The teaching practicum for UW’s Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) helped me enhance several of my teaching skills. Through this course, I got the chance to practice lecturing, receive feedback on my teaching skills, and become more self-aware and critically reflective of my teaching style. However, what made my experience special was the opportunity to work with a faculty member who is an award-winning teacher. Professor Alex Penlidis was my observer and mentor during my teaching observations. Admittedly, some of my general weaknesses in teaching (i.e., nervous at the beginning of the lecture, not speaking loud enough, losing my energy at the end of the lecturing hour) could have been identified by any other observer. What I would have missed, though, would be very subtle, yet critical, suggestions that could have only been brought up by an experienced university teacher from my discipline. Here are some examples of how the feedback from my mentor impacted my teaching style (and surprised me on occasion!).
During the workshops on university teaching that I attended for the CUT, I learned that it is essential to vary tone when lecturing to avoid presenting a boring lecture. However, it is important to know when to pause or to change the overall tone. If one does it too often, then it becomes impossible for students to follow the lecture. I learned from my mentor that suitable occasions to pause or to change the breathing pattern are when posing a question or intending to emphasize a point. He taught me that pausing and changing my tone when posing a question will create some ‘suspense’ and grab the students’ attention. Through my practice with him, I realized that this of course requires even more preparation in order for the question to become an integral part of the lecture in a seamless way (so time is not wasted).
My mentor also taught me that preparation is the key to confidence! Through discussions we’ve had in the pre-observation sessions, I learned that it is important to prepare for the lecture well in advance, and also to refresh one’s memory on the material to be covered a few hours before the event. He talked about his teaching method, for example, rehearsing and going through the course notes several times, making extra explanatory notes for the lecture in order to convey additional information or clarify certain points, and anticipating possible questions that could arise during the lecture hour. He taught me that all those hours of preparation make the instructor confident that he or she definitely knows a lot more than the audience and he or she can handle even unexpected questions.
Another important teaching skill that I learned is to not lose sight of the students’ level! My mentor taught me to see the course material from the point of view of a student that sees it for the first time. In that way, I would explain aspects that seemed trivial to me. For example, during one of my observation sessions, there was a table that I covered very quickly because it seemed obvious to me. However, as my observer pointed out, this may not be the case for the students. He taught me how to explain the table in more detail (telling the students first what the table does or is about, and then pick specific entries as concrete examples of how to use the table). This is an obvious example of how I benefited from his mentorship.
Other examples of comments I received from my observer are these: how to handle the class when one is sick or have a cough; make use of every minute of the class time; and start on time and finish on time! All in all, I received constructive and practical feedback that could only be noticed or brought up by an experienced teacher.
Afsaneh Nabifar is a PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering and a participant in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Program.
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