Author note: This essay is meant to be a bit tongue in cheek. Just to be clear: I am not advocating for academic dishonesty.
Years ago, I was asked to address the new faculty at my institution and give advice about becoming good teachers. Teaching for the first time is stressful and overwhelming. You have no course schedule, no notes, no slides, no examples or activities. Everything is a calculated guess about what students will find manageable, accessible, and, hopefully, interesting. You have the potential to look both foolish and incompetent.
I gave these beginning teachers three pieces of advice for surviving the first year of teaching: lie, cheat, and steal. Let’s take each one in turn and discuss what I meant.
When you teach, you have to simplify concepts for students, glossing over nuances and complex details, especially in introductory classes. Your simplistic explanations of concepts during teaching wouldn’t be acceptable in graduate school or in a research presentation. At the same time, if you present fully detailed explanations to students who have no background in your field, you may feel good about it, but your students will be overwhelmed and lost. They will be unable to understand or learn. Here is an example. When cognitive psychologists like me explain the nature of memory to a lay audience, we almost always use a variation of the information processing model. If you’ve ever watched a presentation on cognition and teaching, you’ve probably seen one. It has three boxes, labeled sensory memory, short-term or working memory, and long-term memory. Sometimes there is a box labeled attention between the first two of these. The information processing model hasn’t been considered a valid model of memory in about 50 years (e.g., Jenkins, 1974). Memory is far more dynamic and complex than any simple flow diagram can capture. If it is outdated, why do we still use it, and why is it in every introductory psychology textbook? For three reasons: First, it may be out of date, but it still represents an advance in understanding over what most people know about memory. Second, it captures important and useful properties about memory in a way that students can understand and apply. Working memory is the only memory with a limited capacity. Certain learning strategies are more effective at moving information from working memory to long-term memory than others. Third, this framework provides a useful foundation for more advanced learning.
When you teach, you have to deal with the curse of expertise (Fisher & Keil, 2015). The more mastery you have in a field, the harder it is to remember how slow and difficult it was to learn concepts the first time. As a result, teachers tend to underestimate how long it will take students to learn successfully and how much scaffolding they will need. Explanations that seem clear to the teacher may be opaque to students without any prior knowledge. What seems simple and easy to learn to teachers may be counterintuitive and difficult to grasp to students.
So, when you teach, you lie, especially in introductory classes. You gloss over nuances and qualifications to advance student understanding from where the students are to a more sophisticated state. One useful piece of advice I got before I taught for the first time was that you will lie and your textbook will lie, so make sure your lies match the textbook’s.
One overarching challenge new teachers face is how to structure the topics in a course and then organize the concepts within each topic. How much time should be devoted to each topic to give students sufficient time to learn yet ensure a sufficient breadth of topics are covered? Generations of faculty have faced the same challenges you are now facing. Take advantage of their work. Instead of creating a schedule from scratch, cheat. Look at how others have organized their courses and adopt a framework that makes sense for your situation. Ask faculty colleagues for their course syllabi. How have they structured their courses? Consult a variety of different textbooks. How do they organize major topics and concepts within each topic? Most every discipline has a professional group dedicated to teaching. These groups often have repositories for course syllabi and other useful teaching resources. Even an internet search can often locate multiple course syllabi.
Cheating isn’t limited only to course organization. Observe the teaching styles and methods of veteran faculty. Think about how they organize and pace their presentations. How do they teach difficult concepts and incorporate examples, activities, and media? How much redundancy do they build into their presentations? How do they check for student understanding? Think about what elements you want to incorporate into your own teaching.
If you see or learn about a really good activity or example, steal it and make it your own. I freely admit that I use many examples and activities whose provenance I have long since forgotten. I’ve picked them up from colleagues, discussion boards, instructor’s manuals, books and journals, and teaching conferences. I’m sure I developed some of them, but by now I’m not sure which. Even if I could remember where I got them, that is no guarantee of their true origin. I’ve seen the same activity presented at different conferences by different people. I’ve also seen multiple variations of essentially the same demonstration, which could mean a single demonstration got altered as it was shared as teachers modified it for their use or multiple people developed similar demonstrations. There is a common lore to teaching, which all teachers can benefit from and to which all teachers can contribute. At teaching conferences, teachers share their best activities for others to use, typically without expecting attribution. It’s essentially a creative commons arrangement. When I can locate a source, I do document it and give acknowledgement if I pass it on. Often it isn’t possible to know the origins. I use stories and activities I learned from my teachers when I was a student, and I know that some of my students who have gone on to become faculty use stories and activities they learned from me.
Teaching a course for the first time is always a huge challenge, and new faculty often have to prep multiple new courses per semester. The goal is simply to survive while doing the best you can. It takes teaching a course at least three times (in my experience) before the course starts to feel under control. At this point, faculty who want to be excellent teachers start to shift their focus from surviving to asking, “How can I make this course a better learning experience for my students?” They reflect on their teaching and determine what is working and what needs improvement, and they start to innovate, assess, and improve their courses. They come up with their own examples and activities, then they share them to benefit the next generation of teachers.
One final note: I’ve given many presentations on teaching at my institution, but none have made a stronger impression than when I advised new teachers to lie, cheat, and steal. In fact, two faculty who heard me give that talk were asked, later in their careers, to give teaching advice to new faculty by their respective disciplinary organizations. They both chose to steal my talk (with my blessing).
Fisher, M., & Keil, F. C. (2016). The curse of expertise: When more knowledge leads to miscalibrated explanatory insight. Cognitive Science, 40(5), 1251–1269. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12280
Jenkins, J. J. (1974). Remember that old theory of memory? Well, forget it. American Psychologist, 29(11), 785–795. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0037399
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: email@example.com.