An Early Career Academic’s First Instructorship


Before the holidays my adviser Dr. David Johnston asked me to be a co-instructor for the Marine Megafauna class on main campus for Spring 2015. He told me that I would be responsible for the first third of class and the first exam’s worth of material between January 9th and February 9th while he was in Antarctica doing fieldwork. Marine Megafauna was my first (of nine) Teaching Assistantships in my first year as a Ph.D. student. I have since been the TA for classes like Marine Mammals (two times), Marine Ecology (two times), Fisheries Ecology, Marine Policy, Marine Conservation Biology and Caribbean Invertebrate Zoology. Since I will be completing my tenure as a TA this spring with the Marine Conservation Biology travel course to Hawaii, a course I took as a Master’s student, I viewed this first instructorship as another incredible way to wrap up that tenure. Dave and I went through the lectures I would give and he provided me with the materials he used for teaching the year before but I knew I wouldn’t and couldn’t just give Dave’s lectures, I knew I wanted to be purposeful about my time with these students and to treat this class, as much as I could, like my own.


Since student responses are included throughout this reflection I wanted to introduce my evaluations first thing in this reflection. I included two rounds of evaluations, one 2 weeks (4 classes in) and the other on my last class. The first evaluation was used to touch base with the students, find out after add-drop had ended who was in the class, why they were taking the class and how things were going for the first bit of the course. I will get more into this later but I made sure I read all of the evaluations and responded to them in the following class. On the second evaluation I wanted to know how they responded to me over my time teaching. I also wanted to specifically focus on parts of the class like the personal connections, activities, and group discussions to see how the students thought they were or were not helping their learning. I also made sure, before I had the students complete the evaluations, that they understood why I was doing them. I told them I wanted to see how certain parts of the class were going and to find out how I could improve. I also told them that these would be invaluable for me moving forward. I have included statistics and quotes from these evaluations throughout this reflection.

Pedagogy of Presence

One of my major goals was to be present and personal throughout the class. James Lang in his article “Waiting for Us to Notice Them: This is how we can begin to practice a ‘pedagogy of presence’ in our classrooms” wrote, “personal relationships are what students document as the most profound and memorable aspects of their college experience. In order to have that powerful impact on our students, we have to be truly present in our classrooms” and be more present to the students, their questions, and what is going on in the classroom, and actually respond to it. It means checking in with them and making a connection with them.

I chose to make these connections and make the science we were learning about personal by incorporating pictures, videos, stories, etc. I tried to incorporate these personal connections and stories in every single class and the students responded extremely well. One student wrote that seeing people’s personal connections to the specific areas of study in such a large subject as marine megafauna was the most valuable part of his or her learning experience. Another wrote that the most valuable part was “when we couple learning w/ videos pictures to see what we’ve learned in action.”

The following evaluation questions and the two results below came from a discussion with one of the faculty at the marine lab. I told her about the Skype and personal connections I was using and how the students were really just eating them up. She asked me if I thought they were helping them learn the concepts or just getting them excited about the topics. I thought for a second and said both, and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. So, I asked my students.

96% of the students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I find the personal connections (e.g. guests, Skype, stories) to the course material help me understand course content.”

100% of the students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The personal connections (e.g. guests, Skype, stories) to the course material spark my interest for the topic.”

One of the student’s favorite activities, which we did on three different occasions over my nine lectures was Skyping with an expert in the group of animals we were learning about and, in addition, for two of these three Skype connections, also an author of the paper they read for class. We connected with an extinct shark researcher Catalina, who was also the first author of one of the papers the students read. This gave them the opportunity to ask her questions about her work and to connect with her in real time. The students wrote,

“The Skype stuff is really cool and unique, really cool to talk to experts about what we are studying”

“It’s really cool interacting with the actual people responsible for the content we’re learning”

“Really enjoyed the skypes, I’ve never had a prof do them before.”

Another way I tried to make a class present was to incorporate pop culture and current references to the material. At the beginning of each class I shared information I found on social media, Huffington Post, etc. to keep the material we were learning about in the present and keep it relevant to their lives. One student wrote:

“Keep up the humor and lighthearted comments! Love the news articles, social media stuff, etc., makes it fun and relevant”

I think that these not only show they responded well to the personal connections but also the innovative and high tech teaching techniques I used throughout the course.

