Students enjoy workshops and one-time courses because they can learn something new with little time commitment. Instructors in turn like sharing something they are truly passionate about. For graduate students in particular, workshops offer valuable experience at the front of the classroom, something they may not get in typical Teaching Assistant roles.
For more insight into the challenges and rewards of teaching workshops, I spoke with Jeremy Hsu, a Stanford graduate student in Biology and veteran of both Stanford SPLASH, one-time classes for middle and high school students, as well as BioCore Explorations, a program that allows bioscience graduate students to teach 1-2 sessions to undergraduate biology students on specialized topics. We also solicited input from Hsu’s fellow BioCore Explorations instructors.
A key challenge for instructors before a workshop even begins is deciding what to teach! Without a semester-long schedule to work with, you have to think deeply about what concepts are essential in a lesson and what must be left out.
Then you must decide how to organize your limited time. Whether you have a full day or just an hour, deciding how to use it is critical to a workshop’s success.
Another important challenge is gauging students’ current levels of knowledge. Sometimes you can gather information beforehand, but other times you may have few prior clues about your students.
Finding out what you can about your audience beforehand will help you more effectively plan your workshop. If you have access to student email addresses, use them to do quick surveys before your workshop.
For instance, Hsu’s colleague Isabel Schellinger recalled that before planning her Explorations course, “we sent an email to our students asking them about their background on our Explorations topic and what they expected to learn.” This was helpful in outlining the parameters of her course.
If you don’t have access to your participants directly, find out what you can about the group and setting you will be teaching in (e.g., how many participants should you expect? Will you be in a lab space or a conventional classroom? Are the desks moveable or lecture-style?). Knowing these details can help make your planned activities go more smoothly.
Another Explorations instructor, Daniel Friedman, knew that he wanted students to explore the synergies between art and biology. With three hours to employ, he devoted one hour to “lecture with discussion pauses” and a second hour to “discussion on questions that the students brought in as homework.” The last hour, when normally participants might be getting tired, was energized by “playing with pastels and doing group art.”
Friedman’s example highlights that thinking through the order of activities and how they match your goals can lead to greater success. If you will be doing some lecturing, it is also a good idea to review effective lecturing practices and performance skills.
While having a planned schedule is essential, sometimes it is best to prepare broadly and allow your students to guide the specifics. Hsu recalled one science workshop he taught on DNA where this strategy worked well. At the beginning of class he drew two boxes on the board, and asked the students both ‘what do you know?’ and ‘what do you want to know?’. He had the students discuss these in groups and then report to the whole class. As the students reported, he filled in the boxes on the board.
In this way, he was able to quickly gauge the extent of their existing knowledge about DNA and to generate a list of questions the students had. From this list, he chose questions that aligned best with the material he had prepared beforehand.
This process works best when you know your topic very well and have prepared activities that can be modified to suit different skill levels. It is also useful when you have little prior knowledge about your audience.
In her Explorations workshop on ‘micro RNAs,’ Schellinger reflected that “keeping it interactive was very important” to the day’s success. To avoid overloading the students with information, she switched back and forth between short lectures followed by hands-on activities like conducting an animal ultrasound and looking at slides under a microscope.
Similarly, in leading a session on computational biology, Trevor Martin structured his workshop to get to “the interactive coding part pretty quickly.” Knowing that coding can be a difficult concept to simply hear about, he devoted about 70% of his workshop time to activities where students were actively working and discussing.
Interactive moments are especially important in one-time courses to help participants remember the material.
Prepare yourself for next time by asking for feedback! This last step is essential for learning what worked and what didn’t in your workshop. Bring evaluation sheets with you and ask your students to fill them out in the last five minutes of class. Read them, discuss with a colleague, and change your teaching accordingly to grow as a teacher. You may want to review some resources for evaluating your teaching.
Noelle Boucquey is a postdoctoral scholar and a Fellow in the Thinking Matters Program at Stanford.
Johnson, Doug. 2006. “Top Ten Secrets for a Successful Workshop” http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/top-ten-secrets-for-a-successful-workshop.html
MindTools.com, 2015. “Planning a Workshop: organizing and running a successful event” http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/PlanningAWorkshop.htm
Teaching Commons. Checklist for Effective Lecturing