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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

TeachWeek: Day 5

Olivia Wilkins

TeachWeek 2017 at Caltech ended with a rapid-fire session called Ignite Your Teaching: Ideas and Practice You Can Use. I had gotten ideas on empowering learning (on day 1), teaching with transparency to empower equitable learning (on day 2), and how to use active learning in the STEM—and specifically, chemistry—classroom (on day 4). Now it was time to get an overview of successful practices implemented at Caltech, from soliciting student feedback to incorporating flipped classroom techniques.

I arrived late, but only because I was swapping teaching insights with Mike Wong, who's teaching Ge/Ay 159: Astrobiology (the actual title is something about habitability, but astrobiology is much cooler). I was still in the spirit of TeachWeek, and we ended up talking (somewhat) about the two topics I missed at the actual TeachWeek event: "Setting the Tone for a More Inclusive Classroom" and "Using a Carrot, Not a Stick." While I cannot comment on what was actually said in those sessions, I still have some thoughts about the topic generally:

  • Keep in mind that your students may not have all taken the same courses or have the same level of fundamental understanding. Don't make students feel like they are totally lost but also make sure they are challenged to think.
  • Motivate your students at the beginning of class, perhaps through polls or puzzles before the class period, encouraging students to be early, or at least on time, and feel comfortable in your classroom.

The actual TeachWeek session involved four-minute presentations about an idea or method implemented by a Caltech faculty member or student. While the ideas were awesome, even more amazing was that the ten speakers—even the faculty members—stuck to their time. Now that's impressive!

Here are my synopses of the eight presentations I saw:

"Student Feedback and Practice Problems"
after recitation sessions, undergrad TA Gabby Tender surveyed students
adjust teaching based on student feedback, immediately if possible
students need more practice, not more work; consider adding more optional problems
"Cultivating Creativity"
give students permission to exercise creativity
show students even outrageous ideas can produce good results through examples
let students know you don't expect them to be experts
practice perseverance: encourage students to think of multiple solutions
"Giving Audiovisual Feedback on Student Work"
audio-visual feedback is more personal and often clearer than just written comments
students tend to refer to audio-visual feedback more often than written comments
tone is important; voice can reflect tone but writing, not so much
recommended (free!) software: Jing
"STEM Teaching for Social Change"
"broader impacts" needs to be more than "outreach"
how do we conduct outreach/teach effectively?
"Empowering Teaching and Learning through Co-TA Communication"
co-TAs/teachers can empower themselves, their students, and each other
support co-teachers by communicating class concerns, questions, etc.
teams aren't effective if they work in isolation
grad students are busy; other people to help grade, answer questions, etc. is good
"Partially Flipped Classroom"
having pre-class readings and questions/discussion boards can help discussion in class
students are more engaged when they aren't talked at for 90 minutes
students understand better when they work together (no matter how much they hate it)
"Distributed Practice"
don't reteach material how you were taught it; teach how you understand it
more perspectives on materials leads to greater chance of students understanding
asking a question often solicits the sounds of crickets
alleviate the pressure on students by having them talk to a neighbor first
if students aren't afraid they'll sound stupid, they're more willing to share with the group

The main idea here, and for all of TeachWeek, is this: Teaching should be student-centered. It should empower students in their learning.

Do you have any of your own ideas for effective teaching practices? Share them in the comments!



The comments on this post are not endorsed by Caltech or by the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach. I have stayed true to the message of the speaker in the described lecture to the best of my knowledge, but I acknowledge that I have also incorporated my own opinions and ideas.