Learning how to teach – training sessional staff

So today I am helping out with the GATAcademy run each year by the Centre at UWindsor. GATAcademy is one of the reasons that I choose to visit Windsor during my study leave, as it is a very comprehensive training program for new sessional staff, run by a combination of academic developers and discipline academics who are sharing their experiences and knowledge with staff who are about to teach their first course, or who are thinking about doing this soon.

The first session that I helped out at today was on the use of story telling in higher education. This is such an interesting topic, and one that can be a little contentious, as some people regard it as purely entertainment and attention seeking, rather than educational. It can certainly be done that way when it is done badly – stories can be used to entertain students, to have them enjoy your lectures, but are not necessarily educational.

But story telling can also be quite useful. When you have a particularly difficult issue to explain, or something which typically does not engage students, it can be very helpful to craft an illustrative story to make the issue more real to the students, so that they are more readily able to relate it to what they already know.

I have used story telling quite a lot myself, but always in my training of sessional staff – I have never thought of helping my sessional staff use it as a teaching technique themselves. To me it fits naturally into a technique for teaching about teaching – sharing stories about positive and negative teaching experiences to help us share experiences and reflect upon why certain teaching styles have been more successful for us that others. I tend to associate story telling with the more human aspects of what I do – so teaching, obviously, or some aspects of software engineering, team management, but I have never really thought of it as a technique that I can use more broadly in my discipline. But – I think this is worth more effort; the use of analogy, and getting students to think about problem solving approaches is certainly one area that could benefit from this approach. I can imagine using stories about how we teach children to solve simple problems might be a way to articulate algorithm development…

But we could also use it to help introduce new discoveries – rather than just explaining what has been discovered, how it works, etc, we can use story telling to help provide the context and motivation that encompasses the discovery. What was someone trying to do when they made this discovery? What did they do with it? How did that change their world?

But any story, or analogy, has to be authentic – it has to fit really well into the theory or concepts that you are trying to explain so that you don’t risk distracting students with something that is not quite what you meant…

Final thought from this morning’s session: having a narrative throughout your lecture really invites people to explore problem solving skills

The next session that I helped out with was on dynamic discussions! Such a confronting topic for many news lecturers, as the idea of asking an open question and then waiting, and waiting for a response can be so intimidating. I have worked a lot with our own sessional staff, and the lack of confidence that many new staff have can be a huge problem – they respond often by over-preparing, reading every textbook that they can find, planning their lessons down to the tiniest steps, even scripting them. This can be great, but it can also lead tough stress levels which stop them from being effective teachers.

This session started by exploring the hopes and fears of new sessional staff. Unsurprisingly, the hopes and fears that they expressed were fairly similar to those expressed by our own sessional staff. Most are about classroom management, and not being able to do their job, I.e. not being able to answer questions, not knowing how to solve this problem.

The presenters shared many ideas for helping create good environments for discussions. The first is the icebreaker – often dreaded as they can be inauthentic and awkward; what they demonstrated was the use of an icebreaker that was closely related to the topic – a quick think and share discussion of a simple question. In this case, identifying their hopes and fears associated with leading a class 🙂

Most of their ideas were based around classroom management and structuring rather than specific techniques, so things like reading body language, trying to speak to the audience that you have, modelling positive feedback and conducting per-discussion exercises. I liked this, but I would have liked to have seen more on how you could use this positive framing as a basis for specific examples of techniques. (But of course, I don’t think we would have had enough time for that!)

We spent some time discussing the positive and negatives of discussions. The positives were primarily about deeper learning – the ability to learn from others, helping to construct new knowledge and make connections with existing knowledge. The negatives were primary about anxiety and stress, and the idea that a student who feels uncomfortable with a discussion will be distracted from the task at hand and not learn as well – an impact of metacognitive overload.

Another positive of discussions is the ability to trial ideas before putting them out in front of the whole class – this can be very useful as it helps you explore ideas, following new pathways without necessarily having to commit to them in a formal assessment. A negative, though, is that students may be afraid that what they are learning is not correct – this dualist view places a preference on information from the lecturer, and can cause anxiety as students push to seek approval of their learning, rather than embracing the learning opportunity.

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One thought on “Learning how to teach – training sessional staff

  1. Pingback: The Narrative Hunger: Stories That Meet a Need « Nick Falkner

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