Guest writer, Anna Hull
"So, Anna, are you a better teacher or student?" asked my friend as we were discussing my latest Spanish class that I attended as a student last Sunday. Hmm. Well, answer the question – are you a better teacher or student? It seemed like a simple enough question to my friend, but I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t answer quickly enough. Of course I wanted to say that I am a better teacher; after all, that is my chosen profession. Within seconds it dawned on me that I cannot claim to be a better teacher than I am a student. The two are too intimately linked; I don’t know if it is truly possible to be a good teacher without also being an excellent student.
Case in point: Do you remember the very first time you had to teach a difficult concept to a class? My memory comes from graduate school: I was leading a discussion group of about twenty students and I was due to teach how the energy in food is converted to another type of energy (ATP) within the cell. I thought my grasp of the concept was sufficiently clear, but as I reviewed the material, I realized that all I had was a "grasp"; I didn’t own the knowledge in a way that would allow me to teach it efficiently. Since then, the story has repeated itself many times; only after I have taught the material in class, or given a seminar, do I have the feeling of actually owning the knowledge and therefore doing a better job the next time I teach it.
Even when I am well prepared and know the concepts that I am planning to teach, I constantly ask myself how the students perceive my words and the points that I am trying to convey. So often, it seems like they are hearing something completely different than what I think I’m saying. How would they try to explain the same concept that I don’t seem to be able to communicate, and how can we as teachers tap into that? How can we utilize the willingness of the students to learn by letting them be the teachers?
I am slowly learning to turn many of the students' "hows' and "whys" into mini-assignments, sometimes worth extra credit. When my students in Molecular Biology asked for a study guide for their midterm exam, I told them how I usually make the guide by going through all my PowerPoint lectures and writing questions to each slide. This is clearly an excellent way for the students to study the content for the exam, so I had them make the study guide and submit it to me for extra credit. It probably helped the students to study, they earned much-needed extra-credit, and it reduced my workload (at least up front; I did read all the submissions and compile a study guide that I shared with the entire class in the end).
I would love to hear what you do in your classroom. What have you tried that works and what doesn’t? And for extra credit: How would you answer the question, "Are you a better teacher or student?"