When contemplating a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI) career, take note that the nature of your job can vary considerably depending on the institution. This is part of a series of blogs that list some salient features of an institution that can affect your work.
Today’s focus – Student skill level and teaching
If you are contemplating a PUI position, you should be looking forward to teaching (in which case, you’ll have a lot to look forward to). But what kind of teaching should you look forward to? There are many factors that impact the nature of your teaching experience. One is the skill level of your students. As noted in the previous post, institution size and reputation can affect the kind of students you will get in your research lab. The kinds of students you get in your classes will impact your teaching experience.
Do you look forward to working with students who come to you with strong academic skills and a substantial knowledgebase? Would you look forward to working with students that are weaker and more naïve? Unlike in the research lab, where it is unquestionably better to have students with strong skill sets (at least with regards to your productivity), in the classroom I think there are some pros and cons.
Students with stronger academic backgrounds can be a lot of fun because you can interact with them at a higher level and “get to the good stuff” in terms of course content. Perhaps you could skip over the central dogma of molecular biology and talk about epigenetic mechanisms, or the details of transcription initiation, for example.
Weaker students need to be brought along more slowly, and their lack of basic skills can make the teaching experience challenging and often frustrating. They may not understand terms like “epigenetic”, or “transcription”, or even “initiation” or “mechanism”. You may not be able to simply give lectures and assign reading and count on them to assimilate the material.
On the other hand, it can be very rewarding to work with a student that comes in with a little and leaves with a lot – there’s a greater distance in which you could bring them along and it is very satisfying to help students realize their potential. It can be similar to research – a lot of sweat and frustration, but occasionally you score a success, and the investment makes it all the sweeter.
Furthermore, students with strong backgrounds can actually sometimes be hard to teach in some ways. They may be less open-minded about what you are trying to teach them (thinking they already know everything), or how you are trying to teach them (thinking they already know the best ways to learn). Being more self-sufficient, they may also be less willing to work with others or make active contributions to the class if that is something you decide to ask of your students.
Knowing what kind of students you’ll be teaching can be informative. Next time I’ll mention some ways you can gauge the academic level of your students.