The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

The Best of Teaching What You Don’t Know

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 By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at Duquesne University

Whether you’re a tenured faculty member, junior faculty, adjunct or TA you’ve most likely had the experience of teaching something that was new to you. In fact, according to Therese Huston, author of Teaching What You Don’t Know, it’s becoming increasingly common for instructors to be called upon to teach outside of their expertise (5).

I recently led a book study on this text. In today’s post I want to share what the book study participants (10 TAs from across the University) most appreciated about Teaching What You Don’t Know, including some of the book’s strength and best teaching advice:

1. Huston uses a strong positive tone: Teaching can be an anxiety-producing exercise, especially when it involves teaching unfamiliar content. Book study participants appreciated Huston’s continually positive approach. Her book is optimistic and encouraging, acknowledging both the difficulties of teaching new material, while also emphasizing the benefits. Huston makes a good coach for instructors at any level.

2. It’s okay to be a “content novice”: Huston assures us we’re not alone when we feel self-conscious or troubled about being a “content novice” as opposed to a “content expert” in the classroom. She acknowledges that while some faculty members teaching outside their expertise feel like an “imposter” (38), the experience has its benefits for both students and instructors. For example, research suggests that content novices tend to explain processes in greater detail than experts who gloss over steps that they have come to view as common sense (47).

3. Details and specifics: Teaching What You Don’t Know isn’t theory-heavy. Huston’s assertions are supported by ample research but she focuses primarily on offering specific concrete strategies including an extensive list of activities designed to optimize time and content in the classroom for the greatest learning gains. Huston even identifies how long it will take to prepare and implement each activity (see chapter 5).

4. Lecture versus learning environment: The book argues that “creating a learning environment” is more effective than “teaching as telling” (41-43). Huston acknowledges that content novices tend to lean too heavily on lecture because it’s safer than encouraging discussion or activities that might put instructors in a situation where they have to confront questions on unfamiliar content. But she also provides a list of strategies to help integrate active learning into the midst of lectures so that classroom content is delivered in a variety of ways to optimize student engagement and learning (see chapter 5).

5. The emergency assessment kit: This is one specific strategy that book study participants especially appreciated. We’ve all had experiences where we suddenly realize there are still 10 or 15 minutes left in class but we’ve said all that there is to say for the day. Huston describes an “emergency assessment kit”: an activity that the instructor prepares ahead of time and can be easily implemented in any class. This might be as simple as having students check each other’s notes to make sure they wrote down all the important information from the class. Another idea she suggests is an informal assessment activity where the students are asked to offer feedback about the most useful and least useful classroom practices the instructor employed (131-132).

The consensus? Teaching What You Don’t Know is worth the read no matter how seasoned of an instructor you are. The book is a confidence-builder, designed to help faculty and TAs gain the skills and perspective they need to teach content they’ve recently learned to a room full of expectant students.


Author: duqcte

Founded in 1989 as a faculty initiative, the Center for Teaching Excellence helps faculty and graduate student teaching assistants excel as teacher-scholars deeply invested in their students’ learning. We believe that excellent teaching is an art that grows through scholarship, practice, reflection, and collaboration. Our approach at CTE is a personal one. We promote excellence in teaching by getting to know our faculty and TAs, learning from them, fostering their leadership, and bringing people together from across the University.

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