What Do These Students Want?!: Some Teaching Tips from the Other Side

Guest post by Kate Cunningham

Kate writes on the topics of online university rankings for onlineuniversityrankings.com.  She welcomes your questions and comments.

About a year ago, Tom Wright posted some very insightful graduate student teaching tips here at the AMS blog. These tips ran the gamut in giving solid advice for what is inevitably a scary experience—teaching. Wright covered the importance of solving problems beforehand as well as writing on the board and, in the end, just relaxing.

As someone who sat on the other side of the fence not too long ago, I was lucky enough to have taken some great undergraduate math courses taught by passionate and helpful TAs. From a former pupil’s perspective (who later did some teaching herself), I offer a bit of personal advice for graduate students who may have forgotten what it’s like to be a miserable, scared, and confused undergrad.

1. Undergraduates are like cockroaches—they’re just as scared of you as you are of them.

It’s your first day of class, and you may be feeling a bit nervous. The truth is, your charges are just as nervous as you are. The trick is not letting your nervousness show. As oblivious as some students may seem, they can indeed sense fear, so you can’t make your nerves apparent. More often than not, initial feigned confidence turns into real confidence later on.

2. Undergraduates of the 21st century are not accustomed to challenge.

Considering you are a graduate student, you know what a challenge is like. You’ve gotten over the fiction that life is easy and will be handed to you on a silver platter. Unfortunately, many undergraduate students, especially those raised by what Time magazine has dubbed “helicopter parents,” are not used to such travails. Does that mean taking it easy on them? Of course not. It does mean, however, that you will have to call forth extra doses of patience. Be prepared for complaining, but don’t give in to it. For more specific teaching tips that incorporate generational differences, see UVA Dean Penny Rue’s article “Who Are Today’s Students?

3. All questions should be considered, even the silly ones.

Former graduate student Bill McAllister gives some excellent suggestions on dealing with all types of questions in his little essay “Dumb Questions: Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Live Without ‘Em.” The take away point from this article is that above all, as a teacher who takes her job seriously, one must listen. Don’t let silly questions waste time and trip you up, but don’t dismiss them out of hand either. You’ll only make one student or another feel bad. And students who feel slighted don’t learn anything.

4. Facilitating discussion is harder than it seems, but it’s not impossible.

One memory of a particularly hapless TA stays with me to this day. It was his first time teaching the course sans professor. Classroom discussion was usually breezy, but as soon as he stood at the helm flying solo, the class dynamic became stilted and awkward. I tried to put my finger on it at the time, but only in retrospect did I realize what the problem was. This particular TA seemed unconscionably bored, whereas the professor at least pretended to be eager to know what every student was thinking. You can ask questions all day, and still get the cricket-in-the-room response. But to tease out student feedback, enthusiasm is required. Believe me, it’s infectious.

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