Nov. 6 2010 – TAing CONS 451 again (year 2)!

This is the second year I have been a teaching assistant / instructor for the 400 level aquatic conservation field course here at Malcom Knapp Research Forest.  The first thing I noticed this year, is that I have been notably less nervous about my teaching role.  This year I felt more confident about the teaching goals and material.  I had better prepared myself by hunting down some articles from the scientific literature, taking out a giant reference book from the library, and organizing my notes and presentations better.  With the insight from teaching last year, I also felt far more relaxed about my teaching role and felt more able to re-structure, build upon and improve the teaching methods.  For example, using notes that I had made at the end of last years course, I decided this year to make a clearer outline of the learning objectives for my station and also an organized ‘plan’ to structure the order in which I would guide students through the learning outcomes.  I felt satisfied that the quality of instruction I was able to give was far greater and that I was able to get the students more engaged in the dialogue of what they were learning about.  I asked more leading questions, and had a greater “master plan” in my head of how the information all fit together, and therefore a more logical way to present it (hopefully they felt the same).

I also was happy about the effort I put into changed the long lecture I give on the Tuesday night (general amphibian biology/ecology/conservation).  I inserted more interesting videos into the powerpoint, found places to insert humor, re-structured the ‘idea-flow’ and best of all, got the students more involved.  Rather then have me stand up there for the second half of the presentation and list off the various species ID’s that they need to know (I figured that what students retain from this must be very little), I created a simple activity that got them up and out of their seats, moving around, and teaching and learning from each other.  I made paper labels with 4 species names on them and stuck them to the students backs.  Then they had to go around, using their own field guides, and ask each other questions regarding what species they were.  The activity wasn’t perfect, but a vast improvement on dragging on through an evening of continuous lecturing I’m sure.

What could be improved upon?  I still feel like this amphibian station is lacking some juicy content.  Maybe I just feel that way because I finally feel comfortable with the material, and feel like it somehow so straight forward.  Perhaps I overestimate just how much the students know, or are able to retain and learn.  Regardless, I would still prefer to think more about the learning objectives of this station and how the activities could be built upon to give a more enhanced learning experience.

This year I administered the oral exam.  That was a new experience and quite a challenge in terms of keeping a straight face and remaining consistent throughout the examination period.  I can really see how assessment can really be an art.  I already feel like I could have made the exam better, and I can see where I would improve on it if I was going to be giving it next year.  That’s the hard thing about the way this course is run I guess.  The TA’s are constantly switching, so there is not so much continuity in the organization, instruction and assessment.  I’m not sure that will ever change.

All that said, I have thoroughly enjoyed this teaching experience.  I feel like this is a strong influence on my thoughts of future teaching endeavors….I love teaching.  I must continue to find a way to work it into my career choices in the future.

Nov. 8 2009 – Reflection on TAing for CONS 451

I just returned on Friday from a week of TAing the CONS 451 aquatic module held at the Malcom Knapp Research Forest in MapleRidge.  It was a great week.  I learnt a TON not only about the subject matter for the course (amphibian ecology, limnology, fish/amphibian sampling techniques, invertebrate and zooplankton ecology, stream assessment surveying…the list goes on) but also about teaching.  On the logistical side of things, it was great to see an example of how a course like that is run.  Super organization is certainly key.  It was really helpful that the head coordinator (Suzie) and head TA (Kim) were very organized in regards to having many specific checklists for equipment, typed up schedules, pre-trip meetings, check-ins.  Also having people with prior knowledge to how it all comes together is helpful in trying to gauge what to expect and in gaining advice to how to proceed.   The week was packed with lessons, lectures, and activities.

My apprehensions going in were the following: For the field component, that I didn’t know enough about the information I was supposed to be teaching (amphibian sampling and ecology) to be an effective and knowledgeable teacher.  For my presentation, that it was too long, perhaps not as interactive as I would like, and again, that amphibians were not my background (it would be hard to field questions…etc).  Regarding the first fear, in many ways I was right – I didn’t have a huge background knowledge and I was learning as much as the students in many ways….BUT I was proud of myself to have learned what I did, and to have been learning myself while teaching.  My field lessons and explanations got better as the week went on, and my comfort level improved considerably.  I know more then I thought.  In retrospect, I know now that if I was to teach it again, it would be WAY better.  Now I’ve seen it once through, I’ve seen how the student’s performed on their oral exams, I’ve seen how all the information from the 3 stations is meant to compliment each other, and I can see where my own weaknesses were in terms of my own knowledge or teaching ability.  For example, next year I would do more research in advance into basic ecology concepts and really try to create some tools for teaching these and showing how they fit into the activities that we were doing (ie. being able to better explain ‘top down effects’ as a theory or concept.  ie. having resources for illustrating zooplankton ecology and how they are affected by top down effects).  Overall, I can see that once you’ve done it once, once you have a basic familiarity with the format and structure of the instructional goals, it’s WAY easier to see how you could begin to improve your teaching techniques to improve.

My second apprehension was about the amphibian presentation.  I guess I get the same sort of anxiety for most presentations.  Is that because so often still, I feel like I don’t fully understand the material in which I am presenting.  I’d say that’s a big part of it.  Anyway, as per usual, once I started the presention – it went great.  I thought it was well received (although I suppose you don’t really know that until you ask the students for feedback???).  Anyway, that was fine.

Overall, I felt like I did a good job.  I certainly feel there is room for improvement.  I would say I enjoyed the experience.  But it still makes me wonder about my goals/thoughts for future teaching at a higher education level.  Is this the level that is appropriate for me?  Am I cut out for it?

I could say a lot more.  But I’ll leave it there for now.  I’m going to summarize some notes that I made which I think will be of use for next years module.