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Tips for Keeping Things Interesting While Teaching as a PhD

Tips for Keeping Things Interesting While Teaching as a PhD

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesJul 14, 2016

We’ve all had amazing, interesting and inspiring teachers. The impact of these fulfilling classroom experiences stay with us long after we’ve moved onto other courses, programs, and careers. Conversely, however, we’ve also had teachers who fail to inspire, an experience which can not only lead to drudgery, but can ultimately dampen enthusiasm for a particular subject. Wondering how to make sure you end up on the right side of the equation? Let’s count down a few ways to keep students engaged during your PhD teaching days.

1. Get off to a strong start.
For better or for worse, first impressions matter. The impression you make on your first day behind the lectern will continue to inform how your students feel about you throughout the entire semester. Make sure you’re prepared, thoroughly and clearly convey expectations in terms of what ideas will be presented during the class, and give students the chance to begin making a contribution on the first day.

teacher lecturer  his students in classroom

As with most things in life, a positive attitude in the classroom is contagious. Hopefully, you’re pursuing doctoral studies because of a genuine interest in the field. The more you convey this enthusiasm to students, the more likely they are to feel enthusiasm in return.

One caveat to keep in mind? While formality has largely broken down in academic settings and professors no longer sit in ivory towers, maintaining a professional demeanor remains paramount.

2. Encourage Email.
We live in an increasingly multi-modal society. While encouraging in-class exchange is important, email offers a different yet equally vital discussion forum and opportunity to participate. Email can also facilitate collaboration between students, and can even reinforce critical thinking and writing skills by requiring students to put their thoughts into cogent form.

Happy woman typing on a laptop

3. Reign It In.
We’ve already covered the fact that, as a PhD student, you’re likely enthusiastic about the topic at hand. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to giving too much information too soon. Taking time to thoroughly plan each class session while maintaining a realistic attitude about what you can cover in the given amount of time is a vital part of keeping the class moving without losing students to an excess of information.

Young teacher teaching mathematics to bored college students in classroom

Conversely, one of the quickest ways to lose students is to move too slowly and/or waste precious classroom time repeating information. Resist the temptation to address material already covered in the assigned readings. Instead, providing a salient overview can be an effective way to clarify major issues -- particularly if you invite students to play a role in identifying and sharing their own ideas and key takeaways.

4. Avoid Over-Preparation.
While being prepared is important, over-preparation can be equally problematic. Why? Because it interferes with the natural flow of the class. If you're rushing to fit in a painstaking amount of information, you’re likely missing out on opportunities to identify particular areas of student engagement. One simple way to avoid this pitfall? Don’t write out your entire lectures. Instead, identify major concepts, discussion points, questions, and examples. This more free-form approach allows room for discourse and spontaneity.

students in their classroom is raising her hand to giving answer

5. Break Things Up.
Even the world’s most interesting lecture can be overkill without a break or two. Research indicates that students tune in at the beginning and end of lectures, but tune out during the middle portion. By “chunking” your lecture into smaller, varying 20-minute-long parts, such as small group discussions, in-class writing assignments, and problem-solving exercises, you keep things active without risking losing the attention of students.

Young students talking in a classroom during break

6. Solicit Feedback.
The best way to know how you're doing? Ask. While most universities solicit feedback from students upon completion of the course, doing so at this point is too little, too late. (While you can apply this information moving forward, it is meaningless in the short-term.) Instead of waiting until the end of the term, offer a questionnaire midway through the semester aimed at determining whether students feel like they’re learning and/or if there’s anything that can be done to improve the classroom dynamic. This will allow you to take corrective action while there’s still time to achieve results.

Happy group of students with thumbs up

Ultimately, whether you’ve always dreamed of being a professor in a university setting or you’re planning to move onto a research or industry position upon completion of your degree, teaching is a complicated and multi-faceted profession. After all, what works for one student may not work for another, so reaching all of your students in the best possible way can be a challenge. By incorporating these six best practices into your teaching strategies, you can become the kind of teacher who isn’t just doing the time, but is actually making a difference.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.