February 25th, 2011

Strategies for Teaching Unfamiliar Material


The prospect of teaching topics outside one’s area of expertise can be unsettling for even the most confident faculty member. Nevertheless, due to factors such as budget cuts and curricular changes, faculty are increasingly being asked to teach in unfamiliar territory.

In an email interview, Therese Huston, founding director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University and author of Teaching What You Don’t Know (Harvard University Press, 2009), shared her thoughts on how to survive teaching under these challenging circumstances.

Q: What advice do you have for preparing to teach new content on short notice?
Huston: This is a really tricky situation, obviously. The most important step is to find out what students must know. You can ask why the course is being offered to a certain group of students, at a certain point in the curriculum. If there’s a pre-existing syllabus in the department, sit down with another person in the department, ideally the department chair if that person will be supportive, to discuss what’s most important for students to learn in this course. Looking at the course objectives on the syllabus can help you, but you’ll gain much more from a conversation from a colleague who wants to make sure students leave your course with the tools and knowledge they need to succeed in other courses.

If there is no pre-existing syllabus, find one online that makes sense to you, ideally from a similar type of institution. Even though it might have the same course title, a syllabus from a community college course will probably look very different from one used at a research university that enrolls 200-300 students.

Q: Are there specific teaching methods that work best when teaching something out of one’s area of expertise? It seems that a learner-centered approach might be the way to go. On the other hand, some instructors might be tempted to fall back on tightly scripted lectures.
Huston: The temptation, sadly, is to fall back on tightly scripted lectures. In my interviews, it was clear that junior faculty often resort to lectures when they are teaching something they just learned. And it makes sense. There are lots of reasons that lectures are more comfortable. Compared to a discussion, lectures give you, the instructor, a much greater sense of control, which is comforting when you’re teaching outside your comfort zone. Lectures also decrease the likelihood that someone will ask a question you can’t answer (which may not be a conscious reason you prefer lectures, but it’s a reality).

It seems like a contradiction at first–why would you want to be the know-it-all lecturing at the front of the class, when at best you’re a know-a-little? One person I interviewed, Eric Mazur from Harvard University, observed that one of the reasons people probably lecture on unfamiliar material is that the process of saying it aloud helps them learn the material. That’s good for your learning experience, but doesn’t mean the students learn as much.

Then there is the time factor. It takes time to step back, synthesize the information, and generate content-specific learner-centered activities, and time is a luxury people don’t always have when teaching outside their expertise.

All of that being said, a learner-centered approach is a much better way to go. A good compromise for the overwhelmed among us (and who isn’t at some point?) is to plan a lecture with brief but powerful active learning strategies sprinkled throughout that lecture. Some active learning techniques, such as Think-Pair-Share or Comparative Note-Taking, take very little time for the instructor to prepare, but lead to impressive gains in what students learn. Likewise, an instructor could use clickers and Peer Instruction periodically throughout a lecture to engage more students.

Q: How do you suggest instructors handle a situation in which a student or several students are more knowledgeable on the course content than the instructor?
Huston: We’re all bound to face this dilemma. First, be proactive. It’s valuable to find out how much students know about a topic. In the first week of a course, you could pass out note cards where students write their names, contact info and any previous courses, interests, experiences they have related to the topics in your course. Then you can draw upon these students for examples later in the course. It’s unsettling to be surprised by an expert sitting in the back row who starts heckling you in week two.

Once you’ve identified these students, and you’ve checked with them to be sure they still want to take the course, ask if it’s OK to call on them occasionally to offer their input, experiences, or examples. Students often enjoy the attention and will be more challenged in a course that’s otherwise addressing some familiar concepts.