Teaching Guide

The first time you teach, it is an ordeal by fire. For most conscientious people, it eats all their time and leaves them emotionally exhausted. But with experience, ability improves. Eventually, it can become a very satisfying facet of the profession. Useful references on teaching include Mosteller (1980) which provides some basic, but somewhat dated, teaching thoughts, and Notz and Cannon (1997) which outlines different teaching environments in the United States.

Government and industry statisticians, not just academics, often teach regularly. Moreover, the public presentation skills that you will acquire during your education are valuable for all standard statistical careers. Thus you are well-advised to volunteer to teach while a graduate student. Ideally, you should try to teach the same course several times. It is amazing how much better you get the second time around. A normal teaching load is two courses of three hours a week per semester. It can be lower in some (research) institutions, while it is sometimes higher in others. Note that you can often negotiate a lower teaching load for the first few semesters. A reduction in teaching load in the first few years is highly desirable. Mainly the extra time should be used to write articles from your dissertation or to start new research. Depending on the financial situation of the institution, you might be helped by one or several teaching assistants. Teaching assistants (TAs) usually grade homework and sometimes grade midterms and final exams. In some cases, TAs also lead a section in which they give examples, demonstrate computer software, or solve problems in class. If the number of students is judged to be too low, then no such help will be available.

Typically, you will be totally responsible for your courses. You have to choose the textbook, usually months before the course begins. The first time you teach a course it is wise to use the same textbook that was last used, especially if you have little or no experience. That way, you should be able to benefit from the previous experience of a colleague in planning the course; you might even be able to borrow notes. Of course, you are likely to modify them, but at least these will give you an idea of the pace to follow and the level at which to teach. The next time you teach the same course (preferably the next year, so as to minimize the number of courses to prepare), you could contemplate making major changes in the course to suit your own taste. The first time around, however, you should try to play it safe. For example you should try to write good lectures in lieu of other things such as homework. In most universities, you will be left alone as far as teaching goes, although there are notable exceptions to that rule. Still, many institutions have an office which sponsors teaching workshops, and counselors who can help you with your teaching duties.

The same help is usually also available to teaching assistants. It might be wise to attend such workshops while you are still a graduate student. This is especially important for foreign students who have plans to stay in the U.S. or Canada. The initial teaching encounters of non-native English speakers tend to be far more difficult than those of their English speaking counterparts. Nevertheless, potential employers regard teaching experience as strong evidence of linguistic capability and commitment, so it is important to jump in as soon as the opportunity to gain experience presents itself. As a rule, anyone having difficulties with teaching should seek help, either from colleagues or from counselors. Try not to be overly discouraged by harsh student reviews; undergraduates have little sympathy for beginners, and less tact.

Teaching might not count much in the tenure process, but the thirty-some years that you are likely to teach might seem extremely long if you know that you are a lousy teacher. Good teaching usually takes time. While each person has their own style, we mention a few approaches that will not only save you time, but also make you a better teacher.

Always prepare carefully. Preparing too much material for a lecture is not lost as long as it can be used in the next one. On the other hand, overly preparing a lecture by trying to find an answer to each possible question that you can think of is likely to be inefficient. Instead, don’t be shy to tell them that you do not know the answer to that question, that you will look it up, and give the answer the next time. Be sure to follow through in finding the answer.

Try to keep good notes of your lectures so that you can use them again in the future. Jotting down a few notes after each lecture can also be useful. For instance, you can note the questions that were asked, what seemed to be misunderstood, or remind yourself that example 4 should be replaced by a more useful one. Making notes can be invaluable in iteratively improving your courses. Aim so that 75% of the class have a solid understanding of the more advanced topics of the course The bottom 10% are unlikely to have the skills to keep up, no matter how slowly you go, and you will only bore the others if you aim too low. If you aim too high, you may inspire a few students, but you run a high risk of turning the majority off altogether.

A few other points to consider:

  • Undergraduates need lots of homework and quizzes; these are major learning tools. It is reasonable to give a quiz in every fourth lecture.
  • Seem confident and relaxed; demonstrate your enthusiasm for the subject.
  • Keep office hours faithfully; do not cancel class except in extreme circumstances.
  • Listen sympathetically and don’t voice devastatingly harsh judgments. Undergraduates can have very fragile self-esteem.
  • Cultivate a stimulating stage presence; try not to be dull.
  • Don’t take things too seriously.
  • Maintain a professional distance between yourself and the students.
  • Be clear and consistent about grades.
  • Document everything. If you suspect cheating, photocopy the evidence and talk to your chairperson or department representative about appropriate procedures.
  • Don’t forget to protect your own research time. Teaching can be quite intrusive, and you must not allow it to take too much of your attention.