Aaaarrrhh first year

By Marcus Wilson 21/07/2010 4


It’s no secret that I don’t like teaching first year classes.  I find third year undergraduates far easier to teach. I think the main reason for this is that with the third years I don’t have such a large gap between my knowledge of the subject and theirs. That means that I don’t need to think so much about whether I am using words they are not familiar with, or whether my explanation draws on contexts and phenomena that the class hasn’t seen before. I know others take the opposite view – third year classes are harder because the material is more advanced – but to me that’s not a problem. What is a problem is communicating, and it is easier for me to do so with students who are closer to my ways of thinking.  Plus third years tend to speak a lot more and let you know when they don’t follow something, so it is less easy to lose a whole class without knowing it.

On Monday I did a first year tutorial in which I ended up in a horrible tangle  trying to explain something that to me is really simple. To be fair on myself, I think the question that I had to explain (which came from a website) was badly put together, but I should have done rather better than I did. First year teaching takes real practice (I think it does, anyway) . I’m very envious of people like Alison Campbell who excel in teaching large groups of first years.

As part of my PGCert in Tertiary Teaching, I experimented last semester with a method of finding out whether my class (a second year one in this case) is with me or not. (See for example Turpen and Finkelstein, Physical Review Special Topics, Physics Education Research 5, 020101 (2009) ) It’s a well-used method in physics teaching, though I gave it a bit of adeptation for my class. Essentially its formative assessment – ask the class multiple choice questions at the beginning of the lecture relating to last lecture’s material and have the class discuss it in pairs – not to test them for the sake of allocating marks, but for me to know where their understanding is at.  It worked well, I think – there were questions that the class struggled with that I thought they’d have grasped easily. That has got to be good overall for the students, because it allows me to go and unpick their reasoning and correct misconceptions. In a subject like physics, where so often one concept is built on another, the teacher (me) needs to know whether the students have that foundation or not – if not, there really is no point going on.

That’s another reason why I find third years easier to teach – by the time they reach third year, they have grasped those underlying concepts (if not, they’d be failing bigtime in second year). That means less preparation on my part is required. Maybe I’m just lazy.


4 Responses to “Aaaarrrhh first year”

  • I think you’re probably better at first-year than you give yourself credit for, Marcus! The fact that you’re reflecting on what you’re doing is going to spill over into your teaching (at all levels). Lazy you’re not :-)

  • Actually, news has reached me via another tutor that the students found Monday’s tutorial really really helpful and I should expect to see students shifting out of other tutorial slots and into mine…Must have done something right

  • When I first started teaching foundation level courses I found it very challenging to “put myself in the students shoes” and remember to explain each term etc. But now I find it quite enjoyable. There is an adage along the lines of “you don’t truly understand any subject until you can teach it to someone else”. I’ve found this to be very true and in my first few years of teaching found that students could ask questions that either showed up gaps in my knowledge or in what science currently has told us. Even students doing foundation level science can ask some very perceptive and challenging questions.
    For me, the major advantage of teaching at levels higher than first year, is that by this stage students are more likely to have selected your course because they have an interest in it, where as at first year it is often because they “have to do” your course to move on into second year, or worse still are using it as a “filler” course.
    Keep trying new techniques and getting feedback on your teaching and there’s a good chance in a few years time you will find it more fulfilling.
    I agree with Alison. The fact that you are seeking feedback and thinking about your teaching already makes you a better teacher than most.

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