I wouldn’t change a thing (a defence of personal empiricism)

It’s August and the season of walking a fine line between annual leave, finishing/starting research projects, and sorting out teaching prep for the forthcoming academic year has gripped UK academia. Time then to reflect on an August 10 years ago as I prepared my first lectures.

Tip 1: Don’t read chemical education literature.

For me the biggest challenge was grappling with the content I was teaching and the structures within which I was expected to deliver. I was setting exam questions for the first time, trying to revise content I had not seen since I was an undergraduate (and for one topic, content I had not seen at all for it was not taught), and trying to work out where I fitted within the course structures and dealing with all the unwritten rules, guidelines, policies, and ‘things we do’. And it sucked time and energy. I promise you that within that, going off and doing a search for education literature and ‘good ways to approach’ teaching any of those topics was furthest from my mind. There were modules, I was expected to deliver and assess some ILOs and there was content that had to be covered.  Just learn the damn content well enough to not feel stupid in front of the class. 

Tip 2: There’s nothing wrong with adapting the previous person’s slides

Yeah, I know, but it’s a new job, new academic year, new notebook, shiny new blank page and all that. Just change the bloody powerpoint template and be done with it. Unless you’re cursed with a brand-new-to-the-institution course prep, reuse the slides because it probably worked well enough last year. And what’s more, if you’re new to teaching, I promise you the barre is pretty damn low in terms of what success looks like. No big student complaints outside of module evaluations and you’re doing fine. Seriously though, initially content is king because you’re trying to learn material as a teacher not as a student and it’s very different.

Tip 3: when the learning and teaching course you do tells you to keep a teaching diary, keep a teaching diary

Think of it as a laboratory notebook where the lab sessions are your teaching. If you’ve been an experimental scientist, you have an inherent understanding of troubleshooting and determining the accuracy of your results. The teaching people, they call this reflective practice, which is a fancy term for what you’re more than capable of doing anyway. For each session ask yourself:

– did I achieve what I needed to achieve?

– did the students indicate that they understood or that they were confused or bored witless (probably all three, likely from the same student at once)

 – what do I need to address next session?

 – what would I change for next year?

In those first sessions, you’ll probably over or underestimate how much you’ll get through. Perhaps you’ll fall into the ‘trying to be cool with lots of funny anecdotes’ model of a lecturer – well everyone likes to be liked. Perhaps you’ll be panicking that you wont cover everything and will blast through 50 minutes of stuff in the first 20 and and bewilder everyone in a 5 mile radius. It happens. Reading chemistry education literature is not going to help with this at all and if you’re really new to teaching, you’re not going to have that many strategies to deal with this without a bit of a think over a cup of tea afterwards. That’s fine, and that’s where your teaching diary helps – write/draw/graph it out, process it, troubleshoot and problem solve. You don’t need to write down your feelings (incidentally feelings don’t need to be included in reflections, you can be perfectly reflective about something whilst maintaining an air of scientific mystique). 

Tip 4: Your teaching style will evolve over time, don’t panic!

It takes me 5 run throughs of a course before I feel I’ve ‘got it down well enough’ to start playing with the content in what could be termed ‘a deliberate pedagogically valid way. That’s probably 5 years of teaching it. If you can get to that point sooner, good for you, but I find I go through an iterative process of incremental change based on my trouble shooting and reflections, identifying recurring issues and problems, addressing those issues, adding or subtracting in-class problems, testing MCQs and response devices, having more or less text on the teaching aids…it’s incremental and based on what I think works for me, in my context and in my style.  And in those first 5 years, good enough is good enough.Anecdotally I’ve heard of new staff who read the literature and see a report of some or other approach and adopt it wholesale. They then bumble around trying to workout why it hasn’t worked for them in the way the paper promises. Perhaps it’s another case for meta-reviews of educational literature to derive the most effective principles of practice from all of the personal empiricism out there, or perhaps it just makes the case for learning to walk before you can run. You need to learn what your teaching style is first – who are you in the classroom? And do I contradict myself here? Didn’t I say above that you should adapt last year’s teaching resources? Isn’t that imposing a style?  Well you have to start somewhere, and why not start with the last known point of good enough for that particular course?

Tip 5: At some point you’ll make a decision between good enough and excellence in teaching

The biggest change we could make in UK Chemistry Education is to increase the basic standard of teaching.  But we forget that those who aim for good enough are doing other things as part of their role and we need them in the academic ecosystem just as much as we need teaching superstars. It would be nice for everyone to be excellent teachers but it isn’t going to happen, and at some point you’ll have to decide how much of your 35 hours a week is going to be spent on developing your teaching. In an ideal world, this would be flexible, allowing you to ebb and flow between teaching and other roles as your career develops, but I’m not sure it works like that and those decisions are probably going to be made for you to a point. If you’re lucky enough to get to pick, know that there is nothing wrong with simply being good enough. I think this is why there is so much literature and research on first year university stuff: those courses are more likely to be taught by more teaching focussed staff with extensive teaching portfolios whereas third and fourth year stuff are more likely to be taught by staff who do limited teaching because of extensive research portfolios. 

Tip 6: When/If you do dip a toe into the pedagogical literature, don’t expect a miracle cure

They don’t exist. There are ‘off the shelf’ teaching methods that you can apply and if you’re looking for quick fixes, I’d head for those methodologies and I’d follow them to the letter, and if you’re particularly luck, you’ll be the first in your department/faculty/uni to do them and you can be seen as a trail-blazer. You may well stumble then into an institutional definition of excellence without having to try too hard. Otherwise, wading through the contradictory mass of literature that’s full of unfamiliar theoretical underpinnings and social science stuff is seriously hard going.  Pick a good entry point and I’d recommend a discipline focussed teaching and learning conference as a good starting place. You’ll pick up the names of the people with sensible ideas about learning and teaching and can go find their papers and see what they’re up to. If you’re brave, you can talk to them.

I find seeking out literature for my deliberate pedagogically valid meddling in a course to be an intensely painful process. I dislike it. I have a particular loathing for papers that report something then don’t give some simple suggestions as to how the information might be applied in the classroom. I also dislike how the higher education chemical education literature seems to be obsessed with laboratories, and in particular, laboratories in early years of university. It’s hard to find relevant stuff for upper years, and it gets more complex if you move into international literature with very different course designs. 

The process I’ve described here is largely what personal empiricism means to me. It’s also known as reflective practice. We just run into issues when personal empiricism is all there is in chemistry education and also issues when people don’t realise that their personal triumphs may be something that has been established for years as best practice. That always makes for an awkward conference presentation.

So, to summarise, if I were starting teaching again this summer, I would stick to a basic goal of getting the content sorted first, then rooting out the concepts that students struggle with the most and devising ways to support that, and only then would I worry about developing pedagogically correct practice. And the latter, only if I felt that teaching excellence was something of personal importance to me and relevant to my career expectations. I did, by the way, decide that teaching was of personal importance to me and a key focus for my career. But sometimes I question whether that was the right decision, and in the current system I suspect it’s too late to go back the other way.

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