Today’s post is a Guest Post by Dr. Melissa A Barlett, who is an Instructor in Biology at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, NY. Melissa kindly came to my rescue when I asked for a post on the Teaching Demonstration. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had only one of these in my career, and bombed it so badly I have wiped it mostly from my memory. I made the classic mistake of assuming the students had read the assigned text, based my entire lesson plan on discussion of the reading, and then had to stand there in the excruciatingly painful silence of a roomful of non-participants for most of 50 minutes. It was dreadful. Thanks, Melissa, for sharing the insights that will prevent this from happening to others. (For a bit more on the subject, be sure to also read the Addendum in the middle of this post, provided by another reader).
Take it away, Melissa!
One of the things that makes Academic Interviews so much different from many other interviews is the presentation. Depending on your discipline and the school you are applying to, this can come in a variety of forms. For example, after a year’s worth of interviews for biology positions, I could give my research seminar in my sleep. However, in some schools, and especially SLACs, they are starting to get away from the research seminar and are moving more towards the teaching demonstration where you actually teach either a lesson or an entire class.
For many people, this is a terrifying prospect. You probably haven’t spent much time in front of students. Even a typical TA, in my field at least, is not usually creating their own lecture materials on a regular basis. Of course, since a huge part of what you’ll be doing in the near future, especially if you get this job, will be teaching, this is probably something that the committee will weigh heavily. Therefore, you want to do everything you can to make a great teaching impression.
Fortunately, I have some tips to help you out.
Tip 1: Know your audience
Ask lots of questions.
Are you actually teaching a class or are you giving a demonstration mainly to faculty? If it is a class, be sure you know the student population. Are they majors? Non-majors? Freshmen? Seniors? If you are only doing a demonstration, ask specifically what level/type of student that your teaching should be geared for.
Teach to the correct level. You are not showing off how much you know in a teaching demonstration. You are trying to show how well you can explain a complex concept to someone who has never studied it. Even if you are teaching to a “class” of faculty, treat them like the students you would be teaching. This isn’t talking down, nor should it be to students, but be sure you define terms as appropriate and go over difficult concepts a few times. Repeating things 2-3 different ways is a common teaching technique.
One of the best things you can do is try to physically engage your audience. This can really depend on the type of class. For very large classes of younger students, engagement is often more difficult. I like to throw out simple yes/no questions near the beginning of my lectures. Then I can ask “How many people say yes?” and when no one raises their hands, I add on, “nodding is a completely acceptable way of responding.” Usually, if you work them in slowly, head nods will turn into hands raising. Even then, my favorite line was, “How many for A? How many for B? How many abstain from answering?” Students always raise hands for that last one, which shows that they are listening. I also once did a sorting exercise during a teaching demonstration where I had two columns and put up a word on the powerpoint. I then had the students point right or left as to where it went. They didn’t have to talk, but they mostly played along. This lets you and the evaluating faculty know the students are listening.
Tip 2: Make the material fit the course and the time
Find out not only the topic, but where this topic fits into the course outline. Better yet, find out what textbook they use and find/borrow a copy so you know what the students will be seeing.
Choose the topics that you will cover to fit into the time period. Going over time in a seminar is usually forgiven. If you are teaching a class and you go over, they might just walk out on you, which is probably not the impression you want to make. I’d even say aim for shorter rather than longer. Although, being able to show that you can time a lecture within 5-10 minutes of class time goes a long way to showing that you could do that when you are teaching as well. What this might mean is that you have to teach a smaller chunk of material than the probably broad topic you were given. Choose something that makes a good complete story. It is impossible to cover an entire actual textbook in a semester of lecturing. Showing that you can pick and choose the important topics or choose an appropriate level of detail shows you could do that in your own class.
As a biologist, I teach Human Biology to non-majors. I don’t need to cover the material that would be covered in an Anatomy and Physiology class, so I choose to focus on how structure relates to function and not on the details of each system. I want my students to see how signals travel in the nervous system, but I don’t need to stand up in front of them and describe what each neurotransmitter does in detail.
