Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Ideas to Improve Instructor Training

Have you ever learned something new and then had it appear in other areas of your life? After a summer at SWC thinking about how to train better instructors (and how to be a better teacher myself) I get to try discussion-based teaching this quarter at UC Davis.

This summer at SWC we've spent a lot of time discussing "Building A Better Teacher" by Elizabeth Green. This book focuses on training teachers to lead students on a journey of discovery rather than teaching them a series of rules. The assumption is that teachers tend to tell their students a series of rules rather than leading students through a series of questions and class discussions which will ultimately allow students to figure out the rules as a class.

I just started in the Physics graduate program at UC Davis. Unbeknownst to me, the Physics department has an education research group which has been thinking about how to teach physics with the same philosophy that Green discusses (see this paper describing their methodology and results, summarized in the next paragraph). I (and my fellow first years) are lucky enough to teach this course and have spent the last three days training to be instructors.

Physics 7 consists of one hour a week of lecture and five hours of discussion lab. The discussion labs meet twice a week for two and a half hours and are a series of activities that allow the students to use, think through, and extend the equations and concepts that they've learned in class to better understand them. While there are quizzes in lecture, the discussion labs grades are based on participation. In class most activities are discussed in small groups. Each group has a blackboard on which they write up their answers and then the whole class discusses the conclusions of each group. I'm really excited to try this method of teaching and would like to see if we can extend it to SWC.

I haven't actually instructed yet (classes start Thursday) so I'm not ready to reform our instruction (yet) but I can discuss the training. There are three pieces that I think we could easily implement. Note: in the following paragraphs I will refer to the people teaching the instructor training course as 'teachers' and the people being trained as 'instructors'.

  1. Classes were videotaped and clips of the videos were shown and discussed with the class. Occasionally the video was paused so the teacher could point out a particular teaching method or issue we might encounter. I could see this being used from anything to viewing what it looks like to give the class an exercise, to going over the solution, to walking around the room, to answering a question, to using the Etherpad, to switching between the shell and something else. Nothing compares to seeing a method in action.
  2. The teachers lead an exercise with the instructors as the class. This allowed us both to get a sense of how the class flowed and to see how teachers handled different situations (such as calling on students, differing explanations from different groups, leading a group discussion, walking around the room, etc). We were also given plenty of time to ask questions so the teacher could further explain why he was doing what he was doing.
  3. Finally, we split a lesson into small pieces which encapsulated both small group discussion and whole class discussion. Each instructor taught a section to the rest of the class. After each section the instructor was asked how he/she thought it went and then the class and teacher gave both positive and negative feedback. The most interesting tidbit I picked up today: If you move around the class so that you are always on the opposite side of the room from whoever is speaking, they will naturally speak to you and include the whole class.

I can't wait to see all this pedagogy in action.

COMMUNITY · OPINION · TEACHING · UC DAVIS

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