Tag Archives: new teacher

A reflection of my first three months as new teaching faculty

I got the job offer over a phone call at 9 pm on a Tuesday evening at the end of May. I wasn’t really expecting it and I sent the call to my voicemail because I didn’t recognize the number. It took a total of about 10 seconds before I fully processed that the area code was from the D.C. area and that I probably should have answered it. By that point the voicemail had already buzzed in and after listening to a vague message, I called back and got the news that they wanted me to become a professor. After I hung up I stood there in my living room (I had been pacing while on the call) for about 5 minutes before the reality started to sink in.

In all honesty, I shouldn’t have felt scared because, over the three months that I’ve been here, I’ve gotten to know my fellow faculty and started to really find a groove in the work. There is definitely a learning curve. You do your best as a postdoc to prepare for moving up to a professorship, but there comes the moment when you’re the one left holding the ball for some of these things… problems with exam questions, creating course syllabi, student questions about lectures, and all other manner of things that go with the territory.

There are moments that have left me feeling overwhelmed (my first student with a serious mental health issue), more than a few moments where I felt a little exasperated (how did you miss that question on the test???), the occasional bits of confusion (where is that building on campus…), but overall, it has been a lot of fun and one of the best learning experiences I’ve had up to this point in my academic career.

As I reflect back on the past few months, these are the things that have really made a difference in making sure that my transition has gone more-or-less smoothly. And really, I think these are tips that would work well for any transition.

  1. Identify your mentor(s).

I think I’m lucky that I’ve never felt alone during this period of transition to being new teaching faculty. The other members of my department have been supportive and welcoming. What has truly made a difference, though, is when I really started developing a closer working relationship with one of the senior faculty. Learning can take place one of two ways. You can bang your head against the wall and figure it out for yourself, or you can learn from someone else and figure out how to improve on what they’ve already done the hard work on. Having a mentor gives you place to go when things get tough, when things are just a little bit too overwhelming, and when you really have no idea w

hat is going on. More importantly, that mentor is a great source of backup when the really tricky situations come up.

  1. Ask questions.

There’s no way that anyone could have expected me to know everything the day I walked in. After a rigorous process of doing a Google search, checking the department and program websites, reading the faculty handbook, and tossing the Magic 8-Ball around (Reply hazy try again), sometimes I just had to find someone that already knew the answer to some of my questions. I would say the most important part of the process is attempting to find the answer on your own first. It may be cliché to say this now that I’m faculty, but did you read the course syllabus before coming to ask me a question?

  1. Stay organized.

The start of any sort of transition like this is going to get busy and a little bit crazy. New employee orientation, setting up benefits with your HR representative, creating slides for your first lectures, remembering to eat dinner… it all adds up. This is the time to be meticulous with your schedule keeping and time management. You also want to stay on top of all the paperwork that is coming and going right now as you don’t want to miss out on having one of your benefits because a box didn’t get checked or a detail that you had discussed verbally with your department chair didn’t get added to the final version of your offer letter and contract. Details matter all the time, but especially right now.

  1. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.

As a grad student and postdoc, I’ve joked around that the best way to make sure I wasn’t bored was to go talk with my PI because my to-do list was guaranteed to get longer. At this point, my to-do list seems to be mostly self-driven, but there are at least a dozen things that need my attention at any moment. From answering emails to completing that online training module that HR forg

ot to add to my new employee checklist, to the student at my door right now to ask a question about this morning’s lecture — hold on a minute, I’ll be right back — there are always tasks competing for your attention. I’m constantly finding myself looking at my list of things to do and asking, what is the next thing that has the highest priority for being completed. It definitely plays back into the previous point of staying organized.

  1. Say no (when you can).

Part of the prioritizing above comes with the responsibility of saying no. Time has long been my most precious commodity, but it feels like it has gotten more valuable lately. Of course I can review something when the associate editor of the journal emails me specifically about an article sitting in their queue. And when my department chair needs a thing done, absolutely. But there are things that I just have to say no to. Sometimes it is work related things like the 3 other journal article reviews that showed up in my inbox today that I had to decline, sometimes it is personal things like the dinner last night with some other new faculty because I still had work to do on my lectures for today.

