What happens when you don’t know anything about the subject you’re teaching?

Biologie & Anatomie & Mensch, via Wikimedia commons

Biologie & Anatomie & Mensch, via Wikimedia commons

Like many grad students in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I my made a living through grad school as a TA.

One semester, there were open positions in the Human Anatomy cadaver lab. I was foolish enough to allow myself to be assigned to this course. What were my qualifications for teaching an upper-division human anatomy laboratory? I took comparative vertebrate anatomy in college four years earlier. We dissected cats. I barely got a C.

You can imagine what a cadaver lab might be like. The point of the lab was to memorize lots of parts, as well as the parts to which those parts were connected. More happened in lecture, I guess, but in lab nearly the entire grade for students was generated from practical quizzes and exams. These assessments consisted of a series of labeled pins in cadavers.

My job was to work with the students so that they knew all the parts for quizzes and exams. (You might think that memorizing the names of parts is dumb, when you could just look them up in a book. But if you’re getting trained for a career in the health sciences, knowing exactly the names of all these parts and what they are connected to is actually a fundamental part of the job, and not too different from knowing vocabulary as a part of a foreign language.)

The hard part about teaching this class is: once you look inside a human being, we’ve got a helluva lotta parts, all of which have names. I was studying the biogeography of ants. Some of the other grad student TAs spent a huge amount of time prepping, to learn the content that we were teaching each week. Either I didn’t have the time, or didn’t choose to make the time. I also discovered that the odors of the preservatives gave me headaches, even when everything was ventilated properly. Regardless of the excuse that I can invent a posteriori, the bottom line is that I knew far less course material than was expected of the students.

Boy howdy, did I blow it that semester! At the end, my evaluation scores were in the basement. Most of the students thought I sucked. The reason that they thought I sucked is because I sucked. What would you think if you asked your instructor a basic question, like “Is this the Palmaris Longus or the Flexor Carpi Ulnaris?” and your instructor says:

I don’t know? Maybe you should look it up? Let’s figure out what page it is in the book?

The whole point of the lab was for students to learn where all the parts were and what they were called. And I didn’t know how to find the parts and didn’t know the names. I lacked confidence, and my students were far more interested in the subject. It was clear to the students that I didn’t invest the time in doing what was necessary to teach well. They could tell, correctly, that I had higher priorities.

Even though students were in separate lab sections, a big chunk of the grade was based on a single comprehensive practical exam that was administered to all lab sections by the lecture instructor. Even though I taught them all semester – or didn’t teach them at all – their total performance was measured against all other students, including those who were lucky enough to be in other lab sections taught by anatomy groupies. Even I at the time realized that my students drew the short straw.

One of my sections did okay, and was just above the average lab section. The other section – the first of the two – had the best score among all of the lab sections! My students, with the poor excuse of an ignoramus instructor, kicked the butts of all other sections. These are the very same students that gave me the most pathetic evaluation scores of all time. They aced the frickin’ final exam.

What the hell happened?

I inadvertently was using a so-called “best practice” called inquiry-based instruction. That semester, I taught the students nothing, and that’s why they learned.

Now, I know even less human anatomy than I did back then. (I remember the Palmaris Longus, though, because mine is missing.) I bet my students would learn even more now than mine did then, and I also bet that I’d get pretty good evals, to boot. Why is that?

I’d teach the same way I taught back then, but this time around, I’d do it with confidence. If a student asked me to tell the difference between the location of muscle A and muscle B, I’d say:

I don’t know. You should look it up. Find it in the book and let me know when you’ve figured it out.

The only difference between the hypothetical now, and the actual then, is confidence. Of course, there’s no way in heck that I’ll ever be assigned to teach human anatomy again, because the instructors really should have far greater mastery than the students. In this particular lab, I don’t think mastery by the instructor really mattered, as the instructor only needed to tell the students what they needed to know, and the memorization required very little guidance. (For Bloom’s taxonomy people this was all straight-up basic “knowledge.”)

I do not recommend having an ignorant professor teach a course. If a class requires anything more than memorizing a bunch of stuff, then, obviously, the instructor needs to know a lot more than the students. Aside from a laboratory in anatomy, few if any other labs require (or should require) only straight-up memorization of knowledge. Creating the most effective paths for discovery requires an intimate knowledge of the material, especially when working with underprepared students.

For contrasting example, when I’ve taught about the diversity, morphology and evolutionary history of animals, I tell my students the same amount of detail that I told my anatomy students back then: nothing. I provide a framework for learning, and it’s their job to sort it out. If a students asks about the differences between an annelid and a nemadote, I refrain from busting into hours of lecture. But I don’t just lead them to specimens and a book. I need to provide additional lines of inquiry that put their question into context. It’s not just memorizing a muscle. In this case, it’s about learning bigger concepts about evolutionary history and how we study attempt to reconstruct the evolutionary trees of life. I ask them to make specific comparisons and I ask leading questions to make sure that they’re considering certain concepts as they conduct their inquiry. That takes expertise and content knowledge on my part.

To answer the non-rhetorical question that is the title of this post, then I guess the answer is: It will be a disaster.

But if you act with confidence and don’t misrepresent your mastery, then it might be possible to get by with not knowing so much and still have your students learn. Then again, if you’re teaching anything other than an anatomy lab that involves only strict memorization, I’d guess that both you and your students are probably up a creek if you don’t know your stuff.

The semester after was the TA for human anatomy, I taught Insect Biology lab. That was better for everybody.

9 thoughts on “What happens when you don’t know anything about the subject you’re teaching?

  1. This is timely for me given that my department is figuring out TA assignments for next term (we have an unusually large TAing obligation for a computer science department).

    I’ve been trying to do a sort of inquiry-based learning with my students this semester, in what is effectively a CS version of a lab class. I was going to make this a longer comment but it occurs to me that I should make it into a real post instead.

  2. I got tapped to TA the Mammalogy lab in my fifth year of grad school—I was actually studying plants and insects—and spent the summer beforehand cramming. That turned out to be useful because I was doing pretty much exactly what the students had to, and I came up with some tools I could pass along, like decks of virtual flash cards for each clade we focused on. I ended up TA’ing the same lab the next year, too.

  3. Departments are still pulling this stuff – assigning TA’s to classes that they have no business teaching. As a community ecologist, I got tapped to teach Human Anatomy and Physiology labs twice while in grad school. My prior experience with the material was pretty much nonexistent. The first time through, my experience was similar to yours – I did a poor job and received poor evaluations. The second time was several years later and by then I had gained experience with inquiry-based instruction techniques. I told my students on the first day “I don’t hand out answers like candy – it’s up to you to look up answers yourself, and you’ll remember them better than if I just tell you.” I lived by this policy and acted much more confident than I actually was. I put some effort into learning the material, but the students’ knowledge still exceeded my own by the end of the term (what community ecologist wants to memorize the origins, insertions, and actions of a hundred muscles?) It didn’t matter – my students did well on the final and I received high marks on the teaching evals. Better yet, at the end of the term, many of them wanted to know how they could get into my section for the next term. I agree, though, that this won’t fly unless the material is straight memorization!

      • Because in most big universities, the budget is constructed so that chairs don’t know how many sections they are going to offer of each class. It depends on enrollments and they are told by the Dean’s office or the Provost’s office how many sections are available, and then the chair decides how many lab sections of each class will be offered, and how many lecture sections will be offered in classes that have multiple sections. Until all faculty have finalized their teaching loads, which might be at the last minute, then the fair (or as best as possible) allocation of sections to grad students can’t happen, as they get the scraps that are unfilled.

  4. I’m in the middle of this situation this semester. I switched fields between undergrad and grad school, so while I have a fundamental knowledge of physics and math, there aren’t physics and math classes in the geoscience department I’m currently in. Instead, they have me teaching geology 101 which I’ve never remotely taken.

    I do a fair bit of hedging when I don’t know the answer and tell the students to try to figure things out on their own. Unfortunately, the book was written specifically for the course, so most of the sample identification answers are conveniently located in a single table in each chapter.

    A lot of the material is straightforward, so I usually spend the day before making sure I know it well, and I meet with the profs and other TA’s weekly to gloss over the material for the following week as a bit of an intro. Still, I find that teaching it is a different story. I certainly feel more comfortable with my later classes since I know the leading questions to ask to get them to think about things. But my later (Friday afternoon vs. morning) class still didn’t do as well on the recent midterm. Perhaps that’s no surprise since they like to skip class, but it’s still a disappointment.

    I’m handing out the midterm evaluation this week, so we’ll see what they have to say about the course so far. This is my first time TA’ing, much less learning true geology, so I’m hoping that I get some valuable feedback.

  5. Hi, Terry, what a great post! Like other posts have mentioned, universities still tend to place TAs in positions with little direct experience. But, what you discovered, quite by accident, evidently, is a good way to build teamwork with a classroom, and encourage students to challenge each other. “I think this is a Flexor Carpalis.” “I don’t think so.” “Why?” and then the conversation starts. I have done the same thing in my cartography class. “How do you get your map elements to align in a row?” And, I have a variety of responses: “read the Help,” or “I saw you talking to other students; have you asked them?” or “Have you googled this?” or “what other software packages do you use which allow you to align elements?” Students have to be held responsible for a good portion of owning their own learning experience.

    “Inquiry-based learning” seems to be a euphemism for “learn this on your own, then tell me what you find.”

    Students complain about this, which is why I advocate only minimal use of student evaluations. They simply don’t have the background to appreciate the experience. The best evaluation would be given after graduation, when former students realize the value of the learning experience rather than be caught in the emotions of a recent lab course.

    Some colleges, especially community colleges may be evolving away from such learning in sense. Accrediting instutituions are moving to require educators to have a degree in the material being taught. For example, a geography with a strong background in urban geography may not be able to teach a course in urban econonics if that course is listed as an Econ course. Or a person with a Econ degree may not be able to teach a economic geography course.

    Finally, one trait you mention is confidence. I was asked years ago to teach Earth Science. I’m not a geologist, and don’t pretend to be one, though I am in the Dept of Geosciences. I’m a geographer by vocation. I declined the opportunity. 50% of the course was geology; but in essence really more like physical geography. Having learned some lessons about teaching, and teaching topics outside my comfort zone, I realize lecturing and “telling” is nearly useless.

    As you say, provide a framework. Help students ask the right questions, help direct them to ways of discerning facts from fiction. Then, the framework can be useful to them regardless of course or environment.

    Great post.

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