How To Give a Teaching Demonstration (A Guest Post)

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!

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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.

Powerpoint

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!

Good luck!

 


Comments

How To Give a Teaching Demonstration (A Guest Post) — 16 Comments

  1. Another helpful suggestion– especially if your teaching demonstration to a group of students at an SLAC. Come to the demo with a stack of index cards and black sharpie, pass the cards out to the students and ask them to write their first names with the sharpie marker to be displayed on their desks, facing you. This allows you to call on students by their names (which is so much easier and less crass than simply “yes” or “you” and you can refer to their comments, “as Janet was saying earlier….” or “this goes back to Andrew’s question”), it creates an instant atmosphere of congeniality, and it demonstrates to the observing faculty that you care about making a connection with their students.

  2. This is great. But how do you handle not a class, but a “meeting/interview” with SLAC students during a campus visit? How do you charm a bunch of students when you’re not teaching them, and when they don’t have their own research to talk about (since they’re not graduate students)?

      • Ask them questions! Undergrads almost never get asked how the department’s offerings are working out for them, so it’s a great opportunity for them to reflect and for you to learn a bit more about the place. Ask them where they are in the program, what courses they have taken, what courses they wish they could take, have they had any interesting outside speakers, do they have a study-abroad component, do they make use of other resources in the area outside the university, do they find the department’s offerings to complement other courses they’ve taken outside the department, etc. etc. It doesn’t have to be an interrogation, but if you listen closely, you might learn something more about the feel of the place, which can help you in envisioning and communicating how you might fit in there during the interview.

    • Responses to your question from the FB page:

      Martina Miles: When I was a student at a small, private, liberal arts college, I went to many lunches and meetings and “informal chats” with prospective professors, in my field and others, and the faculty took our recommendations seriously, so I understand that this much be a very fraught meeting for the job candidate. But the professors I always liked best were the ones who asked more questions instead of just rambling on about their plans and who made genuinely interested inquiries into what kind of campus we had, what kind of faculty-student interactions we enjoyed, and what kind of niche that new professor could fill that perhaps the faculty wouldn’t know about. If they had this kind of attention to the campus environment as a whole, I knew they would not only be interesting to take classes from, but also a vibrant member of our close-knit community.
      15 minutes ago · Like

      Meghan Roberts: The key is to never talk down to them, bore them, or act disinterested. Like Martina said, you want to ask them questions about the college community, because they probably love to talk about it. If they’re seniors working on honors theses/independent studies, you can ask them about their work. They’ll want to talk about what classes you’ll offer, so be sure to have copies of your teaching materials — namely a list of courses that you’d teach and sample syllabi — because they probably won’t have access to your file. But above all, be fun and relate-able. Coming across as arrogant and out of touch is especially problematic in this situation.
      8 minutes ago · Like

  3. Insightful post. Here’s a follow-up question.

    How do you approach a teaching demonstration that is geared toward students; however, because students are on break, you will be presenting it to faculty. Typically I would ask students basic questions and play off their responses. Do you do the same for an audience of faculty, or should you approach it as more of a straight lecture.

    There is a balancing act here: you don’t want to insult the faculty members’ intelligence, but you still want to show that you can engage students.

    • great questions; difficult to answer. I’d do it more as a straight lecture, with some lively questions thrown in as punctuation, but not the main text so to speak.

  4. How would you approach a teaching demonstration in which you are given the subject, have 15 minutes to prep, and then present a 15 minute lesson to the committee? They want to see if I can “think on my feet.”

    • run the other way. ha. that’s insane. but basically, don’t panic. Try and “spin” the subject to reflect your long-standing areas of expertise. Never try to fake what you don’t know.

  5. This happened to me this year, only I wasn’t given 15 minutes to look it over, and it was a major musical work I had never seen before that I was supposed to “teach” to someone pretending to be a first year undergrad. I turned this job down. I felt that giving me such an unreasonable test in the interview – which I think I actually did fairly well with – did not bode well for the tenure process.

  6. This post is very helpful. I am at the moment preparing for a teaching demo. Although I’ve had more than 500 students in my budding career, and spoken in front of senior colleagues, being aware that someone is actually testing your teaching skills can be nerve racking.

  7. Pingback: Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture | Small Pond Science

  8. I am currently teaching at a local two year college where I teach communication classes such as public speaking, intro to com, etc. I am full-time and love what I do. But, as silly as it sounds, I have an issue with writing on the chalkboard. I teach from PowerPoint as well as facilitating classroom activities. But, I have terrible handwriting and feel this hurts my credibility with students to write on the board. The result is I do not write on the chalkboard unless it is to post updated information for important dates, etc. I find however, that not using the board hinders me. Do you have any suggestions for other visuals other than PowerPoint to use in place of writing on the board?

    Warm Regards,
    Lisa

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