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  • Writer's pictureAlex Cates

Lessons From My First Year Teaching: What Worked, What Didn't, And What Was In Between


Finals are over, grades are in, and I have had a week to decompress. Now is the time to reflect on my first-year teaching, what worked and what didn't. Hopefully some of the ideas hear can inspire others. Similarly, if you have ideas for how to fix what didn't work, I would love to hear them!


Overall, teaching has been a whirlwind, but was a lot of fun as well. To provide some context, I quickly transitioned from completing my PhD in the first week of august, to starting classes in the third week of august. From there, I jumped into a 3:3 teaching load (3 courses in the fall, 3 in the spring). Of those, I had 5 unique classes, 2 of which were brand new to the college, 1 had not been taught in nearly a decade, and 2 were yearly courses. Only 1 course had materials provided. I received the advice from my advisor that I just needed to stay 1 week ahead and that certainly was the case for much of the fall (and the spring).


With my position being a 1-year VAP position, I wanted to experiment as much as I could, this included with overall course design, assignments, assessments, and anything else. Below is a short and semi-random recap of what I tried and some thoughts, almost all of them can be improved, but I wanted to capture my thoughts while they were fresh. Let's start with what worked.


What Worked

Jigsaw Activities

I love Jigsaw activities. At their core, the idea is to assign different materials to small groups of students and have them teach each other rather than just listen to me lecture. In my 100-level classes, Students watched pre-assigned videos as examples of a topic (such as 5 different groups, each watching a video about a different glial cell). In class they would then teach other students about their video and learn about others. In my 400-level data analytics class, students would read one of 3-4 different papers before class. In class, they explained the paper to the class and the entire class looked for commonalities across the papers to better understand the analysis technique of the week. Overall, it seemed to be an effective way to introduce a number of examples to the class without me droning on. I have some resources for neuroscience related jigsaw activities here.


Semester Project Brainstorming

In my 300/400-level courses, students had individual, semester-long, writing assignments. Each included lots of scaffolding but the first assignment after deciding on a topic was to create a ~1 page project proposal, print it out, and bring it to class. We then taped everyone's project proposals up around the room and had everyone walk around the room with sticky notes sharing ideas, questions, and critiques of the projects. Each student quickly received lots of feedback, were able to take inspiration from each other, and the exercise acted as a good sanity check. The exercise also helped create class solidarity, with students working together to help everyone produce the best final product.


Adding Exam Questions about Student Presentations

Student presentations are obviously important learning opportunities. Public speaking is a valuable skill and one that is often under-valued in stem education. The only way to really improve is to practice with live reps. Students need to present! However, it can be hard to get the audience to pay attention. To remedy this, I included exam questions where students were required to describe the information from a presentation. In 100-level courses, students had to describe a paper that they did not present. In a 300-level course, students wrote essays based on and citing academic papers presented by their peers in class. Both strategies helped ensure students paid some attention while their peers presented.


Correcting 1 Paragraph vs The Entire Paper

Student writing can be really rough. While providing detailed feedback is needed to help students improve, I simply did not have enough time to go through every word of every draft in the level of detail needed. Instead, I would focus in on 1-2 paragraphs and completely rewrite them. Demonstrating the style, conciseness, and clarity of good writing. The rest of the document received general comments (missing information, confusing or incorrect logic, etc.) with the directive to update the entire document to match the rewritten portion. While not perfect, enough students seemed to take valuable lessons and I did see their writing improve.


Grant Review Panel

In one of my senior seminars, students were required to write a grant in the style of the science portions of an NRSA. Since many of them planned to follow STEM careers, it is important to understand how grants work and how arbitrary some decisions can be. Therefore, I had them run a mock grant review panel, where a primary and secondary reviewer was assigned to each grant the week before, and the class had 10 minutes to present, review, and score each grant. The writer was not allowed to speak during the review of their grant and the top 2 scored grants received bonus points on the final grant grade. Students also were given a surprise extra week to update their grant after listening to the panel. The panel was awkward at times, and no one liked hearing their grant critiqued, but it was also memorable and helped drive home the lesson that not everything is in your control.


3 Minute Theses

I loved using the 3-minute thesis framework in my upper-level courses. Students chose a scientific paper related to class and had 3 minutes to present it. I think it succeeded because:

  1. There are lots of resources available on how to do a 3-minute thesis.

  2. Students were so used to giving 30-60 minute breakdowns of a paper, having to present in the opposite extreme was a real challenge.

  3. Because each presentation was only 3 minutes, I could have everyone present in a roughly single class period.


I will be using these again.


Speech in a Day

For my 100-level course, rather than a 3-minute thesis, I went with a 5-minute speech in a day activity. Students were given 3 possible topics to discuss, these were open ended such as "Neuralink and Brain Computer Interfaces" or "Updating Education based on Cognitive Neuroscience". Students then had 30 minutes to prepare a 5-minute chalk talk. Finally, they delivered their chalk talks in small groups (4-5 students per group). Again, the goal is to practice organizing information quickly and delivering a coherent story.


