.

Nick Brandley is a 5th year PhD candidate in the Biology department. When he isn’t teaching he is playing with black widows and colors.