Why early career researchers should care about teaching

Teaching is the art of enabling learning. For that reason, knowledge of the subject matter is not an adequate impetus to learning. A good teacher understands knowing how people learn is critical in facilitating learning. Sadly, many universities across the world are staffed by subject experts who have no formal training in higher education.

After completing my PhD studies in the US, I returned home and took a position as a lecturer. I enjoyed teaching but there was one problem; I had no idea how students learn. Of course, like most instructors in higher education, I knew how I learned. And I assumed that’s how everyone else learned.

No one taught me how to prepare course materials that addressed the learning objectives. But I had to. No one showed me how to draft a course schedule that guarantees students would master the subject content. But I had to. Importantly, no one showed me how to create a lesson plan, deliver a lecture or assess the students’ performance. But I had to.

Each day, as I stood in front of my zealous students, I became more aware of my inadequacy. My students deserved better. Although I had an impressive resume, a Fulbright Fellow, numerous awards, and a couple of papers in reputable journals, I had zero qualifications in education. How would I enable learning if I didn’t know how people learned?

I had to learn how people learn.

1. Enroll for a postgraduate certificate in higher education

After teaching in Zimbabwe for one academic year, I decided to take a postdoc position. It has been a year now since I started my postdoc. In January, I enrolled for a postgraduate certificate in higher education at Falmouth University. I realized that if I want to return to the classroom, I had to be better equipped.

2. Take online classes on teaching

They’re numerous MOOCs offering courses on teaching for free. During the Christmas holidays, I enrolled for a class on inclusive learning offered by University of Southampton at FutureLearn. The good news was studying for a certificate was free for learners in developing nations.

3. Take advantage of the free faculty prep courses on your campus

When I was doing my PhD at the University of California Riverside, I failed to enroll for the certificate in university teaching. I regret it because I ended up getting a postdoc at university that didn’t offer the certificate. Some universities offer it, and it’s probably wise enrolling in the course.

4. Reflect on your teaching practice

One of the best ways to learn how people learn is by stopping and reflecting on your practice. I learned this during in my PGCHE class. In the past week, I went back to an online discussion and peer review assignment I gave my students when I was still a lecturer. Reading the comments, I learned a lot about student engagement. I never realized I was sitting on a gold mine all along.

There’s much to learn, and even more when it comes to learn about learning. As an early career researcher, you probably need to learn about learning if you want to be an academic. I know the jobs in academia are scarce, but it never hurts to learn. Does it?

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