Things I learned when I designed and taught my first undergraduate course

Today we have a guest blogger. Adaeze Wosu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2017, she was one of two teaching assistants who received the Student Assembly’s Teaching Assistant Recognition Award at the School of Public Health. In 2018, she was again recognized with this honor. Ms. Wosu obtained a BA in Public Health Studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a Master of Public Health from Boston University.

 

Large light bulb surrounded by small-scale symbols of pursuits in the arts and sciences. Light blue images on dark blue background.Throughout graduate school (both as a Master’s and Doctoral student), I have worked as a Teaching Assistant for several graduate-level courses—leading lab sections, facilitating discussions, holding office hours, developing assessments, and grading. I have also served as a section instructor for an undergraduate epidemiology course. However, I had never taught my own course until January 2018, when I developed a one-credit undergraduate intersession course on the increasing burden of non-infectious diseases (e.g., heart disease, cancers, diabetes) in Africa.

Although my course is focused on the African continent, it is noteworthy that heart disease and cancers are the two leading causes of death in the United States. Until my sophomore year of college, I was largely unaware that there were preventive measures (e.g., exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep) that individuals can take to avert (or at least delay) the onset of these diseases. Learning about how to prevent these diseases was one of the epiphanies of my undergraduate education, and continues to inspire my research and teaching as a doctoral student.

The training I received in the annual three-day Teaching Institute organized by the Johns Hopkins University Teaching Academy helped prepare me for this experience. The Institute’s modules on backward-design helped me focus course lectures, discussions, and in-class activities on what students should gain from each session and the course as a whole, rather than simply filling time with content. Other modules on preparing for the first day of class, active learning, fostering an inclusive learning environment, and creating effective assessments were also valuable.

My course had an enrollment of eleven students—small but heterogeneous—with wide-ranging majors and interests, diverse cultural backgrounds, and at different levels of their college education. By the end of the course, I wanted students to have a general understanding of (1) the social, demographic, and economic factors driving the rise of these diseases on the African continent; (2) the biological mechanisms involved in these diseases; and (3) individual- and population-level approaches to prevention and control of these diseases.

I learned a lot from the process of developing this course as well as my interactions with students. Below, I have summarized, in eight points, some of what I learned and what was re-enforced for me through this process:

  1. Points of disagreement are great learning opportunities for both students and instructor. At the beginning of the course, I urged students to voice disagreements or objections that they had about course concepts, so we could discuss them as a group. The situations where students actively and strongly disagreed provided great teaching moments for clarifying and reinforcing important ideas. It made me appreciate the skill and tact required to factually and respectfully respond to misstatements or misconceptions without making students feel like they are being shut down. It was helpful to think through potential scenarios of disagreement beforehand, and how they could be handled. With practice, comfort with these scenarios grows.
  2. I learned to be comfortable with admitting when I did not know or was unsure about the answer to a student’s question. As a graduate teaching assistant, I had the luxury of referring students to an experienced faculty member if I encountered a particularly challenging question. In my course, this was not an option. I tried as much as possible to anticipate questions that would arise, but there were occasional questions to which I did not readily have answers. In such cases, I did not hesitate to tell the student that I did not have the answer at that moment. If I promised to look up the answer, then I did so, and got back to the student. For any questions that could potentially eat up class time or were beyond the scope of the course, my approach was to direct students to resources that could provide further insight. Admitting what you don’t know is all right.
  3. It is important to be as explicit as possible about expectations for assessments, and then be even more explicit. The writing-intensive courses I have assisted in teaching over the last seven years have for the most part involved public health instruction at the graduate level. It did not occur to me that undergraduate students would need substantial guidance regarding citations and what might count as credible sources for writing assignments. After I wrote what I thought were clear instructions for the final assignment, I found that students needed me to be even more explicit. With a diverse cohort of students in the class, from freshmen to seniors and from a range of disciplines, I could not make sweeping assumptions about familiarity with formatting requirements or with how to gather reputable sources for a research paper.
  4. Your enthusiasm and motivations for teaching are important and infectious. Your excitement shows through your body language and disposition from the moment you walk into the classroom until the final day. Your passion for the topic communicates to students why you care, and why they should care. As much as possible, I tried to make the content practical and applicable so that students could see how what they were learning extended beyond the classroom. I found that sharing my motivations for teaching the course helped me connect with students.
  5. Early opportunities for students to inform course direction will save you time and foster a more enjoyable student experience. Early in the course, I solicited feedback from students. This helped me identify what was working/not working, what aspects of the course the students enjoyed, and what they wanted to learn. Their comments led me to introduce one of the course units earlier than I had originally planned. Students also made me aware of additional helpful resources, which I incorporated (e.g., one student shared a YouTube video demonstration of what it feels like to breathe with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). I plan to use these materials in future iterations of the course.
  6. Don’t be afraid to use media (e.g., short movies, documentaries) to make your point. I had to think creatively about using educational videos, documentaries, and even movie and television clips to illustrate points during the lectures. When I felt a video or cartoon conveyed some idea more clearly than didactic lecturing, I included that medium in the day’s lecture. At first, I worried that students would consider these as “faux lecturing” or just filling up time. Instead, students embraced these modalities and found them helpful for putting complex concepts into relatable terms. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
  7. Standing and walking around the class as you teach is a great way to get in a few hours of exercise! And if your class sessions are 3 hours long like mine, allow breaks so that students can stretch and get in some exercise as well.
  8. Finally, do not underestimate how much time is needed to prepare lectures, and activities for the different class sessions. For me, this was the hardest point of transition from a teaching assistant to an instructor. Even for a topic such as mine, where substantial resources exist, it took time to read and digest journal articles that I wanted to incorporate into lectures, to identify good media examples (e.g., videos, news articles and documentaries), to properly insert citations so that students could refer to them when needed), and to plan and design engaging in-class discussions and activities. While preparing for lectures, I sometimes longed for my teaching assistant days when material was already prepared and organized—all I had to do was review before each course section or office hour. Nevertheless, the opportunity to teach my own course gave me immense fulfillment. As an instructor, I was able to create the classroom experience I desired on a topic that I am extremely passionate about.

Adaeze Wosu, PhD Candidate
Department of Epidemiology, Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University

Image Source: Pixabay.com

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