Five Tips for a Successful Teaching Demonstration (Learned From Failure)

~Productivity and Self-Care in a Time of Turmoil – a Special Webinar with Karen Kelsky and TPII Productivity Coach Kellee Weinhold, March 2~


I’m delighted to introduce our second guest post on the Teaching Demo by Katherine Dugan.  See her first post on the Teaching Demo here. Katherine is now offering individual Teaching Demo assistance!  Please contact us at for more information.

Katherine Dugan is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Springfield College in Massachusetts. She earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Northwestern University in 2015 and spent two years on the job market before her current position. She studies contemporary Catholicism in the U.S. while teaching a range of religion courses.

I may never forget how terrible my first on-campus teaching demonstration was. In the weeks leading up to the demonstration, I prepped and prepped and prepped. I rehearsed the mini-lectures, over-tweaked my powerpoints. I held mock demonstration with faculty and other graduate students.

It could not have gone worse. I could not get the students to respond to me. My ideas were convoluted and instructions unclear. I remember thinking maybe fifteen minutes had passed when I was only five minutes into the 40-minute demonstration. My cheeks burned red and I had to force myself not to cry.

I did not get that job.

Here’s what I did get, though: a lot of information on what to do differently in the future. During my next cycle on the job market, I had to give teaching demonstrations on two of my on-campus interviews. Additionally, one of the job talks I gave was also supposed to be part teaching demonstration. I was offered two of those three jobs.

Here’s what I learned:

Make it simple

You will most likely have around 30 minutes for your demonstration (maybe up to 45, possibly as few as 20). Less really is more. Be ruthless with yourself (and ask others’ opinions) about how long a short (short!) lecture or discussion will take. Anticipate that you will be nervous and plan how to keep yourself slowed down. Resist the temptation to rush through as many things as possible in order to demonstrate just how good you are at this.

Also: have a back-up plan. Just because what you present is simple does not mean that your plans must be. Prepare for an activity to fall apart or for students to be unresponsive. One way I planned for this (the next time…) was to have a pile of index cards at the ready. If students didn’t want to talk, I had planned to ask them to jot ideas down on the index card and then collect a few to read aloud. Or you might rely on “think, pair, share” to get students talking to each other before the whole classroom.

Teach what you know

One of the things that blew up on my face in my first teaching demonstration was that I was trying to be the kind of professor that I imagined the committee wanting me to be, not the kind I actually am. While a teaching demonstration is the time to show that you will engage students and contribute exciting classes to the life of the department, it is also the time to choose which strengths of yours you are most able to bring their classrooms. This means two things.

First, choose a topic that you know inside and out. Sometimes this will be impossible. I had one teaching demonstration where I was assigned the topic (which I happened to know absolutely nothing about). Before I even imagined how to teach it, I set myself to a crash-course on the topic. After that, I taught what I now knew about the topic—and nothing more. Keep it simple (see #1).

Second, I am not saying that you should “just be yourself” in the teaching demonstration. Instead, you need to be honest with yourself about what you are good at in the classroom and what you are not. If you are not good at getting students to have a conversation, do not organize your teaching demonstration around a 20-minute, large-group analysis of a text. But if you are good at creating small-group activities that get students talking with each other, do that.

Be creative, but not too creative.

We are all proud of the uber-creative moments we have had in classrooms—those laboriously developed plans that work out like magic. But part of the reason that magic happened was because you knew your students. You spent time (at least weeks, maybe months) building rapport in the classroom. You do not have that at a teaching demonstration.

What you do have is 20-40 minutes to show that you can be creative AND effective in the classroom. So be creative, but not too creative. Be memorable for your thoughtfulness in planning a solid lesson, not your wackiness. I admit, this is a thin line. For one of my teaching demonstrations I hauled a couple of ice cube trays with me and asked students to brainstorm as many different uses for the blue objects as they could, but not making ice (I was making a point about changing perspectives). I suspected it would work because of the way members of the search committee had described their teaching styles. But on another campus, where the committee was much more buttoned-up, I would not have done this activity.

Practice with undergrads, not colleagues

I recommend practicing your teaching demonstration with a group of actual undergraduates, if at all possible. My colleagues did their best, but there really is no replacement for the idiosyncrasies of 20-year olds. (Of course, undergraduates are different by institution, but they are more like each other than graduate students or faculty pretending to be undergrads). I actually used the lesson plan from one of the classes I was teaching at the time to frame one of my teaching demonstrations. In another case, I tested out one of my activities on my regular students in order to see how/if it worked. Remember—the students in the demo classroom haven’t seen your regular bag of teaching tricks.

Bring syllabi—and hand them out

What you demonstrate for 30-40 minutes is part of a larger class. You’ll most likely be asked to talk about your teaching demonstration after you do it.  This is the chance to pull out the syllabus from which your teaching demonstration would have been pulled. Even if you have never taught the class, you must show how your demonstration fits into your larger teaching portfolio. Have the syllabi ready to distribute. It makes you look committed to the job and prepared to hit the ground running as a productive teaching colleague.

There is much more to say about how to use (or not use) powerpoint presentations, how to rebound after a flubbed moment, and how to talk about your teaching demonstration to the committee after the fact. These are five tips to get you started. Chime in in the comments if you have other lessons learned to share.

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Five Tips for a Successful Teaching Demonstration (Learned From Failure) — 5 Comments

  1. For me, it was incredibly helpful to ask the search committee ahead of time who would be in the audience. A teaching talk aimed at first- or second-year students will differ considerably from one for upperclassmen or graduate students. Knowing the audience ahead of time can help you predict some of the hurdles you may hit with participation. For example, underclassmen are likely uncomfortable talking in front of the group, so attempts to get them to talk or ask questions may lead to lots of awkward silences. On the other hand, if you are supposed to do a graduate-level presentation and you’re asking students to participate in an activity they view as “below them,” you’re also likely to struggle.

    No matter who is in the audience, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re being observed by the search committee even before your talk begins. For instance, my search committee noticed that before my job talk/teaching demonstration, I talked with students rather than awkwardly standing next to my laptop at the front. By having casual conversations with students before my presentation, I was better able to carry that conversational tone over into my demonstration and left my committee with a good impression of my ability to build rapport with students.

  2. Learning from you, I really dont know how to slow down myself when I do my teaching demo. I am just starting my teaching career and I end up looking for tips for my teaching Demo at the school I applied in.
    Hope you could post personal tips on how not to be shaky.
    Thank You!

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