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New Adjunct Math Professor at Community College

  1. Jan 16, 2012 #1

    I am going to be a new adjunct math professor this semester at a community college, and I'm teaching precalculus (that's my only class). I am very new to teaching (I've never actually taught a class before although I've tutored in the past). I was just hoping to get some advice from teachers/professors on...what should I look out for, and what should I be aware of, as I begin this endeavor. I am incredibly excited because I've been wanting to do this for a long time, but very worried because I feel like I'm being "thrown to the wolves" so to speak, with no formal training in teaching.

    Any advice would be appreciated.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 17, 2012 #2


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    First off, know your subject matter (and your text) inside and out. Always try to think of alternative ways to explain concepts to students. Simply repeating what's in the text and working out problems at the 'board isn't going to be helpful to students who are having trouble with comprehension. If you are able to roll with questions from your students, and help them out, they will become comfortable with your teaching style. That will take a lot of the heat off you in the classroom.

    This approach requires considerable prep on your part, at least for your first run through the precalc course material, but it will leave you more comfortable and relaxed in the classroom, and that is a BIG deal. When you find an example or problem that seems to click well with your students, make note of it in your text or other materials, so you can use it again when needed.

    I taught adult learners in industrial settings, and quite often those students were nervous about being thrown back into a "classroom" setting to learn about equipment/processes that they had learned about (sometimes a long time ago) through hap-hazard training and/or peer-directed on-the-job training. Good luck.
  4. Jan 17, 2012 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    Turbo's advice is sound, and I can only add the suggestion that you continue to talk to experienced teachers about ideas.

    Based on my own mistakes, I cannot emphasize enough the need to clearly communicate your expectations *on the first day of class*. That is- clearly tell the students what you expect them to do and know on an exam (proofs? applications? problem solving? multiple choice?). Talk to them about homework, grading policy, what they need to know already- and what tutoring is available if they don't, your availability, etc. etc.

    Another good technique: if you are trying to make the class interact with you or each other (rather than passively write down what you say/write), be prepared to stand motionless for 30 seconds while you wait for a response. Count the time to yourself. It really takes some time before someone gets uncomfortable with the silence and speaks up.

    Lastly, just know there is no one way to teach- don't be afraid to experiment. Keep what works and toss what doesn't.
  5. Jan 17, 2012 #4


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    Andy Resnick's point about setting expectations on the first day is very important. You must stick to your part of the contract, if you expect to hold students to theirs.

    If you have control over the syllabus, less is better - it is best to have students understand the basics well.

    Explain logically - start from the absolute basics, and don't leave out steps.

    If you have a black board, write your notes out in full before class, with consideration of how you will space it on the board.

    Use a conversational tone of voice.

    Finally, as Andy Resnick says, teaching is an art like tennis - every game is different, and so is every student.
  6. Jan 17, 2012 #5
    I think it's best to state your expectations every step of the way as well.

    For example, if you're leaving out a step (only do this if you really have to): state so explicitely. If you don't expect them to know what you left out: state so explicitely.

    If it's best to memorize a formula: state so explicitely. If they shouldn't memorize a formula, but rather know how to derive it: state so explicitely.

    Give lots of examples and counterexamples. Better yet: let the class come up with examples and counterexamples.

    Try to motivate each class by giving some kind of application, or something fun. For example: if you want to talk about geometric sequences you can talk about putting $10 in your bank and every year the amount doubles. What amount of money do you have in your bank after 50 years?? Let them guess and let them be amazed about how they're wrong.

    Be sure to prepare your class beforehand. You have to know beforehand what you're going to tell them, what questions you will ask to the class, what questions they could ask, what you will write on the blackboard, etc.

    Finally, I think it's all about quality teaching. Be sure that they understand what you're telling them. It's better to go slow than to teach a lot of things. Don't be afraid to assign things as required reading.

    Be aware that you have to teach for the average student. A lot of people will find your class boring because they find it easy, a lot of people will find your class impossible because they don't understand the stuff. Don't lower your level or don't higher your level for these people.
  7. Jan 20, 2012 #6
    Thanks everybody for your feedback! I really appreciate it. I think my first day of class went OK; it's hard to know whether students are picking up on the material, but I did my best to get them to think about how they would solve the problem before I went ahead and did it. Hopefully there weren't people who were too lost. I guess I'll see how people do on the homework.
  8. Jan 20, 2012 #7
    Speaking as a current student, I'd want to emphasize what someone else mentioned about a "conversational tone". One thing professors sometimes forget is that it can be very intimidating trying to talk to someone who is lightyears ahead of you in capability and knowledge. Crack a joke once in a while, even if it's corny. If you blank out for a moment, make a humorous comment about having lost your brain somewhere on 6th street. Try to strike a balance between humor and seriousness though. A professor who is too humorous can sometimes not be taken seriously. That's even worse than being the professor no one approaches.

