Prepare to teach! - part 1

If you're anything like me, you've never truly had to teach a class until graduate school.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I had some experiences tutoring or leading some study sessions for freshmen while I was in college. Buuuuuuuut as you'll soon find out, actually standing up in front of a crowd of undergrads and teaching them material is a totally different beast.

If you're a master's student, you probably have to teach to get paid enough to survive while doing your classes and research, and if you're a Ph.D student, you almost guaranteed have to teach at some point as part of your program. It's nearly inevitable, so why not do your best to be prepared? While I was nervous this year to teach as a first year graduate student, it ended up being my favorite part of the school year by far.

In this post, I'm going to walk you through a little of what to expect when teaching a lab or discussion section, as well as share some tips that I found helpful throughout my time.

Type of class #1: Lower division lab section

More often than not, one of the first classes you will teach will be a lower division, general science course. If you're in chemistry, that's likely to be gen chem, and if you're in biology, it's going to be one of the first introductory classes all bio majors need to take. For me, it was just a general biology course that ranged from macromolecules to transcription and translation. Size of the main lecture was about 150-200 students, and each of the lab sections were about 20-25 students.

The easy parts (strengths)

Because it's such a basic class, you really don't have to think too hard to excel in knowing the concepts. No matter where you're from, you've likely learned ALL of this information before, so it should be review, and you should have a good grasp on the topics to lead students.

In addition, most of the students you work with in this class setting are not well versed yet in all of the science, so most questions come from a very basic understanding level, rather than a speculative level which requires you to postulate about unknowns in the field.

The difficult parts (weaknesses)

One of the things that makes teaching this type of class easy is also the thing that makes it so difficult. Think about it. You're going for your Ph.D or Master's degree, and they're learning biology for potentially the first time. That's a HUGE gap in experience, just like the gap between you and your PI is large, they also need you to put science in terms they can understand. Learning how to communicate science at an appropriate level to whoever you're talking to is an important skill, and you'll find out quickly if you need to improve in that here.

My tips for succeeding

This is stereotypical, but the best thing you can do, flat out, is to be receptive to your students needs. If you can visibly see that a student isn't getting a topic, make sure to be receptive to what they need compared to their peers. The most difficult thing with teaching is that every student learns in different ways. What works for one student is NOT necessarily going to work for another. In that way, it's important to be able to adapt your teaching and tutoring styles in office hours.

If a struggling student drops by your office hours, try and ask them if they learn best through drawings, writing, or speaking, and approach your tutoring through that method with them.

The upside of all of this is that since you know the general biology/chemistry/etc. topics so well, you can try out different teaching styles and methods of delivering material to your students and learn what works best! You'll learn that you actually become quite invested in your students during the semester and genuinely want them to succeed.

To avoid this post going on forever, I'll make this a three-part blog series where I'll post on two other types of classes you might have to end up teaching. Until then, good luck with your introduction to teaching, and let me know if you have any questions!


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