Reflections On First Teaching Experience : when there were many lessons learned.
Categories: Teaching (1)
Tags: first (7) , teaching (1)
Hello and welcome.
I’ve now finished my first teaching experience for the term: 5 lectures of 2 hours on Artificial Intelligence in Games to a group of about 80 Master students. And I wanted to go back to the advice received before starting this whole adventure (thank you Twitter!) and reflect on my own experiences in relation to that, while it’s still fresh in my mind. I’m hoping this would serve as partly an interesting read and partly a nice collection of advice for new teachers (or those eager to learn from the experience of their peers!).
Let’s start first with the advice received through either Twitter or in person, grouped in 4 rough categories. Find the original thread here: https://twitter.com/b_gum22/status/1166721916088061957
- Things will not always go exactly like you wanted, but that’s OK. The key here is reflection.
- You can show vulnerability without losing command of the class. It makes students comfortable to know you make mistakes too, and sets a good example that you don’t panic when it happens. Let them see you solve problems in real-time.
- Be both a drill instructor and a big sis. Be tough on them. They have to do as you say. But sometimes they cannot do it in one trial. Then comes the big sis, telling them it’s alright to fail at a first attempt.
- Don’t worry about breaking out from the “stand in front of the class and talk” model. It’s 100+ years old, it wasn’t designed for modern days subjects, and arguably the first teachers that implemented it cared more about disicipline than learning.
- You know more than enough to teach others. It is really easy to be intimidated by the responsibility, but you can absolutely do it! Also, don’t be afraid to make it your own and be passionate. Students appreciate teachers who love what they are teaching! And have fun! :D
- It’s common to run through the material too fast. Take it slowly, and repeat yourself a lot.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, just say so. Ask the student to help find the answer for you.
- Any class is easier to teach the second time around.
- The vast majority of times when you make a mistake, say something wrong, etc. Nobody noticed other than you, do not sweat the small stuff.
- Also, don’t try to teach like anyone else. Be honest in front of your students.
- It’s easier to start strict and then loosen up than the other way around
- Preparing lectures / course material /etc takes way longer than expected… but it also gets better pretty rapidly…
- Whatever material you get from the previous teacher will be useless. You have to do your own thing.
- A lot of things that seem like common sense are absolutely not. It never hurts to go over the “why”. A lot of training that colleagues dismiss as “nonsense they make you go through” is useful if you invest your time in it.
- Whatever you planned to teach, teach less. It is hard to memorize a lot of informations. Teach less breadth but more depth and get your students to do as much learning as possible.
- The material might or might not seem easy to you, but it seems much harder to most of the students.
- You can start from someone else’s material, but it’s good to adapt it to your own teaching style.
- They will believe everything you tell them.
- The difficult students are the ones you can really make a difference to (quite often years after ^^). So if they annoy you, hold on!
- Don’t confuse tasks and learning outcomes. A student can perform a task without learning, and can learn in unexpected ways. Grade the learning, not the task completion!
- There might be students to attempt to derail your teaching somehow, often because they want to show how much they know. If they bother you, tell them you’ll take it offline.
- The students you’ll hear most from are not necessarily representative of the majority of the class.
- Never ever ever violate trust. Never tell a student (s)he is not intelligent enough, makes dumb remarks or other degrading things. Do it once and you’ll lose your whole group, instantly. They won’t listen to you, won’t ask questions.
- Let them talk to you, especially in full class. Drop a question, a silence, and break your gaze by looking out the window. Count to ten, real slow. They will talk back to you, and this is the moment to build trust. If you succeed, they will talk more, also with each other. … and that’s when your group starts to prepare for launch. Get this process going for a few weeks and you’ll have a shark tank full of problem-hungry fish that will devour anything you feed them.
- It’s really the culture that attracts them, not the content.
