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Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

My first semester as a teaching assistant, I was required to take a semester-long, graded course on pedagogy through my university’s Learning Assistant Program. The goal of the course was to help teaching assistants foster student-centered, active, cooperative learning environments with differentiated classroom instruction. Accustomed to lecture-style classes designed for hundreds of students at a time, I didn’t know what to expect. From my first day in the classroom, though, the professor showed us how to be active, cooperative educators by being one herself. Here are a few of the lessons I learned from her during that first semester that I have gone on to use while teaching my own classes.

Lesson 1: Encourage students to work together. At the beginning of each class period, we arranged our desks to seat small groups of four to five students. The groups rotated to ensure we all interacted with everyone in the class at least once during the semester. In these groups, the instructor would provide each person a part of the assignment to complete individually. Then, we would be asked to present our work to our small group, so that they could ask us questions and contribute. Each group had the same structure, so that when it came time for a large class discussion, each group knew which topics would be discussed. These guided group discussions promote verbal interaction, which benefits student learning through effective questioning. This in turn leads to a deeper understanding, moving students from simple thinking processes, like memory, to deeper processes, like analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Lesson 2: Everyone learns differently. Some students are audio learners, and some visual or kinesthetic learners. And sometimes students are a combination of forms. As teachers, one of our goals is to help students identify and master their learning styles so that they can succeed. One of my favorite examples of this is Science Genius, an initiative by Dr. Chris Edmin from the Teacher’s College at Columbia University that uses hip-hop music and culture to introduce youth to science. Examples of the students’ work can be found on YouTube.

Lesson 3: Help students build mental models by using what they know. Whichever form of learning students might prefer, we want them to build mental models, or explanations of their thought process, with the new information to gain a meaningful understanding of the concepts. For example, in physics, the idea of gravity is abstract—it’s an invisible force that we know acts on us. We can demonstrate its existence by throwing a ball in the air and watching it fall back down; we can relate it to familiar song lyrics like, “What goes up must come down.” Once students understand that, we can build on that model to understand gravity more deeply, like why it is different on the moon than it is on earth. The key here is to make learning a progression—so that each session knowledge builds on what was learned in the previous lessons. This strengthens students’ memory and provides them a perspective from which to understand new ones.

Lesson 4: Teach students content literacy. A successful student is literate in their field, whether that be history or mathematics. Students who are content literate have the ability to read and write in the language of their field to produce new content—for example, graduate students show their content literacy when they publish in academic journals. Encouraging students to read and write, whether it’s an essay or a lab report, enhances their knowledge and promotes long-term retention of material. It encourages students to think critically and independently while developing communication skills that they will need in their careers. Becoming content literate takes years of practice, just like becoming fluent in a language. Practice is the only way to improve. A class blog is a great way to allow students to do so collaboratively. In engineering classes without a lab component, I have done this by having students explain their work step-by-step and comment on the result. This allows them to be more comfortable with the language of a subject while reflecting on their work.

Lesson 5: Overall, an effective teacher is caring, understanding, and respectful. The way we present ourselves to our students influences how they choose to interact with us. On the first day of the semester, our class drafted a social contract with our professor. We outlined what we expected from her as a teacher; she outlined what she expected from us as students. This made us feel the class was ours as well as the professor’s. She showed us that she respected our time by asking us how she could best commit to teaching our class. Throughout the semester, she dedicated ten minutes at the end of each class to a debrief in which we would discuss the assignments from the previous week and classwork done that day. She valued our criticism, and it was comforting for me to see that model. She was openly learning about education and pedagogy too. As we know, it’s a process.

What are some lessons you have learned about teaching? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter via @GradHacker!

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user UCL Teaching under a Creative Commons license.]