Teaching Tips and Tricks

Teaching, for me, is a true highlight of being a professor.  Here are a few tricks and tips I have learned so that I can be efficient at teaching.  This allows me to spend time on the aspects of teaching I most enjoy (e.g., getting to know the students, helping students learn complex material, and making time for students during and outside of class).

  1. Teaching a new class for the first time is a lot of work.  My goal is to have a course I am happy with after 3 attempts (i.e., apply continuous improvement to your classes).  Therefore, the first time, I use a book or someone else’s prepared materials, maybe adding a couple of my own things to the class.  I keep lots of notes and try to make changes and notes immediately after class.  This then allows me to make changes the second time I teach it, and the third.  I believe success is iterative, this is true for teaching.
  2. Use dropbox or another cloud storage service.  Trust me, the time you will save is worth the price of premium service.
  3. Make course notes without specific dates.  This allows easy reuse from semester to semester.  To ensure students are aware of deadlines and a course road map, I create a separate announcement PPT file.  This PPT file is saved in dropbox and the shared link to the file is provided in the course LMS (learning management system). This allows me to update the announcement slides on the fly, providing access to students with the most updated announcements without the hassle of continued re–uploading files.  Also, because my course content slides do not have dates, the files are easy to use from year to year.
  4. I re-write exams each semester to avoid students having copies of old exams.  While this might seem like extra work, I always post old exams (without the answers) for all students to have and use as a study tool.  Also, multiple choice exam questions make great clicker questions.  The first time I teach a class, I only have a few clicker questions in my lectures, but after one semester, I use the exam questions as clicker questions.  Do this a couple of semesters, and your lectures become very interactive without much additional effort.
  5. A good time to write an exam question is after office hours when you are most aware of the concepts and you’ve explained it many times.
  6. If you can, schedule office hours right after class.  This allows students easy access to ask questions.
  7. Looking for an example problem to add to your course notes, google the topic + PPT.  It’s amazing the resources available online.  Of course, remember to provide attribution to the original source.
  8. Active learning does not need to be a huge time sink for the professor.  Take a problem at the back of the book (or from another text book), either post it online, put it on the course slides or make handouts, then in class break students into groups to work on the problem.  Walk around and help each group.  If you find that lots of groups are having similar issues, go over the concept on the board.  I found this takes less prep, and students better understand the concepts than me doing an example for them.  Students are able to stumble and get direct feedback.  This works both for a problem you have described first through lecture, but also as a way to teach concepts that haven’t been taught directly first.  To ensure participation, I have around 5% of the course be “activity” points, which are typically a wide range of activities graded on a binary scale (did, did not do).  Because there are lots of activities and the overall weight to the final grade is small, these rarely make a difference in final grades, but students are much more participatory in such activities.
  9. I try to add something that scares me or that I am not super comfortable with each semester.  I may not fully understand it, I may make mistakes, but these allow for many teachable moments.  And because I am seeing this for the first time, I may be better at explaining it, because it isn’t old hat to me.  Adam Grant posted “People are informed when they learn from you, but empowered when they learn with you.”
  10. Educational journals have great activities, try to incorporate a couple into your classes.  Examples in my field include INFORMS Transactions on Education and CICHME’s Facility Design Case Competitions.
  11. The why matters as much as the what in my classes.  A goal is to have my students leave my class with better understanding, intuitions, why something is important, how concepts are related (e.g., the big picture concepts).  They may forget the specific algorithm or math model (e.g., the what), but if they have a good foundation for the why, they will know when to apply these concepts and can google for the details.