Teaching new things

As I put together my ‘Career Portfolio’ for my Postgraduate Certificate of Tertiary Teaching, I’m struck by the amount of teaching I have done in the last seven years.  By ‘amount’, I’m thinking of not just the number of lectures, tutorials, practicals and other things I do a week, but the number of different papers I have taught while I have been at the University of Waikato.

For those not familiar with the way NZ universities work, I should remark that if you are an undergraduate, you make up your degree by selecting ‘papers’ (sometimes called ‘courses’) – each paper carries a number of points – get enough points at each level (which is broadly but not exactly related to year of study) in the right subject areas then you get your degree. More or less. The rules are complicated but that’s the gist of it. 

 A quick count up tells me that in the last seven years, which  is how long I’ve been teaching at the University of Waikato, I have taught seventeen different papers. By that, I mean I have taught parts of seventeen different papers at some time during those seven years. For most of those seventeen, I haven’t taught all the paper, and for some of those seventeen, I have taught it for several years, but there are seventeen papers in all to which I have contributed teaching. They are distributed across three subject areas – physics, electronic engineering and mechanical engineering, and have been at first, second and third year undergraduate level, plus Master’s level. That sounds a lot to me – on average I have dealt with more than two ‘new’ (i.e. new to me) papers a year. And it doesn’t include extra things like final-year project supervision, directed-study work for individual students, etc. That’s pretty time-consuming, as it amounts to a lot of preparation work.

Often I’ve only taught a paper just once, to cover for someone on study leave or otherwise isn’t able to teach their normal papers in a particular semester. That’s probably the hardest thing at all – you get given, often at very short notice, someone else’s bunch of lecture notes, for an area that is not really your expertise, and have to teach students on it. That can go wrong – sometimes spectacularly – I have experienced this a couple of times in doing teaching for mechanical engineering. Earlier this year I taught half a third-year mechanical engineering paper and was nearly all the way through it before it was pointed out to me that I was using terminology incorrectly. That came from a confusion between physics-speak and engineering-speak – they are subtlely different dialects. I was speaking ‘physics’ – but the students were listening in ‘engineering’, and that was leading to confusion as some technical words are used in different ways.  Teaching well in this situation is really difficult.

Incidently, there’s been a fair bit of research looking at differences between ‘physics’ and ‘engineering’ when it comes to teaching and learning – and that’s relevant when you’re teaching students from both groups in the same class – e.g. Gire, E., Jone, B. & Price, E. (2009) .Characterizing the epistemological development of physics majors. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research 5, 010103.

Anyway, my point is that I think I’ve done pretty well in having a go at teaching on seventeen different papers. Some of them I’ve done for several years now, and am getting both more confident and more innovative with them, but there are a couple, I have to say, that I would refuse to teach again if I were asked to. Or, at least, teach very very reluctantly. I wonder if my experience here is the similar to other lecturers (particularly those who have spent less than about ten years teaching) .  I’d love to hear your comments.



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