back to academia - teaching advice

patricia bowne pbowne at
Wed Nov 14 05:04:25 EST 2001

s.dippel at wrote:

> So my question goes to those working in purely undergraduate
> institutions - do you manage to get some research done, just
> with undergraduate projects etc.? Is it wise first to concentrate
> on preparing your classes so well that when you teach them
> again in a year or two, the effort will be much smaller so that
> some time will be left for organizing your research? (Quickly
> bringing in grant money etc. is not an issue in the sense of
> affecting a tenure review, I will have tenure from the start.)

I've tried it both ways, and basically I don't get research done without
putting in more hours than I want to. But I have administrative duties
as well as teaching. I'm hoping that next year I'll be able to do some
pottering in the lab, but not real research -- the cruncher is keeping
up with the literature and keeping myself convinced that it matters
whether I'm active in research or not. 

People who want to do research can fit it in, in my experience, but
you'd be surprised how few of us really want to when we aren't forced to
or indoctrinated daily by research peers. One big pitfall I see in
trying to do research with undergraduates is that it leads you to focus
too much on the very best of the undergrads -- any others will louse up
your data. 

An alternative, however, is to do research *on* your undergrads. After
all, no scientist would set out to make a living in a field of science
without reading the literature, knowing which journals were best, and
planning their own scholarly course. Why not treat teaching that way?
There's not enough research done on the best ways to teach science.

> Generally, do you have any advice on what pitfalls to avoid
> when teaching a real class for the first time (I have TAed quite
> a bit, but never taught a full class), in terms of organisation
> etc.?

The big pitfall I fell into was giving the students all the info and
letting them just sit there and watch me sweat. Now I make them do much
more of the work.
I don't know if your academic culture will allow it, but active learning
is really useful. For instance, instead of lecturing the students on a
topic, you can give them a graphic that displays the topic and have them
explain it. I taught an entire class once by having the students pose
questions and then analyze the graphs of the relevant data.

Small group work solving problems is pretty much a given in physics, I
suppose, but it was a new idea for me. 

Also, you'll save yourself lots of grief if you decide your grading
policies up front and communicate them to the students. 

Have fun!


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