- And remember to look at the window and keep your mouth shut occasionally. ;-)
- People look grumpy when they are concentrated so it’s sometimes a good sign if they do
- I wish I had known after winning “favourite teacher” awards that learning is hard work, and these awards are at best silly, and most likely a bad idea
- Set class rules from day 1, possibly with a hand-out
- They will beg for extra points claiming a disaster will happen to them, train your resistance
- They can smell fear - use cologne if necessary
- Share why you are excited by your topic - if you don’t find the material exciting then your students won’t either. If you clearly love it then that love will spread! Have fun! Time with students is inspiring!
- McKeachie’s Teaching Tips is your bible.
- The lecturer’s toolkit: a practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching by Philip Race , 2007
This includes more lengthy discussions of the main topics that came up during my teaching. For context, I’ve only taught half of this module (and not as module organizer, so I didn’t have much say in how things were done for this year) using mostly materials from the previous year. All of these sections will include descriptions of my experiences with possible examples, as well as how I dealt with problems and advice I’ll take forward.
The lectures I did had a lot of material from the previous year: 3 of them I did not change much, other than transfer to PowerPoint and add animations and visualisations to counteract the sometimes heavy logical thinking target. This in the beginning took quite a lot of time, I probably spent more or less a full week getting the first lecture done and figuring out the pipeline, and then rehearsing it as well. The others came easier, although I had to do a bunch of background study on some to be able to explain all the concepts appropriately in class, and with some I had to refresh some of the material. I also took into account the general questions and paid attention to the parts causing most confusion among the students and I added some new material in subsequent lectures to try to cater to that and better explain those concepts that were only glanced over before, but were harder to grasp for this class.
The last 2 lectures, however, had a large overlap in the previous year and also an incomplete picture of the topics (PCG). And with these I decided that I wanted to tell the whole story properly and I ended up completely restructuring and reorganizing materials, as well as introducing a variety of new topics that would tie everything together. That was a very intersting exercise of creating content for lectures (almost) from scratch and I thoroughly enjoyed having complete control and knowledge of what I was going to talk to the students about. Here again I tried to include high-level concepts descriptions, equations, visualisations and code to cater to as many learning styles as I could. I also panicked more during class, as this was my own material now that maybe was not good enough. But I am very happy with the end result!
Sadly my contract did not take into account the many hours I put into lecture preparation, and I believe in general this is given way less attention and credit than it should: especially with research-led teaching, making sure material presented to students is up to date and tailored to the specific class you’re teaching should be a priority, and the students would be much better for it!
Test tech before class in the class you’ll be teaching in.
I mean, sometimes you learn things the hard way, even though you probably should’ve known better. I wanted to use fancy polling software (PollEverywhere embedded in PowerPoint) for my lectures, which worked fine when I tested it on my laptop even in presentation mode - but come lecture and projector extending my display, and it all blew up in flames. Or well, the question they were supposed to answer didn’t actually show up on the slides, nor the information they could use to navigate to the question to answer it, or the fun visualisation of answers as they came in. That’s a horrible way to start a first lecture that you’re already panicked about, I’m fairly certain I turned the brightest shade of red known to humanity in those few minutes of trying and failing to get it to work. Eventually I went with the best option: I gave up on the idea and ignored all subsequent slides, going for the old fashioned waiting for raised hands and speaking outloud. So… if you’re doing any demos or using any software that’s not just very basic presentations (or even then!) visit the lecture room before the lecture and try it all out.
They believe everything you say.
I didn’t think this was completely true before I got silly proof of this and I became a lot more careful about thinking outloud. I was talking about Bellman equations in one lecture and I had spent a long time explaining these, so my brain gave up for a second and when I looked at the slide behind me before moving to the next one, it seemed like some variables were swapped as (s,a) instead of (a,s) and I mentioned that outloud, ignoring the roomful of students taking notes of everything I was saying. A few minutes later, one student asks to go back to the guilty slide and asks if those variables should be swapped in all equations, or only in that one. That made me pause, because I didn’t think much of it when I spoke it in the first place! So I had to backtrack and apologise for the brain break - but I wasn’t too hard on myself for that; after all, the order of the arguments in the function don’t even really matter, beyond usual notation. I did wonder, however, that if I insisted long enough that deep learning was overrated they’d believe it and stop saying they want to do it without knowing anything about it.
