Thus far, I have led two lectures as part of my co-teaching independent study while Kevin (advisor and co-instructor) was out of town. I taught a lab and gave a lecture last year and have proctored exams before, so teaching was not a completely new exercise for me. On the other hand, I am also not yet confident in my skills as an instructor. As an overall assessment of the classes I taught, I think they were fine: not great, but not bad, and the second day seemed to go better than the first. The lectures were on energy, which is not my area of expertise and also not a topic I get particularly fired up about. For this reason, the classes provided an opportunity to practice teaching material outside of my strengths and specific interests (I guess I will not get to present on my dissertation topic forever).
Kevin warned me before the semester started that the students freak out about math or an overly quantitative presentation of concepts. Despite this advice, I think I used too much math on the first day. Math comes fairly easily to me, so I do not always realize that working through simple equations can throw people off. About halfway through one of the problems I was writing on the board, I remember wondering if I should even continue with the calculations, because they were not really that relevant to the central concepts I wanted to emphasize. I did finish solving the problems, but this experience caused me to reflect on the delivery of information to students. If there are only a couple of key concepts that I want them to remember, should I just go over those repeatedly with different examples for the entire period? Background information can help students understand where these concepts come from, how they were developed, and why they matter, but how much extra stuff do they actually need to be able to apply this knowledge? And will they get overwhelmed by all of the other details? For example, I am currently preparing a lecture on flood frequency analysis, and I am wondering if the students can get the gist of what is going on without getting bogged down in statistical distributions. Alternatively, interesting or fun stories or videos make the class less boring and provide additional context for the concepts I teach, but is this time better served presenting another practice problem instead?
In my contemporary pedagogy class, the professor assured us that our students would almost never ask us questions that we could not answer. Her intent with this statement was to give us confidence, as in “you have come a long way and know a lot more than you think you do.” I doubted this was true for me at the time, and this suspicion was confirmed during the first class. One student asked me why the latent heat of vaporization is so big compared to sensible heat. Latent and sensible heats are a central part of the unit on energy, so this question was extremely reasonable. However, on the spot, I could not think of an answer and said that I was not sure. I know that I did the right thing—it is generally bad to lie to students or pretend to know something that you do not. But I feel that, especially as a T.A. and young-ish person, I am more likely to lose some authority when I make a mistake or do not know an answer more so than a professor like Kevin would. I looked up the student’s question later that day and had an embarrassing “duh” moment, as I remembered that the latent heat of vaporization is enormous because of the energy needed to break up the hydrogen bonds (I think we even went over this exact fact the first week or two of class). I think I handled the situation, if you want to call it that, pretty well: the second day, I did a short review of important points from the preceding lecture by asking the class questions in a conversational manner, during which I brought up the question I could not answer. I explained why latent heat is bigger than sensible heat and thanked the student for a good question. He seemed happy that I had remembered and followed up on his inquiry. I am jealous of Kevin, who has been able to successfully respond to all such questions I have witnessed from students, but I guess it takes time to get to that point.