Tag Archives: professional development

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.
Diary of an Adventure Junkie: Be Daring…Step Outside Your Comfort Zone!

19257649I love adventures, don’t you?  In fact, I love them so much that I am convinced that an adventure can happen anywhere and anytime.  I am a world traveler, the silly shopper who throws items into the grocery cart the length of the aisle just to make my daughter laugh, I geocache and I jump in rain puddles…but sometimes the excitement of an unknown adventure turns into anxiety and fear.  Like most people, I have had my fair share of anxiety about the unknown…starting graduate school, moving, becoming a parent, my first faculty position.  However, stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying something new can often have fantastic results.  In fact, physiology, the foundation of my professional adventures, is actually perfectly designed to help us achieve, when we place ourselves just outside of our comfort zone.

Upon completion of my postdoctoral fellowship, I found myself embarking on a series of new adventures…motherhood, moving and monetary-insufficiency.  At this juncture, monetary-insufficiency demanded that I find a fount of funds and quickly, so I applied for a physiology teaching position at a brand-new, doors-opening-soon medical school.  With so many non-professional challenges already on my plate, many asked why I would choose to start my career at a start-up institution.  The answers are simple…the job was in my hometown, it moved me from unemployed to employed and I had the chance to build a program and my career simultaneously from the ground up.  Building two sand castles at the same time was certainly pushing me over the edge of my comfort zone.

I decided immediately that I needed to make physiology interactive.  I did not want to reinvent the wheel and instead felt I could tap into a fellow physiologist’s methods and have students answer real-time questions in class with colored-construction paper.  My hope was that this interactive way of lecturing would benefit me as a new teacher and allow me to know when my students understood the lecture material and when they didn’t.  I proposed my idea to a few of the basic scientists on faculty with me and was met with a lot of, “well, you can try that it you want to,” coupled with doubtful looks.  Maybe I shouldn’t pursue this after all…I need everyone’s approval, right?

Without full support from senior faculty, I watched my comfort zone slipping away like the receding tide.  But I am an adventure junkie, so steeled with my ever present resolve, I marched down the hall to my first lecture.  I handed out four sheets of paper, red, blue, green and purple, to each entering student, admonished them not to lose the papers and dimmed the lights.  The lecture started and up popped the first question.  “Vote with confidence!” I cried after I had read the question stem.  Hesitantly, hands were raised and an answer was given in the form of colored-construction paper.  I explained why the answer the majority had given was correct and my comfort zone came slinking back towards me.  After a few more questions, the comfort zone of the class slowly reentered the auditorium and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Our newest adventure no longer evoked feelings of anxiety and physiology became interactive in our school.  Soon, thereafter other faculty wanted to poll students during lecture, I was commended for starting the movement and the school adopted an electronic audience response system.  But now what?

Shortly after beginning my faculty position, I knew I wanted to engage K12 children in science and began participating in PhUn week.  I started small, 25 students in one classroom.  I felt comfortable with these students, managed by their teacher, while l was partially shielded by my fellow physiologists; but I knew that many more would push me to the edge of my comfort circle, where the waves of anxiety waited to lap over me.  With each year of involvement, the number of participants and my comfort with them grew, expanding my comfort zone and forcing the waves out with the tide.  I connected with a local first-grade teacher who invited me to work with her class and facilitate their discovery of the special senses and germ transmission.  Then it happened…the wave crashed over me and I was rolling, tossing and being pulled down by the riptide. The upcoming project with one first-grade class had been expanded, “Please include all of the first-grade and the kindergarten classes too,” she said, “800 students in all.”  800! I can’t manage 800 students.  Fearing I would disappoint the young scientists-in-the-making, I agreed.  My comfort zone however, was on hiatus, minus an internet, telephone or even smoke signal connection.  I started the plotting and planning, recruiting volunteers, creating a schedule for each of the classes, buying supplies and encountering sleepless nights of worry.  The day of the Human Body Fair arrived, as did I, full of inward worry and outward energy.  After two days, 800 students, 40 volunteers, 6 physiology stations and innumerable cups of coffee, my comfort zone telephoned and said, “See, I knew you could do this with just a little push.”

All of these adventures have created anxiety and fear and ultimately feelings of satisfaction.  Sometimes I feel like my comfort zone took a trip to the beach without me, but it always comes back and I am always a better person for having let it take a vacation.  Now, as I swim towards my next adventure, a life outside of traditional academia, I know that while I may submerge at times, my head will always bob back up above the water and ride the waves.

Taylor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica C Taylor is a physiologist, medical educator and adventure seeker. For the past six years she has served as a member of the physiology faculty at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Outside of the classroom she focuses on K12 outreach, presenting science to the general public and encouraging young women to pursue careers in science and healthcare. Her comfort zone is currently being washed out to sea as she leaves her current university in pursuit of other scientific arenas. Hopefully, she will be safely back in the zone soon.