  1. Focus on one thing at a time.

Humans are really bad at multitasking. No matter how hard we try, there is a bottleneck in our brain processing capabilities(1) that keeps us from effectively multitasking. There are limits to the cognitive load that we can handle (4) and studies have shown that learning and performance decrease with increased load handling (2, 3). So what can we take away from the science? Put away the phones and close the web browser window with your insta-snappy-chat social media account on it and focus on the highest priority item on your to-do list. You’ll finish you better and faster than if you let yourself be distracted.

  1. Remember that there is life outside the office.

At the end of the day, it’s time to shut down your computer and go home. Read a book for fun, get some exercise (at least a minimum of 3 times per week for at least 30 minutes per bout of exercise). Go have dinner with friends. The work will be there tomorrow.

On that note…

 

Seven tips feels like a good number. It’s a nice odd number. No matter if you’re a brand-new grad student in your first semester or a new faculty, I hope these tips will serve you well. And is there something that I missed? Comment below and let us know what you recommend for making sure that your transition to a new position easier.

 

References:

  1. Gladstones WH, Regan MA, Lee RB. Division of attention: The single-channel hypothesis revisited. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A 41: 1–17, 1989.
  2. Junco R, Cotten SR. Perceived academic effects of instant messaging use. Computers & Education 56: 370–378, 2011.
  3. Junco R, Cotten SR. No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education 59: 505–514, 2012.
  4. Mayer RE, Moreno R. Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist 38: 43–52, 2010.
Ryan Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology at Georgetown University. As part of those duties, he is the Associate Program Director for the Master of Science in Physiology and a Team Leader for the Special Master’s Program in Physiology. He teaches the cardiovascular and neuroscience blocks in the graduate physiology courses. He received his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UT Southwestern Medical Center. His research interests are in the sympathetic control of cardiovascular function during exercise and in improving science pedagogy. When he’s not working, he is a certified scuba instructor and participates in triathlons.
Making the most of being a new instructor: Learning that collaborative learning is my silver bullet

When starting my first semester as an associate instructor in graduate school, I felt nervous and anxious, but also excited and privileged. I went to graduate school with the intention of not only performing experiments and learning about physiology and behavior, but also with the strong desire to learn how to teach and mentor students at all stages of their undergraduate careers. Many of my colleagues had very similar reactions to the first few weeks of teaching. I spoke to a few of them about these feelings recently. Here is what they had to say:

“The first week always felt a bit awkward. Students are still getting comfortable with your presence and getting to know you.”

“I felt curious about a new system, nervous about giving the students what they needed out of the class, and excited to lead a class for the first time.”

“I remember not feeling prepared and incredibly nervous! I wish I had known what I know about teaching now, but the nerves haven’t gone away either…I think I’m now able to better apply “what works” as far as classroom techniques.”

In thinking about all of these ideas, what particularly resonated with me was the notion that the nerves haven’t quite gone away, but I too have learned that there are techniques I can now implement in my classroom, helping to hide some of those feelings. I began my graduate career helping to teach an Integrative Human Physiology course, where I was able to teach teams of students in a case-based classroom. In this course, students engaged in collaborative learning (team-based learning) in every class period (something I had not witnessed myself during my education thus far). Collaborative learning is a technique in which students engage in problem solving with their peers, using the different skills and expertise of the group, as well as resources and tools that are available to them [1,2].  Students in this course were put into teams, and members of each team were responsible for their own learning and for assisting in the learning of their teammates. In this kind of classroom environment, the team’s culture and how they interacted with each other were key elements of their success. While a graduate student instructor for this course, I met with the teams regularly to facilitate a discussion, of not only the course material, but also their strategies for working collectively and how to approach their assignments as a team.

What I feel to be the most important part of teaching physiology is that we have to be able to adapt to the changing environment and have the courage to try new techniques. Students learn at their own pace, and each student learns in a slightly different way, therefore it is important to have flexibility in how we teach [1]. What I hadn’t realized until spending time using collaborative learning in my own classroom is that it can be adapted for so many disparate situations. I’ve found that it will work for a diverse range of students, and that with careful thought and planning (though sometimes on the fly), it can work well in a host of teaching situations and for a number of different types of learning styles.