High-Tech Teaching

Most of the classes I taught were set up in this way: Lecture for about a half hour and then move to a case study and activities. My lectures were Keynote (PowerPoint for Macs) driven but always included discussion questions, poll everywhere questions, my version of the clicker question without the clicker, and breaks for videos, personal stories etc. I didn’t realize it until I read the article “Professors Know About High-Tech Teaching Methods, but Few Use Them” by Casey Fabris on the Chronicle of Higher Education that I am apparently very high tech! I used many of the “high-tech and innovative” techniques listed in the article. These high-tech techniques included incorporating group projects (more so discussion in my case), incorporating experiential learning, using open-source materials to augment content (all the readings we use are open access PLOS One articles), using tools such as Skype or video to encourage in-class or real-time interactions, using tools such as social media or discussion forums to encourage participation outside of class (Twitter mostly in my case), and using “clickers” or other means (I used poll everywhere) to obtain student responses in real time.

Table modified from

Included are the techniques I used in my class and the percentage of respondents in the survey who were not familiar enough to rate the technique, familiar but not relevant or haven’t tried, tried, or actually adopted the technique in their classroom. For most of these techniques the majority picked the “familiar but not relevant, or have not tried” option.

Not familiar enough to rate Familiar but not relevant, or have not tried Tried Adopted
Incorporating group projects 2% 20% 18% 56%
Incorporating service learning or other experiential learning 14% 49% 13% 23%
Using open-source (free) materials to augment content 14% 42% 16% 27%
Using tools such as Skype or video to encourage in-class or real-time interactions 9% 63% 13% 15%
Using tools such as social media or discussion forums to encourage participation outside class 9% 56% 12% 20%
Using “clickers” or other means to obtain student responses in real time 11% 64% 10% 12%


I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to some of these techniques so early in my career and that I have implemented them without very much trepidation. I know I will continue to use these techniques in my future classes because I saw the effect they had on students and know they are a great way for students to learn and engage with the material.

When I asked my students on the first evaluation “Do you like the incorporation of videos, discussion and other activities? Why or why not?” this is a word cloud of how they responded.


When I asked students about what their favorite activity in the class so far, this is the word cloud of how they responded to that question. (More on jigsaws later!)


In their second evaluation one student wrote in response to these techniques,

“Interactive course setup helpful for retaining info and maintaining class interest.”

As a further call for more innovation one student wrote in response to “What is one thing you would change about the instructor’s teaching style/methods that would improve your learning?” “b/c you are so open to videos/jigsaws etc., don’t supplement w/ boring powerpoints. This class would be a good one to learn through group projects”

Course Readings

Reading scientific articles is an important skill and one that takes time to develop so I had my students read a paper for most of the classes. To help them read the papers I provided a set of questions that they should try to answer with each paper they read. I use questions like this myself when I take notes. These questions developed from my time reading articles and were very popular with students (76% wrote that the guiding questions helped them with their course readings). When I asked my students about how specific strategies helped them with course readings, more than half pointed to think pair share or small group discussion (74%), providing guiding questions (76%), whole class discussions (68%), and Skyping with authors (68%)

I tried to make it clear that I expected students to come to class prepared by having read the articles assigned to them. I tried to choose those articles carefully, thinking about why I wanted students to read them, and prepared them for those readings with the guiding questions mentioned above and a “How to” session during our second class. I made the readings an important part of the course and chose not to tell them what was important from the readings. If I lectured on the readings and gave them the important concepts listed on a slide, what would be the point for them to spend additional time reading by themselves? Instead, I tried to create spaces where students answered other students’ questions and discussed major results. I also made sure that the readings were on the exam because they were an important part of the course material. In addition, they were held accountable for reading the material because we incorporated discussions and activities that took the knowledge gleaned from the papers one step further. We did this through our Skypes with the authors. I had the students bring a question to class that they could ask our Skype guest so they were prepared for the discussion. We also did this through jigsaws. I’ll explain the jigsaw here with one of the examples, the penguin jigsaw.