Tip 3: Use visuals effectively
The number one way to lose students is to hit them with a block of text or a non-stop lecture. There are probably two main possibilities of visuals for this demonstration: powerpoint or writing on a board. I’ll discuss both. First of all, find out as much as you can about the room and the available technology. Is there a computer set-up? A place to plug in a laptop? Chalk? Smart board or white board? The more you know, the better you can prepare.
Writing on the board
The bonus to this method is that you are showing that you are comfortable enough with the topic to not need extra visuals. However, this is not a method you should use if you have bad handwriting (or in my case, can’t draw a picture to save her life). The other problem is that you have to turn away from the class to write. Be sure not to talk to the board! You say something, turn and write the word/phrase, and then turn back around and say it again. It will feel strange to you if you’ve never done that before because for the moment that you are writing, there is silence. Most people hate silence, but when teaching, it gives the students a chance to write and process the material. You can’t rush through a lecture. In all cases, watch the students. If most of them are writing, pause. Thirty seconds of silence will seem like ten minutes, but it will show that you are aware of the students’ needs. Many times, students are told they will be tested on this material. Keep that in mind.
To avoid rushing through a powerpoint based lecture, you need to be aware of how much text you put on the slides. As a general rule, less is more. I typically use sparse bullet-pointed lists containing only the most complicated terminology. Remember: your presentation supplements your lecture, it shouldn’t be your lecture. I’m a huge fan of pictures, videos, and animations. The whole point of the computer is to explain things that are difficult to talk about or draw on the board. Make use of that. I typically browse Google Images and YouTube for materials that are different than the textbooks. I’ve been known to have ten slides in a row with just a title and 1-2 pictures. If you are any good at all with powerpoint animation functions, use them. People are always impressed with a well-done animation. Do not use a canned presentation, make your own. I was asked on multiple occasions if my presentation was premade, and I was glad to be able to answer “no.”
Some other quick notes about making a great looking powerpoint for teaching. Assume you will be in a lit room (dark rooms put students to sleep, keep the lights on), and therefore, you should use a light background and dark text. However, don’t use white, it’s too bright to look at for long periods. Use a light color and a dark color of matching text. Preferably, use a gradient on your background, but still in light colors, for example: light blue transitioning to light green. On that I would use a nearly black navy text in bold. Make sure it’s bold, and at least 24 point font (watch the font sizes on pictures). Most of the pre-made choices for backgrounds are terrible, don’t use them. Don’t use a dark background and light text, it’s hard to read in a lit room. Don’t mix red and green, just don’t.
Here’s an example of a slide from one of my presentations on how to give a presentation.
Tip 4: Practice
Unless you are an experienced improviser who feels like they can estimate times without practicing, you should always practice. Gather up your closest friends and colleagues and teach them. The best thing you can do is use a mixed audience as well. Use your spouse/friend in another field and see if they can follow and understand you. Ask them about your flow, how topics run into each other, and how the story connects together.
Then, have them ask you questions. Tell them to channel their inner annoying freshmen and ask questions like, “Will this be on the test?” When you are answering questions, don’t forget not to make up answers for students. Even during a teaching demonstration, it is fair to respond with, “You know, I’m not sure about that, but I’d be glad to discuss it with you after class.” Or, if you have an excited questioner in your class, you can try, “That’s really interesting, and I’d love to talk more with you later about it, but it’s more detail than the class needs to know, so hold that thought until after class.” You might have the faculty ask you “student” questions. I know I did at one of my interviews. Answer them the same way as you would a student, this is a teaching demonstration, demonstrate being a teacher.
So, these basic tips: know your audience, make the material fit the course and time, use visuals effectively, and practice should be able to help you on your way. The only other major tip I have for you is to have fun! You are in this field because you love it, and as a teacher, one of your jobs is to make your students love it as well. Let that come through, and everyone will notice.
I talked more than you should in your lectures, so I think that’s enough!