    But other than that, I can't really say anything. Just a perspective from a student :) We really don't bite!
  9. Jan 21, 2012 #8
    There have been great suggestions already. One more is to take a look at some of the better on-line lecture videos. Different profs have different delivery styles and you can think about what approaches you like or don't like. If you are familiar with a subject, start watching about lecture 5 when both the prof and the students have relaxed into the course.

    Ones I have found interesting from a teaching perspective:

    Auroux - Multivariable Calculus

    Frenkel - Multivariable Calculus

    Su - Real Analysis I

    Gross - Abstract Algebra

    Balakrishnan - Classical Mechaincs

    Lots here - very different styles...

    Of course, there are a lot more out there. YMMV.

    If you have the chance to sit in and watch some of the other teachers at your school, that is a good option as well. The advantage of video is that you can skip around and see more people in action.
  10. Jan 21, 2012 #9


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    1. examples teach more than explanations, use them.

    2. learn your students' names so you can call on them.

    3. prepare every night before class, for the rest of your life.
    (then the material goes through your mind all night.)
  11. Jan 27, 2012 #10
    You might want to contact FrancisZ via a private message or email (if his profile is set up for you to do that)... he's been teaching high school for years but started teaching at a community-college last term (he's not on much because he's been pretty busy "making ends meet" via this job, tutoring, etc... since as you know (and I know) teaching at any level generally makes poor monetary gains).

    I'd say (like micromass) that it's particularly important to make your course expectations pretty forward... both grading details via your syllabus... and then with regards to what you expect students to be able to do on your tests (via good teaching methods like examples, homework, sample tests if you have time... etc.)
  12. Jan 27, 2012 #11

    Ben Niehoff

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    This can be interesting, but don't plan your lesson so that it hinges on someone being clueless and answering wrongly. Oftentimes there will be people in the class who have seen whatever it is you're talking about before, and they will answer 2^50 (about as much money as there is in the whole world!) When I see this happen and the teacher hesitates, unsure how to proceed, I find it a bit insulting. He was expecting us all to be stupid. If this happens over and over, it gets to be quite tiresome.

    You would not expect a wrong answer on an exam, so don't expect a wrong answer in lecture, either. In fact, you should plan your lectures to reward right answers, and to respect your students' intelligence.
  13. Jan 27, 2012 #12


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    Be prepared for the students that are having trouble with your class and the hardships they will tell like its the last class they need to take and they have to pass it otherwise they can't continue on the a 4yr college or a new job without the degree...

    Invariably they will come up to you on the last day or week of the course asking for you to pass them. What will you do? How will you handle it?

    This was the question posed to me when I interviewed at our local college and I answered compassionately but poorly?

    I said that I'd be willing to review any homeworks, quizzes or tests where they felt that I had made a mistake in order to find some points that could help them pass.

    The interviewers said no, you should have been preparing them early on when you saw that they are not making the grade. This would have allowed them to study harder, switch or drop the course and plan accordingly.

    I felt the real answer was a combination of the two. I had a case once where I was given a poor grade on an assignment that I knew worked. It was a program in LISP and I codeveloped it with another talented and sharp student who was having trouble that semester. He gave us a C which flunked my friend but gave me a B. I was shocked because I knew it worked.

    When I talked with the prof, a young guy my age, He said he'd try it again and was surprised that it worked as I said. Then he realized his mistake he glanced at it and saw that I had named my variables WORD1, WORD2 ... (language parser). He had assumed that I was working with this other team of students whose program used similar naming conventions and failed to run.

    Our AI book used these variable names all over the place and it was a bad assumption on his part. However, he was good enough to look into it again and corrected the grade from C to A giving me an A and thus passing my codeveloper as well.

    So I've always remembered that and put it into practice whenever I teach.
  14. Jan 27, 2012 #13
    I don't want to paste the whole post here but I wrote about my recent experience as a new professor in Vector Statics and I think that some of my comments may help you. In particular, what to expect from the students. I hope that it will be a pleasant experience for you but be aware that at some point the students will frustrate you to no end. Lol.

