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Better Teaching Series Addresses Specifics for Teachers

'If you have a good text, what's the role of the lecturer?'

CAMBRIDGE, MA--A number of MIT faculty and teaching assistants spent their January Independent Activities Period (IAP) polishing their teaching skills as part of the Better Teaching @ MIT program held for the last eight years. This 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 a wide range of 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 Samuel Allen, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and one of the participants in the series. "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," said Counselman.

With this series, the Teaching Resource Network has done the research.

Six MIT educators, chosen for their teaching skill, shared their secrets to successful teaching in a lively discussion in the series' first session, "Better Teaching: The Big Picture, MIT's Top Teachers Talk

"A number of ideas were presented--some of the professors didn't agree with each other. It was good to see how a variety of people approach teaching in such different ways," said Stacey Eckman, first year
graduate student in chemistry.

Other sessions focused on teaching small classes, undergraduates teaching undergraduates, the verbal side of learning, and visual techniques and technologies. Teaching pitfalls and booby traps, and teaching in English (as the teacher's second language) were also the focus of individual sessions.

"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." Allen says he's already put a number of the tips he's heard to use in an IAP course he's teaching.

"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."

It is the specific nature of the sessions that is most often praised. "The series covers a lot of different topics that can use special treatment--teaching a lab is very different than lecturing and teaching recitation sections," said Counselman.

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

Having taken time this IAP to concentrate on the act of teaching, Allen said, "It's made me think, 'if you have a good text, what's the role of the lecturer?' Students expect you to emphasize the important points. The role is also to make connections to related fields to help them gain context."

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 the 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 other's teaching.

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 Teaching Resource Network is sponsored by the offices of Undergraduate Academic Affairs and the Dean for Graduate Education and is supported by a 16 faculty member advisory group.

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