We had four different open access penguin papers published by a set of authors over about 4 years. I encouraged the students to work through our guiding questions before they got to class. Our first task in class was to give students time to meet with the other students that read that article. This was their expert group.  This gave students the chance to talk about the paper, ask questions, get clarifying information, and build confidence around the paper. Then we split the expert group up and students joined a home group. This home group was made up of people who read all of the articles. This home group discussion gave students the chance to get content from the four different articles but only read one saving students time and encouraging discussion. During these student activities I circulated between the different groups, addressed misconceptions, preconceptions, and muddy points, answered questions, kept students on task and added details where necessary. In addition to discussing some of our major guiding questions, when the students got to their home groups they also filled out a timeline of the penguin research and discussed how the findings, results, implications and conclusions changed over time. They also discussed their thoughts on the emperor penguin’s fate with climate change.

The jigsaw was very well received and is an activity that created “active experts” one of the principles of inclusive teaching (see the 4 part Stanford Teaches series “Closing the Gender Gap in your STEM Classroom.”

“An active expert role is one in which the student answers questions, makes comments, teaches others, or expresses their voice through presentations (Hazari et al., 2010). It has been shown that students who teach their classmates more frequently can develop a stronger identity in that subject (Hazari et al., 2010) (see Post 1, Common Metrics Table), as “taking on the role of an expert through teaching others might make students feel like they belong to the expert group” (Hazari et al., 2010). Since this feeling of belonging is what girls often lack in STEM fields, active expert roles may help girls in particular to enhance their sense of belonging to their classmates and to the material they engage with.”

One student wrote that the jigsaw chats “helped me improve communication skills.” As a Girls and Women in STEM advocate it is extremely important for me to incorporate principles of inclusive and accessible teaching. I see this is a challenge for not only gender inclusivity but for learning styles and other aspects of positionality and background the students bring to the classroom. One student wrote,

“You are fantastic! I love having all these female role models in the animal sciences!!”

21st Century Skills

My sister pointed me to the 21st Century Skills and I wanted to talk about a few of the skills I tried to implement in the course briefly here.

I tried to give my students practice doing things that scientists have to do every day to help build confidence (and to give them tools that can help them do this) for those students who will enter a STEM major but also things that are beneficial to all students, whether they choose to pursue STEM fields or not.


Communicate clearly

  • Articulate thoughts and ideas effectively using oral, written and nonverbal communication skills in a variety of forms and contexts
  • Listen effectively to decipher meaning, including knowledge, values, attitudes and intentions •

Collaborate with others

  • Demonstrate ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams
  • Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member

I wanted to give them practice collaborating and working in groups. The days of science being done by one person are long gone and I tried to give them practice working in groups and discussing science (e.g. jigsaws). I hope that I started to achieve the last objective “Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member.”

Creativity/Innovation/Critical Thinking

Think creatively

  • Create new and worthwhile ideas (both incremental and radical concepts)

Work creatively with others

  • Develop, implement and communicate new ideas to others effectively
  • Be open and responsive to new and diverse perspectives; incorporate group input and feedback into the work

Critical thinking

  • Effectively analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims and beliefs
  • Interpret information and draw conclusions based on the best analysis
  • Reflect critically on learning experiences and processes

I also wanted to give them practice thinking critically and creatively. I encouraged the students to think about limitations of the methods they read about, to think about things that the papers didn’t do and to think about whether they were convinced by the paper “do you buy it?” In the jigsaw about mega-fish species we did in our last class, I could tell that they were being more critical about the papers they were reading than they were in the beginning. I also had them respond to a “Request for Proposals” for the Heenehan Foundation and to think about what they might do next with the knowledge from the four jigsaw papers moving forward. What type of question would you want to answer next, how would you do it? This is how scientists get new ideas and progress their research programs, and I had my students do it in my class.

Student response to active learning

Over the last couple of weeks I have sat in some online webinars and have started to follow some of the teaching and learning centers around the U.S. on Twitter and sign up for various listserves. What I have learned is that I am so thankful that I “grew up” into an early career academic at Duke. I was fortunate enough to take classes that helped me develop my skills, learn about active learning techniques and approaches, and creative and varied ways to assess my students. I read an article called “What if students revolt?”—Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation.

It was all about students revolting against active learning in the classroom. I’m glad I didn’t read this before my class, in fact it made me think, no wonder professors are hesitant to break from the status quo and incorporate some of these active learning or innovative teaching techniques in their classroom if they think there is going to be a coup! For me the status quo has always been active. But back to the article. What might students do? What can you do to curb some of this student resistance? Maybe it was naïve of me to do so, but I went in full-tilt with my active learning teaching style. I didn’t even think about the fact that the students might “revolt” as the article suggested. But as I continued to read I realized that without knowing it, I was implementing many of the strategies they review to help curb some of this resistance. These included:

  1. Practicing Instructor Immediacy- Decrease Social Distance between Yourself and the Students

I practiced instructor immediacy by doing many of the things the article mentioned without even knowing the term “instructor immediacy.” First they defined instructor immediacy as “the presence of behaviors by an instructor that effectively decreases the social distance between themselves and their students” (Mehrabian, 1971; Science Education Research Center [SERC], 2013). The behaviors that they point to are both verbal and nonverbal. These include simple things like smiling! Why wouldn’t I smile in class? Knowing students names, again I only had the students for a month and there were 48 of them but I tried my best to learn as many names as possible and to use them in class when I called on students. I tried to make myself look comfortable with the students, make eye contact, I MOVED around the classroom especially when they were working in groups to check in, answered questions, and listened to their conversation. I did all of these things but mostly because they are part of my personality and my inherent teaching style but it also turns out that these things can help curb student resistance to active or innovative teaching techniques. In fact, some of my students called for more innovative teaching and moving even more away from “boring powerpoints.”

  1. Be explicit with students about the reasoning behind your pedagogical choices

I tried to do this as much as possible but could have been even more explicit about my choices. I know that I chose to have them participate in class through various active learning techniques but I didn’t always tell them why. One example of when I did tell them was when I put up a table, a memory matrix, and as a class we spent time filling it out. I wanted to give them that study skill and to encourage them to use tables like that to summarize information and study for the exam (and then I actually put some memory matrix questions on the exam). I also showed them through my first lecture that they wouldn’t just be sitting and listening. I did this by asking them questions, incorporating activities, poll everywhere questions and showed them what they could expect moving forward. If it were my class for the whole semester I might have framed this even more on the first day in addition to throughout the course. I also had them think about the different types of activities and techniques I was using and asked to reflect on their learning. Overwhelmingly all of the active learning techniques I implemented as well as “breaks” during lectures were extremely well received. I actually didn’t have to tell them why it would help them learn, through my evaluations and time spent on getting feedback in class, they came to it on their own.

  1. Structure student-student interactions to promote fairness

Social loafing is one of my favorite terms I have learned over the last few years and I combated social loafing and structure student-student interactions in the class in a few different ways. A simple way was through think pair share. This simple structure helped the students work through a question and give them time to turn to a neighbor and talk. An even more structured way was through the jigsaw. I found that holding them accountable to each other helps the discussions and helps them engage in the readings beyond just talking about the results. It also encouraged something else I have read about called “active experts” discussed above.

  1. Vary the teaching methods used

I tried to do this in every class and tried to make the class more accessible to everyone and tried my best to give everyone a technique or activity that suited them, their personality, their studying preferences, their extro or intro-vertedness, etc.

One student wrote that “The variety of teaching methodology” was the most valuable part of his or her learning experience.

One other point the article made is that it is important to have some “resistance” and that resistance can even be positive. I tried to encourage constructive student resistance in my class since I hoped to use the students’ opinions and experiences to further improve the class and make the techniques used in class even more effective. I also wanted to know which of the activities or techniques I used worked the best so I can try new ones in place of ones that students didn’t like in the future, and continue to use the techniques that are most effective for the students. One of the most important things for encouraging this constructive student resistance was to show the students that I care about their responses. I did this by talking about the first round of feedback and told the students what I was doing in response. These students get surveyed all the time, so it was important for me to explain to them why I was giving them the survey and then to show them what I was doing with it. Their feedback affected the rest of my time teaching them and will certainly affect the next class I teach.

Challenge of Telepresencing

I was responsible for nine lectures, six of which I visited main campus, a 3.5 hour drive from the Duke Marine Lab. The other three I used the telepresence system we have to connect main campus to the marine lab. I found that this was one of the most challenging aspects of the course for me. When I took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator I was overwhelmingly an “E” for extrovert. This means I draw my energy from others something that can be both good and bad. If the energy in the room is bad then I feed off of that and if the energy in the room is good and positive I feed off of that as well. But what happened when I wasn’t able to get any energy?

