Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Geology Lab Lessons: My first semester back as TA

With the new year comes a new semester, and more TA duties. First off, re-organizing all the mineral jars again:

The strongest force in the universe for randomly re-organizing minerals is a semester of geology students.

I've also been looking back on the previous semester to see how I could improve the lab lessons and my own teaching styles. The teaching evaluations I got back were very useful for me to see what worked and what didn't. The following are the lessons I learned from my first semester back as a lab TA.

  • Enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm. The vast majority of students in my labs were not geology or environmental science majors, so interest in the subject was not something they brought to day one of class [yes, geology is awesome, you don't have to tell me that]. It's safe to assume most of the students show up with a neutral stance (at best) of the material. I think one of the most important things I brought to class was a love of the subject. For me, it's fun to get excited about geology. Looking back as a student, the teachers and professors I most enjoyed having class with were those that were really into their subject. sure, I can dryly cram as much information into their minds as I can (I don't like this approach to learning), or I can structure the lab in a way that makes it more enjoyable, in which case they'd want to go out on their own to learn more (this was my approach, and it seemed to work very well).

  • Be a person. You are not a machine. You're more than just a repository of knowledge tasked with shoveling as much as possible into their heads. The students responded more positively to the class when I incorporated my own background and experiences into the lessons. We're studying rocks? I'll bring in my favorite one, and tell them why. Talking about topo maps? I'll tell them the story of how useful they were in the Black Hills. Talking about hydrology? I get to talk about my time as a hydrologist, protecting drinking water. Anything to make the lessons more real and relevant seemed to work.

  • Write a syllabus that protects you. I was lucky to have a good group of students, but there was one problematic student who would miss exams and blame me for not allowing them to retake it without an excuse. I was willing to accommodate for good reason, but their complaints turned to personal attacks, and at that point I stood behind my syllabus.

  • Work harder than they do and stay positive. Never, never give them the impression that you are lazy or do not care about what you are doing. Know the lessons, and don't get caught by surprise - have an intimate knowledge of your business. Respond to emails quickly. Bring in extra material to demonstrate a hard to understand topic. Put in more effort to the class than they do. I consider this a "lead by example" approach to education. 

  • Strive for a positive learning atmosphere. Be friendly and approachable. Encourage questions, even if it might sidetrack the lesson. It's entirely possible to be professional while also joking around (my specialty is puns). Learning is fun!

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