First Steps to Small Group Teaching

Today teaching in front of classI ran a session for researchers entitled “First Steps to Small Group Teaching”. This is a workshop that hopes to serve as an introduction to the role of teaching assistant/demonstrator/seminar leader/stand-in lecturer. My first disclaimer is that I am not an expert in educational research and/or the politics of learning & teaching. What I do have though is 12 years experience of teaching in various guises, demonstrating, lecturing, training and facilitating – the latter have been my life for the last 10 years.

I set out to introduce some basic principles that I think are important to know. Mostly the participants in the session were either research students or early career research (only) staff who had some experience of teaching undergraduate and/or taught postgraduate students in one way or another. Some were keen to learn more about how to be a ‘better’ teacher with a view to securing an academic position.

I started out the session by gathering the experience of the folks attending and talking about the challenges that teaching presents. We also talked about what the opportunities might be from teaching, some clearly had an idea that it might be seen favourably if applying to be a member of academic staff with a mix of teaching and research – I did forewarn that the balance of teaching is heavy when more junior as more experienced academics seem to only want to offload their teaching to focus more on their research interests.

As it happens there was a relevant live chat about this topic on the Guardian Higher website . I believe there is an inherent problem in universities – academics are not generally rewarded with promotion for their success or otherwise in teaching – it is their research outputs that determine many things:- the papers, the grants won, the research students supervised etc etc that really count. Yet, there are those who continually perpetuate the idea that the more research intensive an institution, the better the quality of the teaching… something doesn’t quite add up there!

We also took a bit of a diversion into discussing Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) and how awareness of ones own preferences might give us some food for thought about the relationship between student and teacher/lecturer and/or (perhaps more importantly) the relationship to ones own supervisors. UWE students and staff can access an MBTI test called “Profiling for Success” through the UWE Careers InfoHub.

There have been a few interesting articles about Introverts which (I personally have found) are somewhat controversial in their suggestion. This about Introverts in the academy is a case in point!

The main concern, I think, of many a researcher remains how to teach without looking the fool.

Here are the main themes of the day in the slides I used:

A couple of other resources to look at:-

I suppose the main points are these:

  • We all prefer to learn in different ways
  • There are lots of “theories” or models out there that try to describe that
  • Most of them are paper thin in terms of evidence
  • Students (especially undergraduates) tend to adopt strategies to learning
  • These strategies tend to override preferred styles (driven by motivation)
  • There is nothing inherently wrong with these strategies – perhaps we (as teachers) dislike “surface” learners the most though!

I’m a scientist by training so I don’t recognise the phrase “theory” as applied to the scenarios above, I found this site that explains my reticence and challenges the assumptions made in these models.

Learning Styles Don’t Matter

We talked a while about the use of visual aids, powerpoint as a tool that can be used and misused came up more than once and prompted me to show this video clip:

We also looked at a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, partly because of the perspectives he brings about education and partly it was a chance to see an engaging presentation style that uses humour, anecdote, poetry, insight yet no powerpoint….

His earlier TED talk from 2006 is just as engaging and personally relevant to me as a parent but as he says, aren’t we all interested in education?

I then moved on to talk more about the difference between teaching and being a trainer, facilitator and coach. The main difference for me is the latter require less telling but more asking and listening to the group. We spent a lot of time talking about “crowd control”, i.e. how do you manage a group of people in a learning environment. It brought back memories I had of the NUS run program “Training the Trainer” that was part of the National Student Learning Programme (NSLP) on which I both learned how to be a trainer and subsequently contributed to as a tutor. Within that program was a session entitled “Dealing with nightmare trainees” – somes tips to deal with disruptive/disengaged folks that we all come across from time to time.

We ended up by having just one more look at a TED talk, this time by Benjamin Zander. This is one of my favourite talks because it represents why enthusiasm and passion for what you do is so important to being able to enthrall others or to get them to think, do or feel something different as a result of your input as a teacher/trainer/facilitator. That, I think, is what we should be aiming for…


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