With the experience of nearly two decades and 9,000-plus students, biologist Dr. Kenneth Filchak shares insights on syllabi, exams, grading, and more.
Professor of Evolutionary Biology,University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana
PhD in Zoology, BS in Zoology
For many educators at the collegiate level, taking on a professorial role comes after years of developing subject matter expertise, not educational strategies. For those few who have taken some formal coursework on how to teach, becoming an effective instructor is not something that happens overnight. In fact, one might say the process is evolutionary—particularly if one were a professor of evolutionary biology, like Kenneth Filchak, PhD, of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
After 16-plus years at the front of the classroom (and more than 9,000 students), Filchak has gathered a list of personal best practices for what works—and what does not—when it comes to engaging students and helping material sink in. These come not only from his own experiences as an educator but also from other instructors, good and bad, whom he has seen in action. Many mistakes, he says, start as well-intentioned ideas that go awry due to poor planning or execution.
For PhD students, TAs, and new professors who want to speed up their own learning curve, Filchak recommends doing an informal “study” of teachers in the classroom, at all levels. “Take notes on what they do right and wrong,” he suggests. “Try to incorporate the ‘right’ into your own teaching, because everybody has something to teach you about presentation, style, and method. But you might actually learn more from [teachers] who do a ‘bad’ job than the ones [who] do a great job!”
With that in mind, here are the eight common mistakes Filchak says novice instructors often make—as well as his recommendations for avoiding them.
“I wish someone had sat me down early in my teaching career and told me the mistakes I was likely to make, and how to avoid them.”
-Kenneth E. Filchak, PhD
Course: 10162 Biological Sciences II
Course description: This is the second semester of a two-semester course for first year students contemplating a career in biology, medicine, or related areas of life science. The topics presented in the second semester in the context of modern evolutionary theory include biological diversity, ecology, and organismal physiology.
Mistake 1: Treating undergraduates like graduate students
This often happens with new professors who have recently completed a PhD or postdoc. They can unknowingly default to teaching their students the way they have recently been taught—at a graduate student level. “These instructors are used to running at a very fast intellectual pace. You should not be expecting a freshman or sophomore to be anywhere close to that sort of pacing,” says Filchak.
A better idea: Focus on quality, not quantity. Filchak recommends refocusing the primary goal: Teaching is not about how many ideas or subjects you give but about impacting how your students think, process, and question information. “It should be about how to read and think about Shakespeare, not whether they read 20 vs. 3 plays,” he says.
Mistake 2: Not fleshing out the syllabus
A syllabus can be thought of as a contract between the student and teacher, says Filchak. If it is general or vague, certain students might be tempted use that to their advantage, arguing for a better grade or leniency on an assignment. “Any ambiguity goes against the person who made the contract and must be avoided at all costs,” says Filchak.
A better idea: Along with details, include a weekly planner. A good syllabus spells out the teacher’s expectations and lists the criteria by which a student’s grade will be generated. It should also include policies related to attendance, participation, group work, and missing/making up exams. Finally, Filchak suggests creating a week-by-week planner for the course, one that students can post right on their desks. That way, with just a quick look, students can keep on track and be ready for exams when they occur.
Mistake 3: Teaching to a small subset of the class
Students in each class have different levels of expertise and knowledge. No matter what you do, it can be extremely difficult to “absolutely capture” the interest of the top and bottom 10% of students, says Filchak. The top students may want the professor to speed up and cover more information; the lowest performers will want a much slower pace and lots of review. New professors may spend a majority of their energy on a very small percentage of their class.
A better idea: Shoot for the middle 80%. There are some students who will fall behind despite a professor’s best efforts, and there will be some at the other end who will be bored with the pace of the class. But if educators shoot for material that speaks to the 80% of students in the middle, they can make the biggest overall impact. Further, you can still engage the students at both extremes of the spectrum by inviting them to meet outside of class. Struggling students can review material and top students can get challenged with additional, higher-level readings.
Mistake 4: Writing exams at the last minute
Because of time constraints, it is common for professors to wait until the last minute to write exams. This becomes especially acute if large class size forces the use of multiple-choice exams. In all of academia, good multiple-choice exams are one of the hardest things to write, Filchak says, because to be good they must “truly probe the knowledge of the student without being needlessly picky.” This means that, though they are quicker to grade, they can take an enormous amount of time to create—more than a new educator might imagine. Making up a test at the last minute also means “you’re trying to recall what you said three weeks ago in class,” says Filchak.
