Musings from a first-time teacher. Or, how to entertain students without looking like a moron.

I convened my first undergraduate course this semester, Conservation Biology. Why the university thought it would be a good idea to put me in charge of ~50 undergrads is still beyond me, but I think I may have just pulled it off. It’s been 16 weeks of challenges, and even with some particularly extra-challenging moments (like my field trip being cancelled at short notice), I’ve actually enjoyed it. I do think, however, that there are several things that, had I known them beforehand, would have been very important pieces of information. And, because none of my students read my blog (to my knowledge), I will share them.

Lecturers are generally much older than students and are therefore not cool or interesting in any way.

I’m not really that much older than my students – as in, most of my lecturers who taught me were in their 40s or 50s at least. I’m only about a decade older than my students, but it was more than enough for me to feel like the old fogey. So any tangents that I went off on during class were usually greeted with polite curiosity but general disinterest or outright bewilderment. I tried breaking the ice early on by trying to engage them in some drawing plants and animals in ecosystems on the board to illustrate spatial ecology, but it was a bit of a fizzer. Maybe it was my bad drawings, or maybe they just didn’t want to have to interact with me.

Similarly, when I was teaching them about habitat fragmentation I asked them “what is the matrix?” and followed that with what I though was a really funny joke about Neo and Morpheus, which generated some sideways glances and half-hearted mumbling. Then I realised that these students were probably in primary school when The Matrix came out. :S

Asking the students about the Smashing Pumpkins probably would have produced the same response as Homer’s in the Homerpalooza episode.

Even if students know an answer, they will have to be under threat of death or serious dismemberment before volunteering said answer when a question is asked.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised by this one. I did it too as a student. I’d ask a question and I’d be greeted by silence. It was like being in the Simpsons, when it’s inappropriately silent and then you hear a cricket chirping.

Students have an ‘exception’ rule for everything.

Every student except one will hand in an assignment on time. Every student except one will arrive on time. Every student except one will be interested in my classes. Every student except one will be OK with the grades handed out. Every student except one will follow the damn instructions properly.

If I fuck up or make a mistake, the students will start howling to whoever will listen – but if they’ve made the mistake, somehow it’s still  my fault.

I do make mistakes. But I fix them. Although sometimes not quick enough for the students’ satisfaction. However, when students don’t read information, can’t read between lines or use initiative, is it my fault? This was a new one for me.  I think “Accountability 101” should be a compulsory part of a science degree.

There can never be enough points of redundancy.

Give them something in writing. Read it out loud to them. Have a PowerPoint presentation about it. Remind them every week. But don’t ever, ever assume that they’ll remember something or use their noggins and figure it out themselves.

Occasionally, the students will be surprising.

This was the best one. Reading an extremely well-written assignment and giving it 100%. Getting a ‘thank you’ email after a class. Asking the class a question and getting a random but entertaining response. For example, I asked about what an edge effect is and was told that “nothing good happens in edges”…. well, I suppose you had to be there for that one.

This sounds all quite negative, but it actually quite a good experience. These were just a few things that caught me off-guard. On the whole, I really enjoyed convening the course, and I have learned some valuable things for next time round. The students weren’t all bad – some were friendly, some were really switched-on and a pleasure to have in class and some were highly entertaining. I’m not sure I succeeded with the alternative title of my post – there were a few times when I did silly things, but a few of the students have told me that they enjoyed the class. Maybe I wasn’t that bad after all.


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