Looking back at my postgraduate teaching years

The need arose to summarize my past teaching experience, therefore I took the chance to key in and graph out the teaching scores I received as a part-time teaching assistant while I was a postgraduate student. After all, we’re supposed to be scientists; we should be evaluating ourselves using the best available data.

Some background

Anyone who was an undergraduate at NUS remembers that you are asked to give some feedback on your lecturers and teaching assistants towards the end of each Semester, before the examinations. Questions requesting for quantitative scores (ranging from 1 to 5) include:

1.  The teacher has enhanced my thinking ability.

2. The teacher provides timely and useful feedback.

3. The teacher is approachable for consultation.

4. The teacher has helped me develop relevant research skills.*

5. The teacher has increased my interest in the subject.

6. The teacher is able to demonstrate cross-disciplinary relationships in relevant topics and has taught us to draw interconnections between different areas in Science.

7. The teacher is able to illustrate some actual or potential applications of knowledge covered in the syllabus.

8. Overall the teacher is effective.

[* Most of the time this question is not applicable, and students don’t answer it.]

Questions soliciting qualitative feedback include:

9. What are the teacher’s strengths?

10. What improvements would you suggest to the teacher?

Students are also asked to nominate teachers for awards for best teaching.

What most undergraduate students don’t know is that postgraduate students, or at least those from my Department (Biological Sciences), may request for the consolidated feedback in the following semester. I’m not sure what proportion of my peers do it, but since the first time I knew of and signed up for this option, I’ve always found it interesting to know where I stand compared to department and faculty averages, and often heart-warming to read some of the comments from the students.

Results

Question 8 is probably the best single metric to look at, as an overall score.

Two types of faculty and department averages were provided to us: (1) across all modules of the same type of session (i.e., laboratory component, tutorials, etc.), and (2) across modules of that session for that particular level of modules only. In my case I always only taught third-year modules. Scores of the 2nd type appear to be almost always higher than the 1st type. My guess is that higher level (i.e., third-year or fourth-year) modules receive more positive feedback compared to freshman or introductory-level modules.

I taught one module per semester from Academic Year (AY) 2008/2009 to 2012/2013 (Semester, or “Sem”, 1), but only knew of the option to view students’ feedback from AY2009/2010 Sem 1 onwards.

The module codes refer to the following modules:

  • LSM3261: Life Form and Function [I only taught the botany half of the module, i.e., plant life form and function, and the module is only offered in Semester 1. We were both lab demonstrators as well as tutors, but in AY2009/2010 only feedback from the tutorials were provided to me.]
  • LSM3272: Global Change Biology [Only in AY 2009/2010 Sem 2, before Navjot passed away and before my boss started his Tropical Horticulture module.]
  • LSM3256: Tropical Horticulture [Semester 2 only, AY 2010/2011 onwards.]

Error bars are standard errors, calculated from the standard deviations (which were provided to us) divided by square root of the number of respondents. Usually about half to three-quarters of the class would respond (except for the laboratory session of plant Life Form and Function in AY2012/2013 Sem 1, when I gave the practical briefing for the whole lab of 85 students for one session when my boss was on sick leave, but only a quarter responded).

ptta summary

It would seem from these scores that I am probably a slightly above-average teacher, overall.

My best average scores came from teaching Global Change Biology. It was a fun module, but I generally disagreed with the relevance of what we were supposed to teach (and kept those disagreements to myself).

My favourite module as a teaching assistant would have been (an originally third-year module) Ecology and Environmental Processes. I was in charge of bringing students to the forest patch within our campus to establish and survey a vegetation plot, and did it six times for six different groups. I taught it as a first year graduate student in AY2008/2009 Sem 2; unfortunately I never got the student feedback from that module, but I remember with great satisfaction the stark difference between the group that went into the forest–quiet, and apprehensive of the terrain and the unruly vegetation–and the group that comes out–lively, comfortable with nature.

My worst scores came from the second year of teaching Tropical Horticulture, when the sample size was small (only 5 respondents), and one student was particularly dissatisfied with me, writing in the comments:

Teaching attitude is very inappropriate. Makes too many assumptions (many are wrong) about students. Poor people skills.

The only other comment that came close to this level of negativity was from the tutorial feedback of my very last semester teaching plant Life Form and Function:

If you’re going to give one-liner comments for assignments, you might as well not bother. Jesus Christ.

I did not feel hurt by both comments; bemused, maybe, wondering who it was, and what exactly was it that I did that made him/her feel that way. But I had more than enough positive comments to counter these.

A very common adjective used to describe my strengths was “approachable”; otherwise “friendly”. I was often described as funny or humorous; able to explain or convey difficult ideas across effectively; stimulating/provoking them to “think out of the box” and guiding them towards answers without “spoon-feeding”; “passionate”, and “knows his stuff”.

Other really kind comments include:

He always asks questions and prods us to think and question. The good thing about him is that he ensures that he follows through with the questions he asks. After students feedback and replies to the question, he will modify the answers and summarize it. This is very good because not all lecturers or TAs follow through with the questions they ask, normally leaving students confused and hanging. He is also able to relate wlll with students and is able to explain concepts and learning points clearly. He is always available for questionong and if he is not sure of the answers to questions, he will make effort to find the answer to our questions instead of just avoiding them

he talks about anything under the sun. it’s good because he has initiated thoughts and facilitated our group discussions(and of course our group’s quite responsive/active too). I enjoyed the discussions in this module. Although sometimes he backfires himself when he expresses his ideas, i feel that it’s better than being too careful about words. The nature of global issues is always contradicting at local levels due to socio-economic, cultural and political differences.

Mr Chong, you are such a kind and dedicated TA. You advised us our essays and about skipping practical. I can see that you worked very hard to gain extra extra knowledge, which in turn benefit us. Wish you all the best in future endeavors!

Seems really effective; always the first group to finish during tutorials. Group discussions also seems quite lively as compared to other groups.

He encourages thinking, require each student to think of an idea each. He is rather encouraging, doesn’t shove off others’ opinions.

I was nominated by one student in AY2009/2010 Sem 2, one student in AY 2010/2011 Sem 1, and two students in AY2010/2011 Sem 2 for the best teaching award. Twice, in separate years, I was described as the best teaching assistant he/she has had in their 3 years in NUS.

Those who know me know that teaching in schools could have been an alternative career path for me. Comments and feedback like these have encouraged me to continue being passionate about teaching, to always put science education and mentorship first.

So if you are asked to give feedback on talks, workshops, or lectures, I hope you will spare some time to do so. Regardless of whether the feedback is negative or positive, it would help someone who cares about the quality of his/her teaching to improve.

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1 Comment

  1. May Anne said,

    4 May 2015 at 10:38

    Hello from Vancouver! I just wanted to chime in with nods and ‘I agree’s to the many comments you’ve shared in this post. I thoroughly enjoyed learning from you during my time interning in the lab. Your positive attitude and willingness to teach kept me interested and energised and I still speak about my experience with excitement when I get the chance to!
    – May Anne


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