Lessons from my first course

Exam session for the autumn semester is over. This seems like a fine time to reflect over my first course.

This first course consisted of teaching second year bachelor students, in non-mathematical studies, an introduction to probability and statistics. The content of the class was essentially probability up to the central limit theorem and an introduction to the concept of statistics, with mostly Gaussian models. The hardest statistical topic was the Student t-test for linear regression.

Overall, I think I did a barely passing job for this course. It is of course understandable that not everything can go alright for a first course, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be honest with myself, my students and the rest of the department. Let’s try to list what went wrong and what went OK.

Things that went well:

  • I was a very motivated teacher, and I brought much more energy to my class than most teachers
  • I was very available to my students
  • I remained (somewhat; you’ll see in a second) attentive to how the course was progressing, and I think that I improved my teaching quite a lot over the semester
  • I spoke well
  • I didn’t write as poorly as I expected of myself. I still need to work on this point quite a lot

 

Now, what didn’t go well:

  • I was too ambitious for a first course. I redid everything from scratch, when I shouldn’t have. This caused me to commit many mistakes. Namely,
  • I didn’t take into account enough what students need. They need a lot of structure: every piece of knowledge should clearly be labeled according to how important it is to understand, etc.
  • I crafted a course that I would have liked as a student. This is a bad idea since I was always a very mathematically-minded student, and I was a very good student. My course should be aimed instead at a more practical-level, and towards a slower-pace.
  • I completely neglected exercises. They are an integral part of the learning experience and are at least as important as the lectures. This caused students to resent the exercise sessions, and minimized how much they learnt from the class.
  • Even though I identified some of these flaws along the way, most of them completely blindsinded me, and only came to surface during the anonymous review of the course by the students. This means I failed to gather meaningful feedback from the class. These issues should have been identified much earlier during the semester, which would have enabled me to correct them much earlier.
  • I handled the pressure of teaching pretty poorly, especially at the end of the semester. I’m a very anxious guy, so it’s not surprising that I was stressed, but this went beyond stress. Teaching a semester is a bit like running a marathon: you can’t give all you have during the first half and finish the race crawling, you have to be regular. I need to pace my energy more in the future.

 

In the next few days, I’ll try to reflect on identifying why things went wrong (and right), and what I will do to make my future classes better.