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Teaching Demonstrations: Advice and Strategies

Posted by on Friday, March 29, 2013 in Commentary.

by Adam Wilsman, Graduate Teaching Fellow

If you’re on the academic job market, you may be hearing back from more schools each week as many start to make decisions about their open faculty positions.  If you’re among the lucky ones, you may even receive a campus invite or two.  While this is a major accomplishment in this difficult job market, this exciting development can also be a nerve-wracking one.  Your credentials and references have gotten you far in the hiring process, and the campus invite is your best (and likely last) opportunity to make your case!

Each institution organizes the campus visit differently.  Most have interview components where you meet the relevant department heads, various administrators, and other interested parties on campus.  Many require a “job talk” where you present your research.  Some even require a “teaching demonstration.”  Of these common aspects to the campus visit, the teaching demonstration can be particularly intimidating because while most graduate students and young faculty members have seen a job talk and know what a good one looks like, not all academic departments on Vanderbilt’s campus and elsewhere require a teaching demo from job candidates.  Thus, the teaching demo is more of a mystery to many of us.  So what makes a good teaching demonstration anyway?  And how can you best approach the teaching demonstration to put yourself in a position to receive a job offer?

Preparing for the Teaching Demonstration

The first thing you’re going to want to do is gauge the specifics of the teaching demonstration.  Sometimes, the job committee will tell you all about who, what, and where you will be teaching.  Other times job committees will give you minimal information, leaving you to guess things like who you’ll be teaching and what classroom resources will be available.  Knowing the specifics of the teaching context is very important for your preparation: presumably, you would not teach the same to a lecture hall of 400 than you would to a seminar of 10.  Thus, it’s important to ask questions early on to find out how to best prepare.

Here are some potential questions to ask your contact(s) on the job committee:

  • Who will be in the audience? Only faculty?  Only students?  Both?
  • What is your audience’s level of expertise? Are you dealing with graduate students?  Majors?  Non-majors?
    • TIP: Remember, this isn’t a job talk where you’re trying to demonstrate your expertise on a given topic or extrapolate on your innovative research. The teaching demo is an opportunity to show the job committee that you can communicate with novices and engage them in your discipline.  That said, faculty members in the room may ask questions during your lesson and those questions may be more advanced than what you hear from the average undergraduate.
  • Are you being assigned a topic or are you free to teach what you like? In either case, how does what you’re teaching fit into the broader course?  For this, you may want to ask to see a course syllabus.
  • Have students been assigned reading or given an assignment for that particular class day?
    • TIP: If readings have been assigned for the course, do not assume that all students have read them. You can certainly touch on those readings and ask questions about them, but if you base your entire lesson plan on discussion of the readings, you could run into problems trying to coax participation out of students who haven’t done the reading and aren’t particularly invested in making you look good. One possible alternative is to give students a short piece of writing, a poem, a photograph, or demonstration to discuss in class.
  • What resources are available in the classroom? A blackboard? A whiteboard?  A computer and projection screen?  Does the classroom have wireless internet?

 

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can start lesson planning.  When you begin, you should keep in mind that all the things that you’ve previously learned about good teaching still apply.

Some general teaching tips to keep in mind:

  • Be straightforward about your learning goals.  At the beginning of class, identify some of the key themes of the day’s lesson, perhaps writing them on the board or including them on a presentation slide.  Return to those themes throughout the lesson, and at the end of class, review those themes.   Consider including a brief end-of-class assessment to gauge the degree to which students understood those learning goals.
    • Why this matters: This isn’t just good teaching technique.  It also demonstrates to the job committee that you are organized and thoughtful as a teacher.
  • Use a variety of teaching methods.  If you lecture the entire class, you may put your students to sleep, which is never desirable.  Get students involved.  Ask students questions and be patient when attempting to evoke class participation.  This can be difficult when we’re nervous, but after asking a question, silently count to five before jumping in and answering it yourself.  Some students simply need a moment to gather their thoughts.
    • Why this matters: Job committees often want to see versatile teachers who can engage their students.  If you notice your students’ eyes are glazing over, there’s a good chance the job committee will notice too.  Furthermore, sometimes job committees ask students to fill out evaluation forms, so the job committee members aren’t the only people in the room that you need to impress.  Work hard to engage your students and underscore your dynamism as a teacher to faculty members and students alike!
  • Allow time for student questions and/or discussion during the teaching demonstration.
  • Be mindful of your body language.  Make eye contact with students.  Be wary of any physical or oral tics that you might have when speaking in front of an audience.

While these general teaching tips certainly apply, there are also elements to the average teaching demonstration that might be quite distinct from your other teaching experiences.

Here are some common problems and how you might deal with them:

You have no rapport with the students and limited knowledge of their interests and backgrounds. Perhaps you will have a brief exchange with a student or students prior to the lesson, but in the vast majority of cases, you will not know anyone in the room except for a few faculty members and administrators.  This rapport can be critical when trying to elicit class participation, so how do you deal with this issue?

  • Consider using name tags so that you can call on students by name.  This can help facilitate a cooperative environment.
  • To mitigate the problem of not knowing what your students know about your teaching topic, consider including a brief assessment at the start of the lesson to gauge student knowledge.

There is no “next time!” We’ve all seen it a million times: the absent-minded professor tries to fit too much material in too little time, scrambling to finish during the last moments of class.  “We’ll finish up next time!” the professor often says.  There is no next time for you, so plan accordingly.

  • Have a backup plan!  Your computer isn’t working with the classroom technology?  Be prepared to take the lesson to that old black board!  Your audience isn’t participating?  Be prepared with an alternative activity or a different set of discussion questions!
  • If you’re teaching a 60-minute class, be prepared to go 70 minutes.  You almost certainly won’t need that extra ten minutes of material, and don’t make note of it to the class if you don’t get to everything, but sometimes things go more quickly than we expect.  You don’t want to be caught at the front of the room with nothing left to say and ten minutes left on the clock.

You have sixty minutes and a repertoire of teaching techniques.  How do you narrow down your choices for a lesson plan?! It can be hard to decide how to approach your lesson plan.

  • Refer to your job letter!  If the job committee operates like most search committees, you likely wrote and sent off your job letter months before your campus visit.  Now is the time to pull out that letter once again.  What did you tell the job committee about your teaching?  Your teaching demo is your chance to show them what you could only describe in your job letter.  If you described yourself as a strong discussion leader in your job letter, make sure that you dedicate much of your lesson plan to discussion.  The contents of your job letter were impressive enough for the school to invite you to campus, so follow-through the best that you can.  You do not want to leave campus and have the head of the job committee say, “She said she was a great discussion leader, but why didn’t I see it?!”

Finally, practice, practice, practice.  Practice in front of your colleagues.  Practice in front of your friends.  Practice in front of your dog.  By the time you arrive on campus, you should have a good sense of the flow of the lesson as well as how long it takes.  It can be particularly valuable to practice in front of people who can mimic your audiences’ level of expertise.  If you’re teaching to a group of freshmen, practice your lesson in front of a group of relative novices.

In the end, preparation is key for teaching in general, but teaching demos in particular.  If you prepare well, mindful of this advice, you’ll be putting yourself in an excellent position for a job offer.

 

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