I still remember the day when, as a junior academic, my then Head of Department invited me to teach on a master level course in telecommunications. I was in his office, and I literally froze at the prospect of taking on such a daunting enterprise. My first reaction was to politely refuse the offer, but now, fifteen year later, I can honestly say that I am glad that he politely forced me to move into master level teaching. Every year many junior academics receive this invitation. Over the years, I have even had the opportunity to extend this kind of invitation to fellow colleagues. Whilst some have leapt with joy at such a prospect, the majority, I am afraid to say, have experienced the same emotional turbulence and uncertainty that I went through fifteen years ago.
Be Aware of Your Own Fears and Insecurities and Deal with Them
Why is there so much fear in moving from undergraduate teaching to master level teaching? There are several reasons, but I believe that one of the key reason is the perceived balance of power between the teacher and the students. Within undergraduate courses, you are the master of your own teaching, and the students acknowledge this. Taking a leaf from the literature on the Mafia, at undergraduate level you are the Godfather, the Don of your subject area. You can opt for an autocratic, didactic approach to teaching, or you can even adopt a benevolent, collaborative teaching approach, but still, at the end of the day, you are still the boss, and this can be quite reassuring for most of us.
At master level, this is not the case. Knowledge and expertise are definitely not the preserve of the teacher alone. As a teacher, you are now one person in a class of equals, and your teaching can not be anything but collaborative and inquiry based. This means that you have to bring yourself to the level of your students. This is what teaching at university level should be like. However, it’s not easy to do so, as it leaves you potentially vulnerable to your students.
However, remember that learning is at its best when vulnerable people share their experiences to build up each other. Therefore relax, and take time to find out your shortcomings. Is it because you feel you do not have adequate knowledge to teach in the area? Mostly our teaching is often at variance with our research expertise, even at master level. If this is the case, start building up your knowledge in the subject area. After all, as the saying goes, we learn best through teaching others.
Is it that you feel that you lack relevant industrial practice, and fear being exposed in class? If this is so, don’t panic, after all, most academics never get the opportunity to work in industry. Identify industry practitioners to co-teach with you in some of the topics. In addition, tap into the industrial expertise of your students. In either case, encourage the students to build links between theory, as taught in the class, with practice, as highlighted by the practitioners.
Master Level Teaching Means Collaborative Learning
At undergraduate level, the typical Engineering academic can choose to ignore best practice in learning and teaching, and stick to the age-old didactic teaching typified by a one-way transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the learner. This is not so at master level. At this level the teacher seizes to be the primary source of knowledge. The teacher’s main role is now to facilitate collaborative learning amongst learners whose knowledge in the subject area may be at par with the teacher’s.
At master’s level, teaching is like going on a journey of exploration with the whole class. No one knows everything, and there may be surprises along the way, and the whole class, including the teacher, are all on a learning journey, and they have to collaborate. As a teacher, you are no longer the Don, but an equal amongst equals. And in this case, your main role is to ensure that noone gets left behind.
Resist the Temptation to Teach Alone
If you stick to teaching alone you can only wear yourself out. Worse still, your lectures will soon become an ordeal to your students, rather than something to look forward to. Instead, make plans for others to contribute to your lectures. Tap into the experience of your students, particularly those who have been working in areas relevant to your subject areas. Ask them to lead discussions, and to propose problem questions based on their practice. Remember, at master level you are now a facilitator of learning, and not a teaching don.
In my own experience, some student-led discussion classes have turned out to be very fruitful for both students and the organisations that they work for. They have helped to provide solutions to industry problems. In addition, they have helped to open up the industry to various students. For example, career changers get to know more about the industry they are aspiring to get into. Even those who are in the industry get to know of other areas and organisations within their industry. Also, such discussion classes have also contributed immensely to my knowledge of the industry. Hence, by facilitating discussion classes you can turn your class into a platform whereby students can acquire industry knowledge and build networks that they can use to further their own careers.
Use You Teaching to Create Connections
Use your teaching to create strong linkages between your class and your department’s research activities, and between your class and the industry that is relevant to your teaching. Bring in your PhD students to sit in with your master level students and to participate in class discussions. Identify relevant research seminars for your students, and encourage them to attend. This helps to give your students insights into the research aspect of the university. Some, including myself, have gone on into PhD studies and into academic careers as a result of these linkages between teaching and research.
As for industry relationships, bring in practitioners from industry. In addition to bringing in the “big names” in the industry, don’t leave out early stage practitioners who are at the forefront of technological innovation in their practice. This helps to create purpose and awareness in your classes, and can serve as a route to collaborative projects between your department and industry.
Most Importantly, Be Enthusiastic
Remember the expression: “Enthusiasm is infectious”. There is nothing that can motivate students more than the teacher’s own enthusiasm. Be enthusiastic about your own subject area. Be up to date and relevant in it, and talk about it to the students. Bring in current papers that are relevant to your own course module, and rather than presenting facts as gospel truth, use research to argue against research. When you discuss current technological practice, take the students on a historical journey through the arguments and counter-arguments that led to the present state of affairs. Drop in the names of the key players, and let students see the personalities and personal research dispositions of the people who built up the knowledge base for your course module.
Above all, be enthusiastic about your students’ learning. Take an active interest in their learning, including performance in assessments, and performance in individual and group class activities. Explore with your students their thought processes, and let them see the errors of their ways. Guide them to learn from their mistakes, and let them know that a reflective approach to dealing with errors and mistakes is one of the most powerful ways to learn.
Take a personal interest in your students’ welfare. For instance, follow up on absences, and direct students to the appropriate student well-being personnel within your department and faculty.
Above all, show that you care about your students’ own individual academic development.