young professor at chalkboard September 4

23 Practical Strategies to Help New Teachers Thrive

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“If you know the content, you can teach.”

How many of us have heard this sentiment before? How many of us believe it ourselves?

It is easy to assume that a content expert is automatically qualified to teach a course on his or her area of expertise. Much of the graduate-level preparation for entering university teaching is based on this assumption; graduate students study their subject areas, but little discussion is had about how to teach and what methods might be most effective. This is regrettable, because while content is important, the content needs to have solid pedagogy behind it in order to be effective in the classroom. Content can fall flat if all the instructor is doing is sharing the information in didactic fashion.

The concept extends to become a belief that good teachers don’t need to practice. This belief is also false, as many faculty development experts know; faculty development usually means remediation, whether one is dealing with experienced administrators or new faculty.

Higher education supports this myth; if an instructor gets good ratings and is considered a “good teacher,” then no one recommends that he or she work with a faculty developer. However, few instructors can say that they have had an entire class period go perfectly, let alone an entire course.

The reality is, there are ways to improve a class in both large and small ways every day. What works well one semester may not work well the next time the course is taught. There is always more to learn and there are always better ways to serve students.

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lacing up running shoes. May 1

Lessons from Expertise, Decoding, and a Quest for the Five-Minute Mile

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A recent issue of Outside magazine recounts Charles Bethea’s attempt to run a sub-five-minute mile. At age 35 and fit, though not an elite athlete, Bethea’s goal is far short of the world record of 3:43. And although many runners break the five-minute barrier, it’s still a feat well beyond the vast majority of adults. After a respectable benchmark mile of 6:19, Bethea flounders aimlessly. A former college runner advises him to aim for quarter-mile splits of 74 seconds, which Bethea learns he can do, one at a time and with rest in between. But he can’t figure out how to string the four fast intervals together. It’s not until he gets coaching from a world-class miler that Bethea realistically approaches his goal. He quickly learns two things: first, he needs to ramp up his weekly mileage dramatically, and second, he must vary his training to include a prescribed mix of slow runs, hill intervals, and sprints. The road ahead isn’t going to be easy.

Bethea’s progression from mindless, ineffective training to purposeful, measured workouts serves as an entry point to Anders Ericsson’s recent book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016). A professor of psychology at Florida State who has studied experts for much of his career, Ericsson offers fascinating insights applicable to college-level teaching and learning. Although most of our students won’t go on to become experts in our fields, we often aspire to instill the practices and habits of mind which undergird our domains. The question is, how do we do that effectively?

Like Bethea’s initial efforts, most of us, argues Ericsson, go about improving ourselves in ineffective ways. Want to be an elite chess player? Play lots and lots of chess. No less a visionary than Ben Franklin took that route, but he failed miserably in his pursuit of excellence. Why? Because getting better in chess requires not playing more, but carefully studying the matches of chess masters, systematically building up a huge database of positions and possible moves, and having that knowledge stored for ready use in long-term memory. Lacking access to the games of the European chess champions of his day, Franklin never developed the deep understanding of chess he so desired.

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prof in lecture hall June 8, 2016

Are We Too Preoccupied with Teaching Techniques?

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College teachers love techniques. If you’re invited to lead a teaching workshop, you can expect to be asked, “Will you share some good techniques?” Suggest them in the workshop and watch lots of smiling participants write them down with great enthusiasm. Why do we love teaching techniques so much? Because many of us come to teaching not having many? Because they work? Because they keep our teaching feeling fresh?




October 7, 2015

Teaching Concerns of New (and Not So New?) Teachers

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The list of concerns was compiled from a qualitative analysis of 10 years of graduate teaching assistants’ online discussion posts. The 120 students wrote the posts in a three-credit course that prepared them to teach beginning communication courses. It’s a list that raises some interesting questions. Are the concerns legitimate? They are listed in order of importance. Does that order change as teaching experience accrues? Should it change? Which of these are ongoing concerns, and perhaps, most importantly, how do we deal with the issues raised by the concerns?



September 16, 2014

Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome: Advice for New Faculty

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Last week, an imposter took over my classroom. Come to find out, that imposter was me.

I started teaching three years ago. I was fresh out of graduate school, equally thrilled and terrified at the prospect of teaching my own classes. On paper it sounded straightforward: teach others the same material I just finished learning myself. I could do that, I told myself confidently. Then on the first day of class I met The Imposter.



September 13, 2013

Advice for New Faculty: Six Lessons from the Front Lines

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Teaching can be a daunting profession even for a seasoned veteran. For new faculty members, it can feel like a daily battle just to keep your head above water. So what are some ways that new teachers can ensure not only academic success for their students, but also maintain their own emotional and personal well-being? Below are six lessons learned by two new faculty members who have managed to keep their students learning and their sanity intact: