Giving a Teaching Demo

Melissa Dennihy offers tips for job candidates on a crucial part of the campus visit.

January 21, 2015

The teaching demo is a common step in the hiring process at many colleges. Giving a successful demo can be challenging, especially for candidates who haven’t taught their own classes. To prepare, start by finding out what kind of teaching demo you’ll be giving. Demos can take a few forms. You might demo to a group of faculty acting as students, or you might teach an actual class. In either scenario, you may be asked to use your own material or given material to cover. If the details of your demo are not made explicit, ask for clarification. You should also inquire about how and by whom your teaching will be evaluated. Search committee members will likely be at the demo, but students may also be invited to give feedback.

Knowing the type of demo you’ll be giving is crucial. Though it can be awkward, teaching a “class” to faculty often means freedom to choose your own content, whereas leading an actual class usually necessitates using the material students are currently studying. In the latter scenario, read the official course description and objectives, and contact the instructor ahead of time. Ask for a copy of the syllabus and any relevant assignments the students are working on (that said, while you may have to rely on the instructor’s materials to some extent, you should also feel free to bring in supplemental texts or materials of your own).

Once you know the type of demo you’ll be teaching and the material you’re expected to cover, start preparing. Beyond lesson-planning, there are some other preliminary steps you can take:

  • As with cover letters and interviews, teaching demos require that you do your research. This doesn’t just mean researching the course you’ll be giving a lesson in, but also learning as much as you can about the student population. Much of this research can be done online, of course, but, if possible, you should also spend some time on campus before your demo. Visit the places students hang out — the library, the cafeteria, the lounge — and talk with them. Ask about who they are, what they are interested in, and what their academic goals and backgrounds are. This will give you more insight as to what to expect in the classroom and how to engage students successfully. Taking this step is particularly important if you are giving a demo at a different type of institution than the one you currently teach at — for example, if you have only taught at a research university but are a candidate for a community college position, you’ll want to get a sense of what community college students are like and how these students might differ from those at a more competitive institution.
  • If you haven’t taught your own courses before, ask a friend, mentor, or adviser if you might guest-teach for them before your demo. Even if the course content and student body population are nothing like those you will work with during your demo, it can prove enormously useful to experience being in front of a class. Ask the instructor to observe the session and give you as much feedback as possible.
  • If you’re an experienced teacher, review the feedback from past faculty observation reports on your teaching. What has impressed colleagues about your teaching and how can you do something similar during your demo? What critiques or suggestions have you received and, if you haven’t already incorporated them into your teaching, how can you address these in preparing your demo? 

If you don’t have time or opportunity to do things like hang around the campus or fill in for another instructor, don’t stress: The most important part of a teaching demo is preparing an effective, engaging, and memorable class session. Don’t focus only on lesson-planning — a demo is also an opportunity to show how you engage with students and create a productive and supportive learning environment.Some suggestions for planning your class session:

  • Be sure your demo reflects the claims you’ve made about your teaching at other points throughout the hiring process, including in your cover letter, teaching portfolio, and interviews. If, for example, you’ve emphasized student-centered classrooms in your written materials and interview answers, but deliver a long lecture during your demo, committee members will likely notice and question the discrepancy.
  • Have more than one plan: you might want to cover three activities during a 45-minute demo, but the class may need more or less time than you anticipate. When you don’t know your audience, having more than one plan is advisable — in fact, three might be best: design your ideal lesson plan, and then map out two others that adjust for the possibilities of running out of time and having extra time. You might also consider having a backup plan that allows you to take the class in a different direction should you find that whatever you planned just isn’t working. It’s better to show your ability to adapt to students’ needs than to stick firmly to a lesson plan students aren’t responding to.
  • Use students’ names. Start the class by explaining who you are, and then ask students who they are. In a smaller class, have each student introduce themselves, doing your best to memorize names. In a larger class, bring nametags for students to fill out and display on their desks. Regardless of the class size, finding a way to familiarize yourself with students and address them by name will impress students and faculty alike.
  • Get students talking to each other. A sign of a good teacher — one that won’t go unnoticed by search committee members — is the ability to have students learn from one another, with the instructor facilitating, rather than monopolizing, class discussion. While you want to showcase your teaching skills, be sure to strike a balance between the time you spend talking and the time you spend guiding student-centered activities.
  • Be cautious about technology. Instructional technology is a hot topic in higher education right now, but high-tech approaches aren’t always right for teaching demos. We all know how stressful technical difficulties can be, so rule out anything that might go awry. Don’t overlook possible problems. For example, playing a video requires the necessary audiovisual equipment and the internet speed and reliability required for successful streaming. Unless you can confirm that the classroom you’ll be in has all the technological capabilities you’ll need, don’t take chances that can throw off your plans. Likewise, technology shouldn’t be used simply to prove that you use technology. If it is used, technology should make a valuable, visible contribution to the lesson that could not be achieved without the use of that technology. Audiovisual elements also shouldn’t distract attention from you and your teaching (think about how PowerPoints, for example, can prompt students to copy down text from slides instead of listening and engaging). Handouts are as effective as displaying material on a screen, and they leave students and faculty with something concrete to remember your lesson by.
  • Show that you like teaching and working with students. This is especially crucial at a teaching institution. Candidates who can’t connect with students stand little chance of landing a teaching-oriented position, no matter how top-notch their research may be. Be an interesting, enthusiastic instructor. Treat students with respect: engage their comments, invite their questions, and thank them for their participation. Phrases as simple as, “That’s a great question” or “Thanks for raising that point” show that you value student contributions and foster an environment where students and teacher learn with and from one another.  



Melissa Dennihy is assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.


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