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Series offers tips for improving teaching

A number of MIT faculty and teaching assistants spent IAP polishing their teaching skills as part of the Better Teaching @ MIT program held for the last eight years. The program, sponsored by MIT's Teaching Resource Network, was developed to respond to recitation instructors who wanted more assistance in teaching. It has grown over the years to a multi-seminar program featuring topics such as "Building Confidence and Morale," "Teaching Students in the Laboratory" and "Teaching Resources on the Network."

The series draws people from across the Institute-faculty, graduate students, undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) and staff members-who come for one lecture or the whole series.

"Many academics don't have any training in how to teach," said participant Samuel Allen, professor of materials science and engineering. "We're left to perform based on examples of teachers we had earlier in life."

"It's the way we humans do everything. We learn through watching others," said Charles Counselman III, professor of planetary science, who attended five of the sessions. "In a big place with a lot of people teaching, one thing you don't get to do very easily is get around to see some of the best teachers-you don't even know who they are without research."

Session topics included teaching small classes, undergraduates teaching undergraduates, the verbal side of learning, visual techniques and technologies, teaching pitfalls and booby traps, and teaching in English (as the teacher's second language).

"Often I'm not very satisfied with my own teaching evaluations," said Allen. "It's important to me to try to teach well. When there's an opportunity to get good advice, I like to take it." He added that he's already put several tips to use in an IAP course he taught.

"I'm not good at handling wrong answers from students," said Monica Nevins, a graduate student in the math department. "I want to learn how to correct [the students] without embarrassing them."

"I was a TA last semester for quantum mechanics. I did an OK job, but I always think that I can improve," said Stacey Eckman, a first-year graduate student in chemistry. She had originally considered working in industry, but after her TA experience she is considering academia.

The Better Teaching @ MIT series developed in the late 1980s out of a joint effort of the engineering school and the Undergraduate Education Office. MIT had had a number of smaller teaching initiatives for years, many of which resided in different academic departments. The math department, for one, has been very active in support of teaching through a series of small workshops. Arthur P. Mattuck, professor of mathematics and a MacVicar Fellow, published a guide in 1981 called "The Torch or the Firehose: a Guide to Section Teaching" which has been subsequently updated and widely distributed inside MIT and to other universities. MIT also rewards stellar teachers with the MacVicar awards which recognize outstanding teaching, major education innovation and support of others' teaching (see story, page 1).

The Teaching Resource Network supports teaching effectiveness through a number of linked resources including an orientation workshop for new faculty and graduate teaching staff, classroom videotaping with review by a teaching consultant, individual consultations on teaching issues, and small teaching workshops. The network is sponsored by the offices of Undergraduate Academic Affairs and the Dean for Graduate Education and is supported by a 16-member faculty advisory group.

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