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©2018 by Merle van den Akker

Teaching to Learn


I have mentioned before that I would be teaching two courses this term. It would be my first (real) teaching experience and I was massively looking forward to it. Now, I'm tired. And it is time to share with you my experiences to show you how you go from excited to tired, in under 10 weeks of teaching. I taught two different courses: 7 weeks of marketing, and 9 weeks of statistics in R. On top that I will spend approximately 55 hours grading marketing assignments. I will split my experiences in these three categories. Teaching Marketing Seminars When teaching first year undergraduates you have to be prepared for the following: they know nothing, or at least pretend to know nothing and expect to be spoonfed. Your first job is to kick that idea out of their head real quick. Your second job is to make sure they actually do the work they were supposed to do before the seminar. I have threatened to kick people out for not preparing and wasting my time. As a result, close to 2/3 of my students were always prepared. I have been told that number is a great success. Another thing to watch out for: you are likely to lose your voice. Because you will have to raise it continuously to either get or maintain their attention. All my seminar groups were 30+ people. They can go 0 to 100 in 0.6 seconds exactly. You will have to display some type of authority to keep that under control. I don't find raising your voice unprofessional, it scared the life out of some of my students, and as such it worked. Standing there waiting for your students to go quiet by their own motivation is not just unlikely to happen, it looks weak as well, especially if it doesn't work. It wastes too much time. And you need that time to actually teach.... Now these experiences don't sound too great. Especially as in the seminar I taught I still got tons of questions about the assignment, which I had mentioned in each seminar and was explained in each lecture. But in each seminar group, there is always at least one. They are prepared, they raise good arguments, they answer questions without having first endured the awkward silence of waiting to see who goes first. They are willing to learn. And they make it worth it.


Assisting Statistics in R This experience is difficult to just qualify as teaching, because technically speaking I suppose it would be more a TA function. This course was online-lecture-based and the seminars, or rather workshops, were led by the course coordinator and several of his PhD students. A total of six people were always present to help out the Master students with their issues in R. They were allowed to work in groups, but if you were helping someone or explaining something, it would almost always be done on a (close to) individual basis. As such it is a very different experience. It didn't matter that these were postgrads rather than first year undergrads, some of them still didn't do the work. And yes, that can get really frustrating. I have hit a student over the head with my paper notes (don't worry they laughed) for telling me they hadn't watched a single online lecture by week 7. After a while, you stop helping these students. If they don't want to do the course your way, they can figure it out by themselves. Now that might have sounded a bit harsh, but these cases were a very small minority. Most of the "kids" were really eager and put in a lot of time and effort (I use the word kids ironically as they were all about my age, but I never tell them that). Most of them wanted some rather basic help as things weren't working as they should be, there were some minor coding flaws, or the statistical interpretation was not as clear as it could have been. But mostly, they wanted reassurance. They wanted to know that if they had come up with a different solution to a problem than the one on the answer sheet, that it would still be ok. Or that if they were not too sure about how to interpet some questions, they wouldn't immediately fail the whole assignment. Doing an MSc is massively stressful, especially if you're thrown into coding classes, and you have no actual background in coding. That stuff is hard. And coding in itself requires large quantities of time to master. Time is something you do not have in an MSc. I know this, I have experienced this.... I think teaching, or at least assisting in this course really taught me how people learn R, and how I myself can become better at R. I honestly learned quite a low from tagging along with the workshops and online lectures myself. So honestly, I was quite pleased. And I must say, I did love "my kids." All of us PhDs had a couple of "regulars," students that if they raised their hands would always be helped by the same PhD student, so we actually got to know them a bit. It was nice.


Grading Marketing Assignments Something that definitely wasn't nice was marking. It's just mindnumbing. My grading process has been the following: grade 5 assignments, and think they were awful. I was genuinely dissapointed with the low level of quality. Especially as some students just did not read the assignment criteria and did not manage to do whole sections of work. Do not be surprised if I fail you if you have not even written 40% of the required content.... Lucky for these students, we had to get feedback on our grading from the module leader, who pretty much told me that I grade way too harshly (oopsie) and had to adjust my grades. So I did, naturally.


Now I have to grade 70 scripts. Instead of murdering your brain trying to do as many per day as possible, you can make it A LOT better by just setting a quota you want to reach per day. And I do mean a realistic target. I set myself a target of 10 per day. Grading one 2000 word paper, reading it, giving proper feedback and setting an appropriate mark costs me about half an hour. So grading 10 papers per day eats up 5 hours. That is not a full working day, but the 3 other hours are spend on my PhD and own research (or e-mails....), to make sure I do not fall behind. I also do not think spending 8 hours doing nothing but grading assignments is a good idea. After the initial 5 assignments, which left me almost crying with desperation, the essays got a lot better. I have read papers where I genuinely thought: Damn, that is really good! And I have given them a first (70% or higher) as a result. So not all hope was lost.


As this article goes up, I have graded about 40 assignments. I have passed the 50% target, so I feel confident about uploading my feelings about marking. I do not think it is great, I do not think it is the most awful thing I have ever done, but I do think it should be done with care and attention. Giving the students proper feedback helps them develop the skills needed for proper (academic) writing. And we are here to help them develop after all. Support A really important part of the teaching experience, given that your are not the course coordinator, is the type of support you get from the actual course coordinator. Do they send materials in time, are these materials clear, is it clear what you are supposed to be teaching and what is expected of you. I personally had no complaints regarding this. Another important type of support is the support you get from your supervisors and your department, if you have them. My supervisors were happy for me to teach, but kept mentioning that it would shift my focus away from my research. I initially thought I'd manage it easily. I did not. Teaching takes up much more of your time than you initially expect it to. This is the general opinion of everyone in my cohort who has taught this term. So it's not just me. Departmental support is important too. It wasn't relevant for me this term, but if you do have complaints about your coordinator, the department is where you need to go to. It can be that you don't feel supported, this is something you will have to indicate. Teaching should not take up too much time, and you should be fairly compensated. These are all departmental issues. So keep the link to your department strong as well. You should remain on good standing with your department anyway. They are the ones who decide what and how you can teach. I was looking forward to teaching Neuroeconomics next term, however, my department wouldn't approve the addional 140 hours of teaching. Which is fair. You need to stick within their guidelines as well. So do familiarise yourself with those! Conclusion on Teaching Overall, I would say I loved the experience, and will definitely do it again. Things I have learned are that I prefer teaching master students compared to undergraduates, and I prefer teaching material that is within my own field of study/interest. So far, nothing new. I have also learned that teaching takes up way more time than expected. And I was only a tutor and/or TA! Can't imagine what this will look like at the coordinator level.... Another thing is the marking. Not a massive fan. Could be because marketing isn't my subject, and grading assignments from my own field might be a lot more entertaining. I'll let you know how that one goes.

When it comes to teaching, 10/10 would recommend!