 

A few examples for an introductory course:

  1. Taboo

    1. This game is similar to the actual game, “Taboo,” in which the goal is for students to get their teammates to guess the word at the top of the card. He or she can say any word to try to make the teammates guess, except for the words written below it on the card. The game can be played by a small team of about 3-5 students. It is important to emphasize that teams should discuss the cards after playing them, so they can master the connections.
    2. You can make these cards beforehand, so students can immediately start playing, or you can have the teams make their own cards, which will also help them think of the connections between the words before starting.
  2. Affinity Map

    1. This game has to do with making connections between key words. In many introductory classes, students must master lots of vocabulary, but “mastering” should mean more than just memorizing. This activity gives students the opportunity to discuss how these important terms create an understanding of a concept.
    2. This can be used for many different concepts, but here is an example for the properties of water: Each student in a group receives 3 or 4 post-it notes. Ask each student to write down one property of water. They might draw the molecular symbol, write a fact about the universal solvent, discuss how much of our body is composed of water, hydrogen bonds, etc. It doesn’t really matter what they write, and some will write similar things, but that’s okay. After they have all finished, students will go up to the board and place their post-it notes on the board where everyone can read them. Then the group, together (and out loud), will organize their statements about water, putting them into groups (affinities). They should categorize the affinities, noting what is the same and what is missing and can label the affinities. Some may feel like adding additional post-its to make more connections, and that is okay too.

 And one for the more advanced course:

  1. Case Study

    1. This can be used throughout a semester to help students synthesize many physiological concepts in a single activity with their team. It helps to stimulate discussions about many different concepts rather than a focused discussion on just one concept they may have learned.
    2. Provide a case study to each team of students (they can be all the same or different). Allow the students to work in their teams to analyze and synthesize their case. You can have them write important aspects of the case either on paper or on a large white board (if available). Once students have completed their case study, have teams share their analysis with the whole classroom, providing the opportunity for questions and discussion. You can also have teams make their own case studies for other teams in the class. When students take the time to create their own case studies, they often learn even more!

Throughout all of these activities, I always walk around to make sure students are both on task and making connections.

 

Moving Forward

As I continue in my graduate career and beyond, what is most important is that I try to be flexible enough to see the possibilities that there are in every new classroom. Each classroom that I am in is a little different than the next, so understanding that collaborative learning can help students with a range of concepts, and having the courage to adapt collaborative learning in a way that will work for my classroom has been very helpful (and will continue to be useful). It is almost as if each classroom has its own personality that might change from day to day, so knowing that I have a set of key techniques that I can fine-tune for each classroom is helpful as I continue in my teaching career and can hopefully be helpful in yours!

 

References

[1]       J. Bransford, A. Brown, R. Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 2000.

[2]       D.B. Luckie, J.J. Maleszewski, S.D. Loznak, M. Krha, Infusion of collaborative inquiry throughout a biology curriculum increases student learning: a four-year study of “Teams and Streams”., Adv. Physiol. Educ. 28 (2004) 199–209. doi:10.1152/advan.00025.2004.

 

Kristyn Sylvia received her B.S. in Biology from Stonehill College, and is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Biology at Indiana University (IU) and a NIH Common Themes in Reproductive Diversity fellow where she studies how the neuroendocrine system interacts with the reproductive and immune systems early in life in Siberian hamsters. She worked as a clinical research associate in Boston, MA, before coming to IU. She is also a graduate student instructor in Biology, where she has taught a number of courses, including Human Integrative Physiology, and she serves on the Animal Behavior Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, where she collects and analyzes data on the major and addresses potential changes to the curriculum as it grows. She also serves on the APS Teaching of Physiology Section Trainee Committee.
Course Preparation for a First Timer – Tips and Example Steps to Take

 


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This summer has been a uniquely exciting time for me as I prepare to teach my very first course, Human Physiology! What are the steps you take for preparing your courses? If it is your first time teaching, preparation seems overwhelming, and a challenge to figure out where to even begin. In this blog, I will be describing the steps I’ve taken to get ready for teaching my first course at our nearby minority-serving community college this fall. Full disclosure — I am definitely not an expert in course preparation, but I’ve included some tips and resources for what has worked for me.