    Why teaching is hard.
  15. Jan 27, 2012 #14


    Staff: Mentor

    Another Prof I had in college, had a unique system grading for his classes:

    - he graded selected homework problems, he didn't say which ones (10% of your grade)
    - he gave weekly surprise quizzes every Friday (he would drop the worst 3 grades, 10% of your grade)
    - he gave 4 tests, he would drop the lowest test grade (30% of your grade)
    - for the final you could rank it anywhere from 20% to 50% of your final grade your choice before you took the exam.

    It was a great system. It was Calculus III, I didn't gamble I chose the 20% final.

    One other thing he did was all his Blackboard notes were chapter/section numbered so students knew exactly where to look in the book.

    He would also drop hints for quizzes. One time he said: "Sometimes its easier to integrate wrt y rather than x" and this was followed up that on the Friday quiz with a problem that fell apart when you followed his advice but was impossible to do otherwise.
  16. Jan 28, 2012 #15
    Hi everyone,

    Thank you so much for all of your words of wisdom. I really learned something from each post.

    At this point I have already taught the first three lectures of my class! I have to say the first day was the hardest. I will do my best to incorporate some of the advice given here.

    Thanks again!
  17. Feb 3, 2012 #16
    Don't tie together a given subject with unrelated information. E.g., if you're talking about slopes of graphs in the first few weeks of your pre-calculus class, don't wander off into an in-depth discussion of the relationship between derivatives and slopes. It might be interesting to some students but if it's not within the scope of the class don't waste valuable instruction time. At best you're wasting time and at worst you're confusing your students with extraneous information (at least for the purposes of a pre-calculus class.)
  18. Feb 3, 2012 #17
    Thanks. That's good advice.
  19. Feb 21, 2012 #18
    Don't test on obscure stuff. Keep the tests really the same as the notes
  20. Feb 25, 2012 #19


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    Okay, Woopydalan seems to be doing a good job of presenting the "What students want," view. I'll offer suggestions to turn that into "what students need."

    I think it's a fair request that students not be surprised by what will appear on an exam. That does NOT mean you have to spoon feed everything in your lectures. Students are smarter than they give themselves credit for if you give them a chance to learn to learn.

    I give a list of learning objectives at the beginning of every lecture. It gives the students some guidance on what you want them to know. I change the specificity of those objectives based on the level of the class. For example, for the freshmen, they are very detailed and specific, "Be able to define the terms..., Describe the steps in the process..., Apply X to Y types of problems..." For advanced courses (in my case, med students), they get broader, such as, "Apply your knowledge of... to novel scenarios."

    I then write my exam questions based on the learning objectives...that way I'm sure to test on what I told them they should learn.

    Now, back to the "obscure questions not covered in lecture" issue. I do more or less spoon feed freshmen. They come from so many backgrounds and have such a range of study skills that I use the freshmen class simply as an equalizer. Once they are sophomores, I step up my expectations. They need to develop more study skills then, and very much need to learn to read their books...and I tell them they didn't spend so much on books to use them to level coffee tables. But, it doesn't need to be sudden immersion. Instead, I give them specific pages they are responsible for reading on their own and guarantee a test question on it. I also make sure they have homework on it to check they understand and can ask questions if they don't.

    By the time they get to med school, I do give a larger number of pages to read and tell them I can pull questions from the text in those pages even if I don't get to it in lecture...at that stage, they need to learn it all. Still, it's not going to be a subtle, obscure point. If something obscure is actually important, that should be in the lecture.

    If your school does student evaluations of teaching, use them. You may want a stiff drink or two before reading your first evaluations, and keep in mind some students just use them to vent about frustration over grades, but look for the ones that give constructive suggestions that are things you can reasonably change.
  21. Feb 25, 2012 #20
    The following is from a student's perspective...

    Yes, keep it to the notes...but only somewhat! Keep in mind that you will have students that truly want to be challenged and will work very hard in your classes. Perhaps design the majority of the test questions in accordance with the notes, but also consider adding a bonus question or two (doesn't have to be worth many points) that really truly stretches the problem solving skills and creativity of your stronger students. I absolutely love it when my professors do this -- not because I get more points, but because I get to exercise my brain and stretch my imagination. Just a suggestion!
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