Lessons learned by a first-time instructor – Alex Shum, CTE Graduate Instructional Developer

Using Online Videos (made by WACOM boards), along with iClickers and Presentation Slides as part of my first course as an instructor


I’m currently wrapping up my first course as an instructor. Some of the lessons I’ve personally learned will be covered in this post. I hope they might be useful for the reader, when they teach their first course. I’ll aim to make this post as general as possible so that they may be relevant to any first-time instructor. I should also mention that the CTE Website has a lot of useful teaching tips for first-time instructors and TAs.

I was assigned to teach the Mechatronics Engineering section of MATH 118, a first-year calculus course (second semester). The course covers mostly integration, infinite series (including Taylor Series) and an introduction to polar coordinates.  My section was the largest of four in the course, and had 118 students enrolled. My experience has been tremendously positive and I can’t wait to teach again. With that said, here are the lessons:

1. Being an experienced TA doesn’t make you a good lecturer.

Prior to being an instructor, I had been assigned to TA numerous courses. In the Applied Math department, being a teaching assistant is usually expected of graduate students.  I had the opportunity to deliver a few guest lectures during one of my TA assignments, and the feedback I got was “Great examples, could use more teaching.” I had not realized the significant difference between a tutorial and a lecture. In tutorials, students already have some basic notions about theory. They are ready to tackle problems, and to accomplish the objectives you set out for them.  As a TA, I was reinforcing the material that was already taught. In a lecture, students are seeing the material for the first time. They’ve likely had little or no exposure to the course material.  Our job as instructors is not only to introduce the material but to motivate and find interesting ways of presenting it. This was certainly a challenge, but some of the following points cover this.

2. Find ways to engage the students

Engineers have to take several courses in calculus and algebra in their first few terms. They are often disconnected, and it is often difficult to see the purpose until an application is found in third or fourth year. I’ve learned it’s important to take the time to draw out the roadmap to their future courses. Some of the more global (rather than sequential) learners require a goal of where the concepts they learn will be useful. Showing different applications of math in engineering has been especially helpful in engaging the students.

3. Ask for feedback

Take the time to ask the students what they enjoy and what they can find room for improvement in your style of teaching.  Waiting for end of the term course evaluations is too late! Ask for constructive criticism on aspects of your lecturing such as pace, clarity and trying out new teaching strategies (videos, iClickers, presentation formats etc.). I recommend the use of an anonymous online (or written) survey.  I used SurveyMonkeyTM for my class. I’ve heard another good choice is TooFAST which is specifically dedicated to helping teachers improve their course and teaching. I’ll likely use it next time around. The point of anonymity is it really allows students to be honest. Saying “e-mail me,” or “tell me” will likely get few responses since students may tie their feedback to your opinion of them.    Also, try to allow for free-form responses, so students are given opportunities to cover the bases that you may miss.   I was given the feedback that I spoke too fast and covered material at a fast pace, so I was able to address these issues early in the term.

4. Provide different methods to learn, but don’t try to do too much.

I realize the title of this lesson may sound contradictory, but let me explain. I fell in the trap of trying to do too much in this course (and as a result am a little burnt out). I decided that I would teach calculus from slides. The motivation behind the slides (and posting them) was to have students be able to pay attention in class, and actually learn and understand concepts before leaving.  The traditional math class setting involves making your own set of notes from the instructors as he/she writes them on the board. While both have its merits, using different teaching aids does require a lot of time to prepare.  Though some may argue that there is no longer a need for students to come to class, I found that my attendance did not drop throughout the term.

I am a big fan of Eric Mazur’s peer instruction (you can see a presentation he made at the University of Waterloo here). After their midterm (around week 6 of 12), I implemented iClicker questions with peer discussion. I decided to have students work on questions that tested the concepts, and as well, simple computational questions.  The hope was that they would understand the material and be ready to tackle their assignments before leaving the classroom.  Being able to follow through a certain concept as someone else solves a problem is one thing, but being able to do it yourself is a different matter altogether.  Providing these questions in class meant having to present the content more effectively to make up for the time. While not everyone will attempt the question, those who are interested are given the chance to use it as a learning tool (and walking around, I estimate about 80% of the students would seriously attempt the questions). I am still a novice at preparing good iClicker questions, and this area would definitely need a lot more development.

Around week 8-9, I decided to start making videos on YouTube® providing extra examples and reinforcements on concepts.  This was in hopes to mimic another innovator in education: Salman Khan. I had been recommending his videos (see KhanAcademy) in class, and when we ran into some topics that he did not cover, I decided to make my own. As with my slides, there was an overwhelmingly positive response (and again, I did not see a decrease in attendance). The time commitment is quite high at first as it involved getting used to the technology. I used a WACOM board obtained from a CTE staff, and Microsoft Paint.

The issue with trying so many new methods is that it is difficult to gauge which ones have the strongest effect and contribute to successful learning. As a recommendation from my experience, take the time to master one method first before attempting another.  In retrospect, it was good to have all these different forms, but it may have been even more effective to try to master doing one of them well and building on the others in subsequent courses.  I wanted to try all of these methods, since I may not get a chance to teach a course for several terms.  I do anticipate that my efforts will be worthwhile, since good iClicker questions, slides and videos are easily reusable.

Let me know if you agree, disagree or have any other tips for first timers!


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