When asked to write a section on “The most memorable teaching session [I] have participated in” by Dr Katherine Haxton (link), I was initially excited as I would get a chance to begin to carve out a little section of the online scientific education community that I can call my own. At this present time, I have just been informed that I had not been successful in my application for a teacher of chemistry position at a school in Shropshire. Feeling raw and very much deflated, I think it is time that I sit down, put pen to paper and start typing out some ideas. Writing and reflecting on past experiences should hopefully pick oneself up and allow me to “…keep moving forward…”. My reflective piece will cover one experience that I went through whilst lecturing at undergraduate degree level with a particular focus on the theme of preparation.
My first real taste of teaching to students was in the Autumn academic of 2016, where I was employed as a causal teaching fellow at Keele University. I was asked to deliver a series of lectures (8 in total) to second year undergraduate chemistry students on Multinuclear NMR Spectroscopy for a senior lecturer who was taking some time away from being at the University to focus on their health. I was thankfully given a series of lecture notes and slides by the lecturer and this help enormously when it came to plan out the timings of the lectures and the content for each session. I took the lecture notes and made slides and further notes that were mine. This was to ensure that I knew the content and also to help me refresh my mind.
The first lecture that I gave went well. I presented some of the fundamental theory of NMR spectroscopy, which was primarily taken out of my doctoral thesis. I found that some of the students were engaged with the lecture, but since NMR spectroscopy is often perceived as a difficult topic to study, I can understand why, for some students, they had reservations. I came away from the lecture rather positive and returned to the NMR spectroscopy lab to check up on an NMR experiment that I had performing.
The second lecture, I must admit, did not go according to plan and certainly was not a good experience for both students and lecturer alike. Not only did I not know what I was talking about, the students appeared visibly (and yes, orally) confused. I bumbled my way through the slides, hesitating when a question was asked (primarily to ask for clarification) and second guessing my knowledge and understanding of the content that I was presenting. The icing on the cake was that I did not even look at the clock at any point during the lecture and ran over by 15 minutes. Not my finest hour I can assure you and definitely one in which I do not ever wish to repeat.
I came away from the experience like I had just ran a marathon and did not even get past the first milestone. The reviews from the second lecture, which another student in the upper year had the pleasure of relaying the information to me without any filtering, were not at all pleasant to hear and knocked the last bit of confidence that I had out of me. Walking away from the lecture hall was difficult and to be honest, I just wanted the ground to swallow me up, never to return to the dreaded hall for a very long time. The rest of the day I remember going past in a complete haze. I was very numb from the embarrassing experience of the second lecture.
As much as I wanted to throw in the towel and not give any more lectures (I still had 6 to go), I decided to suck up my pride and review what went wrong with the lecture as the next lecture was in two days’ time. Upon reflecting, it became pretty evident that I had not prepared sufficiently enough for the lecture. I had not adequately prepared my lecture notes, my presentation was not helpful for both me and the students, i.e., it was not easy to follow, and I had not spent time solving the problems I proposed the students to answer prior to the lecture. It was relatively easy to present the fundamental theory of NMR, I had my doctoral thesis to hand. However, it was much more difficult preparing content that I had not covered since my time as an undergraduate student.
The next day I went back into the University, rather early in the morning, and decided to take as much as I needed to tear apart my lecture slides and notes, and completely redo them, finding out the answers (and worked examples) to the questions that I had written, I consulted books and primary literature to any of the content that I was not comfortable with. I ensured that my lecture presentation had clear transitions so that both I and the students knew what was coming up. I had it in my head that I was going to do all that I can to ensure that the next time I gave a lecture I was prepared.
Heading back into the lecture hall the following day was very difficult, but I decided that it was my responsibility to pass on knowledge and this was greater than my crippling anxieties. First, I started the lecture by apologising to the students for the substandard lecture in the days before. I told the students that, in all honesty, the “…car-crash of a lecture can happen to anyone who is not adequately prepared…” and to learn from my experience. I also mentioned that I had gone away from the lecture, reflected, sought advise where necessary and fully prepared my notes and now ready to start again. I gave the lecture and this time it was much better. I covered the same content as before, but this time I took my time and worked through the problems at a steady pace.
I do not know what the feedback for that lecture was and whether the students appreciated my honesty. I am not ashamed to admit it, but I do wear my heart on my sleeve and I am easily wounded. When I am ready, however, I do bounce back, reflect on the negatives (and positives) of an experience and learn from the mistakes that I make. There are some aspects of this experience whereby we as an academic community often place, perhaps, too high expectations on an individual and when they appear not to meet that, the response can be quite negative. When I was an undergraduate, I put most of the lecturing staff on a pedestal and looked up to them for they had the knowledge that I so desperately needed (and wanted) in order to pass the module. I did not even consider that there were aspects of a topic they did not fully understand themselves. I forget that that they were human beings. Being open and honest with the students that I lectured in the way that I chose to do so was a way for me to breakdown the barrier and allow them to see me as a human being and not this all-encompassing fountain of knowledge, which I can say I certainly am not.
To summarise: Plan and prepare! Prepare some more and work on the answers to the problems you wish to set and be careful with what you think you know and what you actually do know. And remember, we are only human after all.