Teaching an introductory class

A little more than a month ago I completed teaching an introductory linguistics course to a large class of about 80 students. I learnt a lot from this experience and thought I should note down some of those insights here. Additionally, mid-way through the course I attended a teaching workshop, which helped clarify some of these issues as well.

The first major challenge was related to the content. I did not have lectures or slides prepared and had to make use of some standard textbooks for preparing class notes (The concept of ‘class notes’ itself is a bit problematic, but more on that later). While making the teaching plan, I recalled all the things that I had found very interesting about a topic and decided I would teach using those as a guideline. This was a terrible idea! For example I found vowel harmony in morpho-phonology very interesting, but realized that it’s no use adding that to the teaching plan, if the concept of morphemes itself is not understood. It is very easy to forget how one actually learnt a basic concept many years after using it frequently in your work. The first major lesson required a change of perspective– I had to think from the point of view of the learners to design the content.

Second, was the format of the class itself. For some of these ideas I have to credit the teaching workshop and the discussions I had with the linguistics faculty member who was the class co-ordinator. At first, I ‘lectured’ in the class, but the lack of engagement made me realize that attention spans are not meant to last more than about 15 to 20 minutes. Besides, lecturing as a form of ‘information transfer’, no matter how funny you try to be, doesn’t work so well. The teaching workshop introduced me to Eric Mazur and his work on peer instruction. While I could not implement his ideas completely, peppering the class time with data problems made things slightly less of a drag. It encouraged some amount of interaction, though I think this could have been improved even more.

Finally, the evaluation and testing methods. At the beginning I thought I was being smart by having all my quizzes and mid-terms online (saves correction time!), but realized after a while that this had its own disadvantages. An online exam also means that one is restricted to a large extent by the format of the multiple-choice question (MCQ). It is an art to come up with MCQs that are challenging and do not give away the answer. In the end, I felt that I was a bit too lenient here and could have made exams and quizzes a mix of MCQ and written, or introduced other ways to evaluate performance. It would also have helped to convert the quizzes into assignments, especially for syntax and morphology problems. Of course, in a large class balancing fairness and difficulty of evaluation is always tricky.

In the end, I thought I got a fair teaching feedback–I passed 😉 It definitely gave me some major insights into how to teach a linguistics class. What also surprised me was how much I still enjoyed talking about linguistics. Also those aha! moments when a student finally understood something were just priceless.