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Stories, advice and support for your academic journey.

If you are reading this, it is assumed that you are about to embark on an exciting new journey in teaching at university level. Congratulations! You are about to enter a highly rewarding area of academia where each day is different and full of opportunity to inspire those around you. This blogpost goes through five key considerations to help you prepare for success before entering the classroom.

Here are five tips to help you excel in your first university teaching role, applicable to both lectures and seminars.

1. Identify your areas for improvement

Begin by self-reflecting on your current skillset and how they relate to good teaching practice. Break this down into hard skills and soft skills. Focus on the key fundamentals of teaching and take notes on your strengths and areas for improvement. Here are some examples below to consider:

Soft skills

– Public speaking skills
– Interpersonal skills
– Organisational skills
– Time management skills
– Resilience

Hard skills

– Technical knowledge
– PowerPoint skills
– Statistical software knowledge

I quickly realised my ability to create PowerPoint slides and awareness of engaging classroom tasks were not at the level I wanted it to be. My energy therefore went into improving these by using several methods, including research, short online courses, and learning by doing (i.e. a lot of trial and error!). To increase my technical knowledge, I went back to textbooks and journal articles and took plenty of notes.

Take another look at the skills above and reflect on where you can improve, then create a plan to work on the areas for improvement.

2. Remember you will know more about the topic than the students

When you first move into teaching, a common fear is being exposed by students for a perceived lack of knowledge on the module topic. Indeed, you may have been handed modules where your background is limited, but try not to let this hamper you. Remember that your preparation for the lectures will build a level of understanding which will exceed the audience you are delivering to.

The next concern could be questions from the students. Sometimes you will have an answer for the questions, and sometimes you won’t. This is fine! You have been around academics for long enough to know that “it depends” is a common response when querying a topic area. There is not always a clear answer for the questions you will be asked in class, so don’t worry.

Even if you feel you are totally blank when asked a question, it is OK for you to say you will go away to research the topic before coming back with a more educated response. It’s better to be honest than to try and blag your way through your answers. Students are likely to see through this, which could make you lose credibility.

3. Impose your own teaching style to the class

When teaching as a PhD student, it is likely that you will be given pre-prepared slides for the lectures. Whilst this can be a blessing that saves you time and effort, I would recommend stamping your own mark into your teaching. Reading off slides prepared by another academic can result in a less engaging lecture where you are second guessing the content that’s been handed to you.

Speak to the relevant staff members and ask if you can edit the slides (or even create your own). In my first teaching role as a PhD student, I created all the module material from scratch again. It took a while, but significantly developed my ability to create engaging slides and classroom tasks. It also gave me more to talk about on my CV and at future academic interviews.

You will learn so much more (with trial and error and self-reflection) by creating module content yourself. Making changes shows you have initiative, and you can evidence the impact of your own teaching style at those future interviews by talking about your excellent student feedback!

4. Get to know your class

Students will want a lecturer who is engaging, as well as someone who shows that they care. This is primarily a care for their academic needs, but a further understanding of a student’s wider interests and future aspirations can give you an advantage when teaching.

Whilst teaching Sport and Exercise Science during my PhD, I would ask simple non-invasive questions to break the ice with students, such as:

– Which football team do you support?
– Which modules are you looking forward to this semester?
– Have you thought about what you would like to do after your course?

This knowledge informed my teaching content, and allowed for a more interactive class who were confident to speak up (because rapport was built, and the topics became more relatable to the group). I would use practical examples in my lectures which related to a football team supported by several students in the class, or I would clearly link the module content to career options cited by the students. If I didn’t acquire this simple information, it would have been harder for me to engage the class, and the class material could have been stale.

You don’t have to try too hard to build these student connections. Enter the classroom five minutes beforehand to start a conversation and hang around the room for a further five minutes if anyone has any questions. Students will remember this for much longer than anything you ever covered in the module.

5. Offer something extra

To stand out in teaching, try to become remembered by your students for something useful you provided outside of class periods. This will look great in your student feedback data, which you can use to gain further teaching experience, as well as stand out when applying for academic posts after your PhD. You may even get nominated for teaching awards!

Here are a few things I did outside of class to engage students in my first teaching role:

– Advertise office hours for students to book short appointments.
– Create a bank of additional resources which were frequently posted on shared learning platforms. This could include a template CV, or a short blog on a topic of interest to the students.
– Host additional group sessions to discuss areas of interest (e.g. Careers in Sport Q&A).

What you choose to do depends on student needs, class size, and resources available. Try not to over-promise with something you subsequently do not have the time to complete. Also consider the healthy balance of teaching duties and focusing on your PhD (and a little thing called your free time!).

Play around with different ideas and see what is most effective. It’s OK if your initial idea doesn’t go down as well as you hoped. It’s all part of the learning process!

Final Thoughts

To understand the impact that we can make in our teaching roles, I suggest you search for ‘Mr Pigden and Ian Wright’ on YouTube. You will see how going the extra mile as an educator can have a lasting impact on the people in your class.

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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