Step 1: Reflection and determining my teaching philosophy

Reflecting on my time as an undergraduate student, I realize that learning how to learn did not come easy. It took me more than half way through my undergraduate years to figure out how to do it, and it was not until I was a graduate student that I mastered that skill. Thinking about my future students, I sought training opportunities to aid me in becoming a teacher who effectively facilitates student learning. I especially am interested in teaching practices that foster learning in first-generation college students who are not yet experienced with knowing how to learn and study. I want to make sure that my teaching style is inclusive of as many diverse student populations as possible. To do this, I have to educate myself on learning theories and effective teaching methods.

Early this summer, I attended the West Coast National Academies’ Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching to educate myself on teaching methods, and went home with understanding of the practices that fit my style and my philosophy. I highly recommend others to take advantage of these types of events or workshops (such as those offered by CIRTL) to familiarize yourself with various techniques. Aside from formal workshops, informal meetings with teaching mentors or experienced teachers gives valuable insight into the kinds of things to expect, things to avoid, suggestions and tips, teaching experiences, and inspirational words of wisdom. Use your network of mentors! Overall, inward reflection, formal workshops, and informal conversations with experienced mentors are ways that have helped me formulate the teaching practices that I will use for the course.

Step 2: Book and technology selection for the course

This sounds like an easy task, however, it can be a challenge if it is the first time you learn how to deal with choosing a book and the technology for your course. Luckily, one of my teaching mentors introduced me to the publisher’s local representative who met with me for several hours to discuss various book options and the technological tools that could be combined with my order. The rep helped me register my course in their online tool (Mastering A&P) and trained me to use this technology for creating homework, quizzes, interactive activities, rosters and grading. Thus far, I’ve spent countless hours exploring and learning how to use this technology before class starts. After all, I can’t expect my students to maneuver it if I can’t do it myself!

Step 3: Creating a syllabus, alignment table, and rubrics

The most important, hence time-consuming, task thus far is selecting the major topics and level of depth for the course while deciding the most important concepts, ideas, and skills for students to take away from the course. In order for students to meet expectations and become successful learners in the course, both the instructor and students should have this information clearly written out and understood at the very start of the course. The course syllabus is the first place where overall learning goals, outcomes, and expectations for the students for this course is presented. Furthermore, the syllabus should include information about grading, and any institutional policies on attendance, add/drop deadlines, and disability services.

Fortunately, the course that I am preparing has been offered multiple times previously, and thus I do not need to completely design a new course from scratch. However, I am re-designing and modifying sections of the course to include active and interactive teaching techniques. To guide this process during the semester, creating an alignment table for the course is beneficial to effectively execute learning activities and teach key concepts, ideas and skills. The components included in this table are: course learning goals, daily learning objectives, assignments, summary of activities, and assessments for each class period.

Take note that assessments should be determined first in order to prepare the content and activities for the class period accordingly (backwards design). Assessments could include an in-class activity, post-class assignments, exam and quiz questions. Rubrics of assessments should be made without ambiguity to formally assess students and to make sure the class period addresses the major points that students will be expected to learn. Preparing each class period, with flexibility for modifications based on gauging student grasp of the material, will help the semester run more smoothly and with less difficulties.

Step 4: Preparing content presentation and materials for activities

The last step I will take for course preparation is making and uploading any PowerPoint slides, handout materials, assignments, quizzes and exams, and any other material required for activities. With an alignment table already made, this portion of preparation should be relatively easy, but it will still take a significant amount of time.

Final Tips

Overall advice, plan ahead!! At minimum, it should take an entire summer to successfully prepare for a new course. With a well-planned course ahead of time, the hope is to be able to spend more energy throughout the semester to transfer and translate faculty enthusiasm for teaching into student enthusiasm for learning physiology!

Additional resource: Course Preparation Handbook by Stanford Teaching Commons

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Angelina Hernández-Carretero is an IRACDA Postdoctoral Fellow at UC San Diego and is an adjunct faculty member at San Diego City College. She earned her Ph.D. in Cellular & Integrative Physiology from Indiana University School of Medicine. Her research interests involve diabetes, obesity, and metabolism. Angelina has a passion for mentoring, increasing diversity in STEM education and workforce, and inspiring the next generation through outreach.