A better idea: Write exam questions after every lecture. Filchak’s advice is simple: “Every day after class, go back to your office and spend 10 minutes writing exam questions.” The practice is effective, he says, because you write questions according to how you actually handled information in class that same day.
Allowing yourself time to think also fosters more meaningful and less arbitrary queries. Filchak illustrates it with the following example: “Let’s say you are covering the Civil War. An easy question to write would be, ‘What day or month did the Civil War begin?’ A much better question would be about the forces that caused the Civil War to begin at that time. This forces students to go beyond just memorizing names and dates; they are forced to reflect at a much deeper level.”
Mistake 5: Delaying the first exam for too long
Even with guidance and practice exams, students often do not understand what will be expected from them on exam day. The best thing is for them is to actually take an exam. Often professors wait far too long into the semester, and that exam will be worth too much of the students’ final grade.
A better idea: Give the first exam on week two. The first exam should be low-stakes, Filchak says, meaning it has only a modest impact on the overall grade. “Keep Exam One to 15% of their final grade,” he says. “This gives the students an excellent chance to recover if they do not do well on that first exam.” Further, try to stay consistent regarding the expectations of the exams. Of course, the coverage of the exam will change, but the structure should remain similar.
Mistake 6: Dropping the lowest exam score
To entice students to perform well on their exams, a new professor might tell students that if they do better on the next test, they can drop an earlier low score. Filchak says this does not set students up for success because it totally removes their responsibility from that first exam.
A better idea: Give extra points for progress. Filchak understands that not every student will do well on the first try. So he has the early exams count for less of the total grade than those that come later in the semester. He explains, “I understand that students might not know what to expect, so I let the next two or three exams count more toward the grade if they do substantially better on them. I won’t drop the first exam—that would not be fair for students who did well on it—but I will give a really nice bump on the final grade if I see sustained improvement over time.”
Mistake 7: Misreading poor performance
If a student does poorly on an exam, the reason(s) for this can vary widely. When a student comes to his office to discuss a poor grade, the first thing Filchak asks is, “‘Why do you think you did poorly?’ To get the student to self-diagnose why they are struggling is one of my highest goals.” This is not a simple task, though. For example, Filchak once observed a group of five students studying for an exam—one of whom spent the vast majority of their time on Facebook and texting friends. “When I questioned them later, they all said they spent a full hour studying.” Many students are completely unaware of the impact of behaviors like this on their exam grades, he says.
Most professors want their students to do well and take it badly when they do poorly. One reaction is to try to jump in and “rescue them”—with a great deal of time and effort. However, says Filchak, “you simply cannot put in more effort than the student does.”
A better idea: Encourage students to help themselves. Filchak recommends sitting down with students who have struggled with exams and going through at least part of the exam question by question. Have them bring in their notes and text, and ask, “‘So why did you miss this question? Was it poor attendance, poor note taking, not identifying the material as important, or simply not learning the material?’ Hopefully this begins the process of self-analysis and help.” Filchak also recommends sharing study tips, time management strategies, and other habits that help students succeed, such as studying for a test throughout the week rather than cramming the night before. He also points students to the school’s on-campus learning and study resources, which can include workshops, tutoring, writing guidance, and individual coaching on study and note-taking skills.
Mistake 8: Trying too hard to be a friend—or not
In an effort to try to set a positive, supportive classroom environment, Filchak finds that new professors often want to be a “friend” to their students. “This can cause all kinds of trouble because, at the end of the day, you are going to be assessing the students and grading them, and that’s a very different dynamic than friendship,” he explains. There is a big difference between being “friendly” vs. being actual “friends,” and this is a difference that young professors in particular need to know.
Other new instructors make the opposite mistake—being completely stoic and closed off, sharing nothing of themselves with their students and focusing only on the subject matter. “This is an error because we are all human, we all struggle at times, and to set ourselves so far apart from the student leaves little room for empathy,” Filchak says. “There’s much less opportunity for realizing that student and teacher have more in common than not.”
A better idea: Identify with student struggles. Filchak recommends being open and empathetic, while maintaining a healthy boundary that respects the student-teacher relationship. To build trust with students, he tells stories about his struggles when he was a student. “I often will share the errors that I made as a student as a teachable moment of what not to do,” he says. “I find that this does two things: it helps them understand errors that they might be making, and it also sets me up as someone who is not impervious to errors and mistakes.”
On the other hand, Filchak notes, “I once had a professor in college who, when asked, said, ‘I got As in all of my courses and really did not have to work very hard.’ While this might be truthful, it makes any kind of student empathy pretty difficult.”