The telepresence system worked really well. I could share my content with the students and they could see me at the same time, except I wasn’t able to hear anything the students were doing unless they pushed a button on their desk. This meant that when I told a joke or used some light-hearted comments during the class, sometimes I could see students who sat in the front smile if it was a big enough smile. One woman who usually sat towards the front had a big enough smile that her .5 inch face on the screen conveyed something to me. But it is so hard to tell body language when your students are less than an inch on a screen and when you can’t see all of them because the camera can only pan out so wide. I could tell they were turning to their neighbors and reacting to what I was saying, I just couldn’t hear any of it and it was very hard to gauge how things were being received. In addition, when I went back and watched one of my telepresence lectures I could hear students talking at the same time I was, but I couldn’t hear them when I was talking. So I responded to this challenge by incorporating as many things as possible to get students to press the button. I had one of the authors of the sea turtle paper telepresence with me and had the students ask him questions they brought written down on a piece of paper. I also did my extinct shark expert Skype on a telepresence class. I asked the students questions that required them to press their buttons to answer and I also used poll everywhere questions, something I used while in the room too, to get quick feedback from them. I found I had to be more purposeful about these types of interactions during my telepresence classes, because otherwise it would feel like talking to a wall.

More innovation!

As a way to support my approach to teaching and some areas for improvement (namely pace) I would like to provide all of the student’s responses to the question “What should the instructor do more of?”

“example videos and pictures to exhibit behaviors and traits”

“More summaries, those comparison charts are awesome!”

interactive/clarifying charts”

“I like that you post the powerpoints”

“Poll everywhere- nice tool to quickly assess and reinforce understanding”

“explaining what may be unfamiliar terms”

“talk a little more slowly sometimes”

“Keep up the humor and lighthearted comments! Love the news articles, social media stuff, etc., makes it fun and relevant”

“same thing”

“keep the skype sessions and jigsaws”

“talk slower during PDFs and more videos”

“personal connections”

“videos interspersed within slides”

“keep doing jigsaw and author skypes”

“media integration”

“keep tying material to learning objectives and exam material”

“everything is good, maybe more test prep questions”

“tables of differences”

“videos, those are great to illustrate concepts”

“slow down talking”

“clarify exam points/expectations”

Some more Reflection from the evaluations:

Evaluation 1 (39 respondents)

92% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I find the format of this class helpful to the way that I learn.”

100% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel this class engages my interest.”

92% of students either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I learn better when the instructor presents key learning objectives from a class session.”

100% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I learn better when the instructor summarizes key ideas from a class session.”

38/39 responded strongly agree or agree to “I feel comfortable approaching the instructor with questions or comments” The one remaining respondent wrote “Neither agree nor Disagree.”

Some things to improve on or think about

There was more spread in how students felt speaking in class. I would likely try to accommodate the students who didn’t feel comfortable speaking in class by incorporating some online discussions, back-channeling during class, etc.

I also speak quickly so I have to think about speaking more slowly, taking pauses to check in with students, etc.

Evaluation 2 (27 respondents)

When I asked the students to describe me and the class in one word, here is how they responded.

Instructor in one word…


The class in one word…


And when asked if they would recommend this instructor to fellow students? Why or why not? This is a word cloud about how they responded.


Below are all of the student responses to the most valuable part of this learning experience…

The variety of teaching methodology

seeing the different perspectives on certain papers

the sheer amount of information/broadened understanding of a very diverse subject


The informative lectures

Talking to authors

Videos and jigsaw groups

“seeing people’s personal connections to the specific areas of study in such a large subject as marine Megafauna”

“jigsaws and pdfs”

“personal connections”

“Further excitement about topic”

“first-hand knowledge of the subject through research connections”

“understanding the methods and approaches used to tackle research questions”

“when we couple learning w/ videos pictures to see what we’ve learned in action”


“Personal interaction with heather, enjoyable class discussion”

“diverse introductions to such a vast field”

“reading and analyzed the scientific papers to be comfortable with that kind of reading”

“jigsaw chats-> helped me improve communication skills”

“Hearing about new research! -> also limitations-> success stories vs. failures are interesting/important”

“seeing examples”

“getting excited about marine science”

“Real life examples.”

One student wrote: “you really do care about the marine environment and it shows.”

In response to “What is one thing you would change about the instructor’s teaching style/methods that would improve your learning.” The response mostly center around going more slowly through material although two students note that lecture speed improved from when they took the first evaluation and wrote that on the first one as well. They also wrote about making clearer connections to what will be tests and finding the connection points between the topics and lectures.