The teaching book I’ve always needed

I taught my first undergraduate course in 1992 (I think it was), as a final-year PhD student. I had no idea what I was doing.

28 years later, some days I feel like not much has changed.*

I’m like most university instructors, I think, in three important ways.  First, I’ve never had any formal instruction in how to teach.** Second, while I know there’s an enormous literature on the scholarship of teaching, I’ve read very little of it, and when I try, I usually find it impenetrable. Third, I care about my teaching and want to do it better. (Yes, I’m aware of the apparent tension between the third statement and the first two – but that will have to be a blog post of its own.)

What I needed desperately, 28 years ago, and still need now, is a user-friendly book that could orient me to best practices in teaching. I needed, and I need, a book that can work as an envoy between me and that often-impenetrable education literature, bringing me evidence-based practice without the jargon. I needed, and I need, a book that could give me a toolbox of teaching approaches based in the scholarship of teaching, but that accepts me as a busy (lately, perpetually harried) instructor wanting to do better without doubling my time commitment.

I finally have that book, and you can have it too. Terry McGlynn’s Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching came out this fall, and I don’t think there’s a university instructor anywhere who shouldn’t read it. It’s a guidebook for people who teach science (at the postsecondary level) but who lack formal teaching training and who lack expertise with – or tolerance for – decoding the jargon-ridden education literature. (That’s me, and I think nearly all of us.) It’s a guide to teaching better with less work, while being respectful of students.

The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching is an obvious read for anyone who’s about to teach for the first time, but my 28 years of experience didn’t stop me from learning new things. Actually, its appearance now is very timely: the Covid-19 pandemic has upended all of our teaching. It’s forced us all to teach differently. Some of those different practices are actually better, and we’ll keep them; others we’ll drop with sighs of relief once things go back to “normal”.  But no matter how long you’ve been teaching, this is a time when you have more than you ever expected in common with those teaching for the first time. What better time could there be to reconsider some things?

The Chicago Guide covers designing course content, building a syllabus, delivering teaching in the classroom or online, assessments via assignments, tests, and exams, communication with students, and more.  The overarching theme is respect for students. McGlynn argues that a course can be designed to work with student needs – to accommodate the fact that they will sometimes be sick, sometimes fall behind, sometimes have personal issues you won’t even know about. And it can be designed to work with student needs without compromising pedagogy; and it can be delivered that way without increasing load on the instructor.

Does that sound like it’s both asking and promising a lot? Maybe it does. But McGlynn doesn’t ask you to reinvent everything you’ve ever done, and he doesn’t promise to fix everything that could ever go wrong. Both students and instructors are human, and complicated, and there aren’t magical fixes that make everything perfect if you adopt them just exactly as recommended. (You can read here, for example, about my experience doing away with midterms in favour of frequent low-stakes assessments – something that McGlynn and the pedagogy literature recommend, but that I discovered was no magic bullet.) You can think of this book as a toolbox – pick a few new things to try, see how they work for you; try something else next year.

The Chicago Guide is an easy read: conversational, smooth, and not weighed down by pedagogical jargon or heavy referencing. That’s a plus – but for those who would like more, the next step is to engage (perhaps cautiously) with the scholarship-of-teaching literature. As a way to get your feet wet, McGlynn provides a short narrative bibliography for each chapter, and an even shorter suggested reading list. These emphasize the more accessible secondary literature, which might frustrate those looking for data-rich support for some of the Chicago Guide’s claims, but should serve most of the audience well.

If I’d had this book in 1992, I would likely have done a few things differently right from the start. Reading it 28 years later has me doing a few things differently even now – and in a few cases, it’s validated the things long experience has made me do.  If you’re old and grizzled like me, The Chicago Guide can still teach you some new tricks. If you’re earlier in your teaching career than I am, you can take full advantage – just, please, don’t rub it in.

© Stephen Heard  December 17, 2020

Want to get a copy? Order through the publisher here, or through that arguably-evil-but-oh-so-convenient online shop here (in Canada, here).  Or, of course, ask at your local independent bookstore.

Full disclosure: I reviewed the book proposal for the University of Chicago Press, and so they sent me a complimentary copy. There was no quid pro quo.


*^I know that isn’t quite true (although it still feels that way). I’ve learned a few tricks along the way, and I’ve thought a lot about teaching over the years. I’ve shared some of those thoughts on Scientist Sees Squirrelhere are some.

**^OK, that’s sort of a lie. Last summer, when my university made the decision to nearly-entirely-online for fall 2020, I signed up for a 2-week course in online instruction offered by our Centre for Teaching and Learning. So that’s one mini-course, 27¾ years after my first teaching experience. I’m comfortable rounding that off to “never had any”.

2 thoughts on “The teaching book I’ve always needed

  1. Pingback: Recommended reads #185 | Small Pond Science

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