Teaching a Class: A Grad Student Primer
University of Vermont
Teaching experience is part of graduate training. For many, it is an exciting prospect, a goal about to be attained, a dream coming true. For others, perhaps not so much. Not everyone aspires to one day stand alone, master of the lecture hall, all-knowing and all-seeing, in the front of a theater filled with hundreds of undergraduates staring back, but being prepared is a great shield against anxiety. While the unexpected can provide stimulation and even bring out abilities until now hidden, it is prudent to learn how to prepare and what to anticipate. Obviously a brief guide like this has many limitations and institutions vary broadly. Still, it is likely that the first class a grad student of psychology teaches will be either introductory psychology or a course in the grad student’s area of study. This is good news: no reinventing the wheel necessary, and no need to start from tabula rasa.
A good place to begin is with a sample syllabus, perhaps the one that was used the last time the class was taught. At some schools, syllabi are archived on the department’s website. The syllabus, it should be recalled from every class the student instructor ever took in college, is a comprehensive topical map of the course. Examination reveals some common sections, starting with the header: course name, meeting time and location, instructor’s name, contact numbers, office hours, and email address. This is often followed by a course description, required textbook, and course requirements. There is likely to be a section on grading, quizzes, tests, a breakdown of points needed to pass the course, and how to earn them. Finally there will be a calendar of classes with topics, including quiz and exam dates. Any syllabus should follow this model pretty closely; it not only provides students with a roadmap, it suggests to the new instructor how and in what order to cover the required material, and provides a textbook suggestion.
Time is another necessary ingredient in the preparation for any class. It will take time to prepare lectures, to produce slide shows and lecture notes, and to consider a grading system. It takes time to produce quizzes, more time to produce exams, and to make sure there are no errors or ambiguous answers to questions. If the course preparation must fit into a schedule that includes taking classes, working in a lab, preparing to attend a conference, or defend a thesis, something will have to give. In the opinion of the author, preparation for the class should not be sacrificed. But it is also true that there is no need to have everything completed prior to the first class. It is wise to have a head start, of perhaps the first quarter of the lectures, first couple of quizzes, and maybe the first exam. Preparation of lectures a week or so ahead of time may be a benefit: they will be familiar and fresh in the mind of the instructor. Of course new instructors will never again be in the position of having to start from almost nothing. Save electronic copies of everything. Prospective employers may want to see examples of the materials produced for classes.
Preparation for the big first day of class includes more than just a set of PowerPoint slides and notes. Consider the logistics of the class. Where is it located on campus – building and room number? How long does it take to walk there from your office? It is a wise decision to go there well before the first class to get familiar with the location and the room itself. Where are the lighting controls, how do the electronics work, are there controls for the projector and sound system, can a laptop be interfaced or is it necessary to bring some form of media for the room’s computer? What’s the seating like? Can it be reconfigured? Sit in a few places in the room. Is the view of the screen adequate? What is the emergency evacuation procedure? Where’s the closest restroom? Spending twenty minutes learning these details will reduce first-day stress dramatically. The time to find out how to work the projector is not when fifty undergraduates are watching and valuable time is slipping away.
New instructors marvel at the speed with which time passes in the classroom, especially since from the other side of the lectern it often seemed to crawl. It is very likely that time will run out before all of the planned material is presented. One of the things that come from experience is a better grasp of how much can be covered. There are at least two ways to deal with curriculum creep – pushing what didn’t get covered today into next class. Experienced professors often include one or two catch up days in the calendar. If those extra class periods aren’t needed for catch up they make convenient review or final exam prep days. It is also smart to do at least a casual ranking of the material to be covered on any given day, being prepared to skip over lower priority topics. Each class may seem like a sprint, but a semester is a marathon.
It is a strange feeling to be the lecturer standing before students while still a student; between two worlds. Remember to behave like the instructor, not their peer. Students expect that the instructor will be prepared, in control, and have knowledge they lack – whether all of that is true or not – but not perfection. Try not to be afraid of making mistakes, since they are a great learning tool. Acknowledge and fix errors. Be master of the class: politely but firmly reign in long questions or off-point discussions. If stumped, say so and promise an answer next class. The only way to learn this art is to practice it – getting a graduate degree is not a magic wand that grants teaching skills. It takes passion to be a graduate student: show the class that passion. Plan, prepare, and take the challenge.
Andrew Knapp started his college career at the tender age of 43, after a lifelong passion for learning grew into a passion for teaching. An Associate’s degree led to a Bachelor of Science degree, then a Master’s. Mr. Knapp will soon be Dr. Knapp, following the successful defense of his dissertation at the University of Vermont later this year. An upstate New York native, he will be teaching psychology at the Olean, NY campus of Jamestown Community College in the fall.