May 10th, 2010

Teaching Outside Your Area of Expertise


For most teachers, a room full of bright students is the stuff dreams are made of. Unless, of course, you’re teaching a course that’s outside of your area of expertise – then it can be a nightmare. You feel like an imposter, and worry that your students will call you out. You cram for each class like you’re back in school.

Think it only happens to you? Think again.

In the recent online video seminar, Strategies for Teaching What You Just Learned, Therese Huston, PhD. shared strategies to help instructors effectively teach course material that’s new and unfamiliar to them. Huston, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University, began studying the seemingly taboo topic for her 2009 book, Teaching What You Don’t Know, and discovered that more and more educators are being asked to teach unfamiliar content.

In some cases, it’s a course in a constantly changing field, other times budget cuts are forcing faculty into uncharted territory. But whatever the reason, it makes for a challenging semester for even the most experienced professors.

To help ease the anxiety some faculty feel when teaching outside their area of expertise, Huston recommends finding a mentor to confide in and tapping into campus resources, such as the library or Center for Teaching and Learning. It also can bring some measure of comfort and control to start the course from a place of knowledge and build from there, and to use assignments similar to those that have proven effective in the past.

When determining what to teach, Huston says it’s important to think about what you really want your students to learn and prioritize course content into three categories: must know, should know, and could know. This helps to not only bring more focus to the course, but also can keep you from falling into the trap of trying to consume everything you can about the new topic and then regurgitate it back to your students.

“By focusing on the big questions and what you want your students to know, you won’t get overwhelmed by all the little details you don’t know,” Huston says.

Although there will be times when students ask questions you can’t answer, it’s important that you don’t try to fake it. Suitable responses include:

  • Great question. No one has ever asked me that.
  • I believe the literature is mixed….
  • To be honest, I haven’t read that literature.
  • I’m not sure of the answer, and I don’t want to lead you astray. Let me think about it.
  • That’s a very precise question that deserves a precise answer. Can I get back to you?

“It’s OK to give an educated guess, but call it that,” says Huston. “It’s more important to create a learning environment where students are inspired to ask great questions than one where they think you are perfect.”

  • Mary

    I am delighted to have this topic discussed or to have someone in higher education admit it is okay to say "I do not know." It is impossible to even know everything within an area of "expertise." After 16 years of clinical medicine and 5 years of teaching anatomy and physiology, students are still thinking of things for which I do not have the answer. Information and understanding is constantly changing, and thus, it is a challenge to keep up with those changes. Because of the way the courses are set up here I get to teach zoology only every other year. Since my training is the human animal, I find myself feeling like an imposter in zoology. However, the fun is in making new discoveries each time I teach the class, and in challenging my students to make the same new discoveries. It is basically leading by example, but also allowes me to incorporate personal areas of interest (birds and the outdoors) into a class.