Different learning styles.
This was also most clear while discussing Reinforcement Learning, which comes with a bunch of equations. I had a visual example on one of the slides, and it seemed that I should’ve had more of those, as I kept going back to it for every face that frowned at the complicated notation in the equations! Not all students learn the same way, and this also applies to lectures: the attention of some is captivated by logical thinking, equations, diagrams. But others like visuals, images, videos, animations and understand a lot better the concept through those ways. And others like clear sign-posting of where you are in the lecture, in case they dozed off and their classmate shoves an elbow in their ribcage to wake them up. Making a concious effort to explain the different concepts in various ways is not easy, and also time consuming to repeat yourself: but it is worth it in the long run, as you see most of the eyes in the room lit up with understanding.
I feel like this one comes with practice, as I got a lot better at it by my 5th lecture than I was in the beginning. Keeping a slow pace, allowing space for questions, interaction and discussion with the students, while also finishing the lecture on time without rushing through the last parts of the material you intended to go through is not that easy at first. The only way to improve on this though is to practice and give many talks to get used to your general speaking speed and the content you can fit in the given time.
I’m still working on this, and I’ve been told this before as well, but there really is a difference in giving research presentations, and giving lectures. With the first you’d expect experts in the room to question the small details you maybe don’t remember or didn’t think of very much, and there’s the pressure of your work being presented to be “good enough” for the people listening. With lectures, the students will most likely not know much about the topic you’re talking about; if they do, they’ll understand things more easily. But the students are there to learn, not to question the vailidity or quality of the work you’re dicussing.
Also, with lectures, you’re doing it for the students: you’re sharing your knowledge so that they can do well in tests, assignments, and any future adventures that might be related to the lecture topic - you’re doing them a favour, really! As opposed to research talks, which are mostly for yourself, to get your work out there, discuss the ideas with a larger number of people and get feedback - it can also be for the audience, depending on the possible applications of your work, for example; but they’ll still question what you’re trying to sell them.
So getting into the right mindset helps relieve some of the pressure that comes with tens of eyes locked on you for 2 hours.
This is something I struggled with in the beginning, as a small and quiet person trying to get a room of 80 people to shut up and pay attention so I could do my thing. Especially after the break between the 2 hours (we’d do 10 minutes break halfway through) - it was impossible for me to raise my voice high enough, so it was mostly waiting for them to realize I was waiting for them to shush so I could start again, or that I’d already started talking and they should be listening instead. But there can be things to be done to grab their attention when not loud enough; something I started doing is turning off the display during the break, and then turning it back on when I was ready to start the second part. That, paired with my loudest attempt at “Right, let’s get back to it!” seemed to do the trick once they learned how I used this signal!
Validate and encourage their opinions and questions.
There were occasionally questions I didn’t know how to answer immediately, or questions that don’t have an answer yet (i.e. research!) - some of them seemed to struggle with the idea of the second type in general, seeming to believe I knew everything. So I think it was good that they sometimes saw that wasn’t true, that there were things I didn’t know, and things that possibly no one knew and someone had to go look for an answer - I’d encourage those questions the most, even though they didn’t exactly like the reply of “let me know if you find out the answer!”.
With the first type of question, I found that if I directed attention off myself for a while to give myself time to think I would manage to come up with the answer after a little while - so I’d do this by passing on attention to the other lecturer on the module, if he was in the room; and if he wasn’t, I’d turn it back on the student and ask them to think outloud some reasoning for the thing, while I did my own thinking. And everyone did end up happy with answers there, in the end.
And I tried my best with any question asked, even if they were asking clarification on something very small and straight forward to me, I tried to encourage all of those and applaud the question asking, as well as the question replying from others, or the discussions that would sometimes stem from that. And that all led to some fairly interactive lectures, with many students getting invovled and speaking up, which I absolutely loved!