What didn't work


In The News Assignments

In my 100-level course, especially with non-majors, I wanted to tie class lectures back to real world applications. I thought one way to do so would be for students to breakdown news stories or neuro-products based on what they had learned in class. I put together a worksheet to help guide them and provided class time to discuss their stories in small groups. While students definitely had fun exploring different products, I couldn't get them to go deep enough to really get the benefit I was looking for. If they were breaking down coffee, they would say it increased attention, without getting to the changes happening at the synapse level (despite the synapse being the focus of the surrounding lectures). I may have had my hopes too high or needed to be more specific in my instructions but either way, this did not work.


Freeform 1-page analyses

In my senior seminar on data analytics, I had this idea that I would give students a dataset and say "tell me something interesting using X technique" without additional instructions. For example, when we covered clustering, I could give them some local field potential data and say tell me something interesting using clustering (likely identifying how many unique neurons there are). I quickly realized that the students needed more scaffolding for this to work and had to create guided problem sets. These worked ok, but I worry students did not develop the intuition of what to do with data that I was hoping the more open ended assignment would develop.


Separate Lecture and Discussion Days

A 100-level course I taught met 3 times a week (MWF). When I designed the course, I had Monday and Wednesday as lecture days and left Friday as a discussion day where we would apply the info of the lecture to an ethical (see ethical debates) or real-world situation. This was ok but wasn't ideal. When I taught the course again in the spring, I split up the discussion so that there was 2-3 discussion questions every day, spreading the lectures out. Smaller discussions every day allowed for a better pacing, though I do worry that the discussions may have lost some depth with the shorter periods.


Endless Student Presentations

In one of my senior seminars, I had set up the course to be like a journal club, reading a few papers each week with students leading the presentations. This failed. The presentations were too long and I was not ready to provide the necessary connections between the papers so that students felt lost. On top of that, because the presentations were long, there was not enough time for me to jump in and provide either a lecture or lead a discussion. and without any exams, many students simply did not read the assigned papers. As mentioned, this was partially a necessity for my first year as I scrambled to get my feet under me and I largely remedied this with the jigsaw style paper reviews in my spring senior seminar, but this original version was certainly something that didn't work.


Mixed Results


Open Door Policy

I maintained an open-door policy which allowed students to stop in and ask questions any time my door was open. I think this allowed me to form some great connections with my students and certainly helped their learning. At the same time, I think they viewed it as a crutch, with some students not starting their HW until they could find me, students would rarely come to my official office hours, and frankly the policy left me exhausted at the end of the week. I don't regret the tradeoff for my first year, but I don't think is sustainable in the long term.


Open-Ended Assignments

With it being my first year, I had a tendency to keep my assignments pretty open ended. This was for 2 reasons. First, I did not want to stifle students' creativity, as I wanted them to connect the assignment to things that interested them outside of class and simply do good work rather than just following a checklist. Second, I did not know exactly what I was looking for, let alone what would constitute an A vs a C. I needed to see the students work to get a sense of what they were able to accomplish and grade accordingly. While I stand by this decision for my first year, the reaction from the students was mixed, with some enjoying the freedom and others being frustrated at the lack of guidance. Overall, I think more defined rubrics and guidelines would be a good thing in the future, but I am not sure how I would have achieved them this first year


Embracing ChatGPT

I am all in on generative AI as a tool for thought. I think the ability to have a brainstorming and editing partner available at all times is incredible and will absolutely change how we work. Accordingly, I included a lecture on how to use AI in all of my classes and allowed the use of AI in my assignments. While I do think it helped a lot of students, I again worry that some students used it as a crutch. I often had to scold students who seemed to use it without thought, even when the output was incorrect or nonsensical. In the data analytics class, I caught students including the dummy data ChatGPT created to write the needed code, rather than the actual dataset for the assignment. I still think ChatGPT and other generative AI tools are incredibly useful and can help students learn and accomplish things that were previously impossible. At the same time, I need to do a better job teaching students the limitations and ethics around its use and be explicit about when they can and cannot use it.


Assignment Weighting

How much weight do you give to small assignments? What about scaffolding parts of a large project? You need to give some weight to ensure students do them, which helps ensure the final product is decent, but too much and you run the risk of grade inflation. Adding to this, students don't understand grade weighting and often get worked up about the wrong assignments. I think in general I was too lenient with my overall grade distribution, but I liked the combination of effort graded and quality graded assignments. I don't think I had the perfect balance, but I also don't think my setup was terrible.


Generous Late Penalties

This goes along with the previous. I generally allowed 2 things with regards to late assignments. First, any student could get an extension of 1-3 days providing they asked me at least 24 hours in advance of the due date. Second, I would also accept late assignments for partial credit, no matter how late. While this setup worked for some of my classes, others took advantage of it. Interestingly, this was less of student-by-student issue and more of a class culture issue. I stand by the idea that if you do the work, you deserve some credit and that life happens and as long as you are reasonable with your time management, you can get some extra time. The problems start when students default to asking for an extension and then still hand things in past the extended due date. I need to think more how to square these to keep the reasonableness and mental health benefits for students while also cracking down on the bad faith behavior.


Final Thoughts

Overall, I think I had a successful first year. Definitely some lessons to takeaway and some improvements to be made, but not a bad start. While I am not teaching again in the fall, I doubt this will be my last time. Finally, a special thanks to the students, faculty, and mentors who made this first year a success.

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