By Kristen Hourigan
I recently attended an event offered by the Institute of Teaching, Learning and Academic Leadership that I felt warranted dispersion. It was based on the work of Therese Huston (Teaching What You Don’t Know) and offered relevant and meaningful tips and thought-provoking discussion. Two topics that I found particularly useful were Establishing Credibility and Workload/Time Management.
Research indicates that there are several key principles that drive instructor credibility in the classroom, and they may be different from what a new instructor may expect. Students are most concerned that instructors treat them with respect, demonstrate that they care about their learning and are willing to help them to learn and to succeed in the course. Knowing that these are the factors that matter most to students can help new instructors, or those teaching outside their content area, because there is less pressure to demonstrate expertise in the classroom. It allows space for instructors to make mistakes (as long as you are willing to correct them), use prepared notes, and learn right along side your students.
One of the ways to establish credibility is to set an appropriate tone in your classroom right from the first day of classes. In order to do this, make accountability a consistent part of the class with frequent, short assignments. For example, if you expect students to read, hold them accountable regularly with scheduled assessments (quizzes, activities, etc.). Also, give students a way to follow their progress in your course. If they are aware of how they are doing throughout the course, they will feel more secure and more supported by you as their instructor.
If you want students to engage with you and the content of the course, establish trust by asking authentic questions. Do not always ask questions that have a definite right or wrong answer, as they pose a risk to the students of being wrong, publically. Instead, ask questions that only the student knows the answer to or that have multiple correct answers (“What did you feel was the most interesting aspect of the reading?” “How would you define (some important concept) if you were creating a research study?” “Give me some examples of (the concept).”)
It is also important to recognize your own expertise. The topic of the course may be new to you, but even if you are not an expert in all of the content in your course, you ARE an expert thinker in your discipline. You know how people in your field think and how they approach topics, what sort of questions they seek answers to, what methods they employ, etc. Sometimes, it can also be an asset that you are a novice thinker in the topic area, just like your students. This leaves you well equipped to deliver content in such as way as to help students move from novice ways of thinking toward more expert ways of seeing the content. You are probably well quipped to explain concepts in language that the students are comfortable with, rather than the jargon associated with those who are fully enmeshed within the area of study. Therefore, there are ways you can use your position as newly introduced to the specifics of the topic area as an asset in developing and delivering your course.
There are several useful tips that can help instructors teaching outside their expertise to manage the amount of work necessary to develop and deliver a new course. First, prioritize content. Stick to what is really important—both in designing your course and in focusing daily preparation. Once you have incorporated all the knowledge that you feel the students ‘must’ know after completing your course, you can move toward adding in learning of those ideas they ‘should’ know. Then, if there is still time, you can teach students what they ‘could’ know. But do not attempt to include all three types of knowledge right from the start! There is a finite amount of time in any semester and focusing on the key elements of the course will limit the amount of stress and pressure you will be under as an instructor.
Also, resist the temptation to lecture all of the time. Think of and plan class sessions as small chunks of time rather than as full periods. Breaking up class sessions not only helps to maintain student engagement, but also puts less pressure upon you as the instructor and gives you a chance to breathe. There are several wonderful resources for active learning tools that are available online, in books, on websites for national groups within your discipline, through the FFLC, or through ITLAL. Also, keep in mind that there are others within your discipline or department who have already successfully taught the course you are planning and most will most likely be willing to share activity ideas or to sit down and discuss how they chose to teach their version of the course. I encourage readers of this blog to reach out to others when developing active learning experiences for your classes. Take what others have created to mold for use in your classroom. There is no need to ‘reinvent the wheel.’
The ideas in this blog are from Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston. This book is a wonderful resource that serves as an asset to anyone concerned about teaching outside of their discipline. Readers are encouraged to look more closely at this book for more tips and further development of the ideas mentioned above.