This topic didn’t come up that much when I asked for advice before starting to teach, but it is something I always deal with when giving any sort of talks. The pressure of standing in front of a crowd and speaking your knowledge or your ideas is daunting! Doing it a lot definitely helps, but I still deeply dislike my past self when I remember she signed up for speaking gigs (not that it ever stops my future self from doing this more and saying yes to all sorts of crazy opportunities). My heart starts racing, my hands get sweaty and shaky and my throat feels like it’s closing up with a huge knot building to stop my voice from coming out. And this comes from fearing my talk will not be good, or that my ideas will be found as flawed, or that I’ll say things that don’t make sense or that I won’t know enough.
That last part is the easiest with lectures and I’ve been repeatedly told this: you do know enough. To make that actually true, I’d spend a few hours the week before each lecture making sure I understood every little detail in the slides that anyone might question: if I didn’t, I’d either go searching for a solution, and if that didn’t help, that detail would be taken out of the material. I definitely wanted to be as much in control of what I did and did not know for the lecture. As for some of the other things, it’s them who should be more scared that I’ll say things that don’t make sense after all!
There are things that I do before talks that generally help with the whole anxiety issue though, the biggest one being to get moving! Jumping around, stretching, moving my body - this all helps in muscles relaxing instead of being stiff, locked up and making life hard while talking. Visiting the talk location beforehand is always good as well, as you can get an idea of the space and your presence within that space. And belting out a song is great to get your voice working and place your voice in the right register: you don’t want to be using head voice for 2 hours of lecturing, so being comfortable with chest voice and used to using that is key.
This is a thing that is not always an issue: sometimes I’m relaxed and confident enough that the anxiety melts away once I actually start talking. There have been 3 instances, however, when it got so bad that it very closely turned into a panic attack right there, in front of everyone (fortunately I didn’t completely break down and I’m pretty sure no one really noticed). This is when the anxiety stuck with me, made my voice crack multiple times, made me worry about what I was going to say next while zoning out on what I was saying in the moment. It made it very difficult to get words out, to breathe, to control my face or my body language and it even brought tears to my eyes that somehow didn’t spill over my cheeks.
2 of these times were research talks, and 1 was during a lecture. With talks, it wasn’t too bad - at least I knew that I had only a few more minutes of enduring this and I could then run off to a bathroom to cry it out. With the lecture, it was 2 hours of my heart racing, my brain fogging up and my voice barely escaping my throat. And it’s funny to think that nobody else noticed, how could you not notice that my body was loudly screaming at me to stop doing what I was doing!
No advice on this one so far, other than that breaks are okay. Someone told me that taking breaks to breathe between slides is the best thing you can do: they won’t even notice since you’re transitioning slides anyway, even if you take a good few seconds to yourself. Breathe, plant feet firmly on the ground, have a drink of water, shake hands. Whatever works to keep you focused in the zone.
Confidence and projection.
I’ve mentioned before that it’s important to speak in the right register to be able to sustain that for longer periods of time. It’s also important to do so loudly, so everyone in the room can actually hear you! And that comes with projection of voice which, for some, comes naturally, and others (like me!) they have to consciously focus on it. One more thing to focus on, if anxiety wasn’t high enough already! But projecting your voice properly can also add more confidence to your presence: fake it till you make it, on that one.
I’m not a confident person, and I’m usually very quiet and prefer to not speak more than I have to, I like to listen instead - and if someone asks for my opinions, then I’d share them, because they asked and it’s their problem if the opinions they want are wrong! Confidence is a thing I’m still working on, but I’ve found it improved so much with teaching! There’s something about explaining a piece of knowledge and seeing lights in the audience light up with understanding, or answering a specifically difficult question and the student looking satisfied with the answer, that leads to a huge boost in confidence which lingers for a while.
The last lecture.
I walked away from my last lecture fabulously happy and proud of myself. I’d paced it perfectly, I’d had exciting discussions and inquisitive questions. I’d gotten them to listen to me and to look interested in what I was talking about and I’d even had time to tell them off for some generic mistakes in their first assignments. Life was glorious and all my efforts had paid off.
Have a lovely day,
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