This summer I taught my first big undergraduate class as the instructor of record and thought it would be a good time to reflect on what an awesome experience it was! I’ve had a number of other teaching experiences in smaller settings that were less intense, but nothing really prepares you to be THE person in charge of helping a large group of smart, upper-level undergrads learn the complexities of evolutionary theory. As I think is always the case the first time you teach a course, you learn a lot, and very quickly (especially since this is was in a compressed, summer format at U.C. Davis, which already is on the quarter system, rather than the semester system). One pleasant surprise to the experience was how much I enjoyed the challenges of teaching on this scale. Trying to figure out the best approaches to helping students learn topics you care about is incredibly intellectually stimulating (and I frequently left classes and office hours excited to go through what worked well, what didn’t, and think about alternative approaches)!
Evolution is also a fun class to teach, since there are so many different aspects of biology that I am trying to weave together: diversity, cool natural history, quantitative approaches and math, etc., all while helping students developing a unique and rewarding understanding of life!
Some things that worked well: 1) students love natural history stories and I think a lot of my favorite examples were important to helping students organize and understand different evolutionary theories (students sometimes struggled more with general topics if the example I gave wasn’t clicking for them). 2) office hours. students coming prepared with questions and spending time going back through topics we already covered went super well. It was really rewarding to see the progression of students knowledge from where they start, to when “the lightbulb goes on”, and finally to where they push things deeper than we go in class. 3) short answer test questions. Fortunately, I was able to avoid giving scantron tests since I had the help of a great TA, and I think this really was informative to help guide the class in that it gave me a lot of insights into how students were thinking about and engaging with the material. 4) videos were definitely well received (students loved the sexual selection days, but it also helps those topics are pretty easy to make fun), probably the biggest hit was the clip of Snoop Dogg narrating Planet Earth (or Plizzanet Earth), check it out here if you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth your time!
Some things that were tough: 1) the constrained nature of the summer session. There was so much content I felt was important to get through my first time (even though I was already leaving so much out) was hard. 2) topic organization. Predicting how students are going to grasp concepts (and what they’ll remember from previous lower-level courses) is difficult the first time through. I also think so many concepts in evolution are intimately connected, such that there’s not always a clear starting point. But I did figure out some ways I would change the order of several topics we covered (e.g., I dove way too quickly into hardcore phylogenetics, and I might rethink the order in which I cover the forces of evolution). 3) more directed readings and clicker questions. Since we had a formal discussion section each week (and there was a lot to organize for the first time teaching the course), I spent less time trying to get students prepared for our other class periods. Engagement/enthusiasm varied week to week, and I think I have some good ideas for improving that and getting students better prepared for class in order to make each class period more productive.
Anyway, it was a great quarter, at the end of my last class, the students even gave a round of applause, which was nice of them, but caught me off-guard. Looking forward to teaching the course again and trying to improve it further.