Effective preparation and how to learn from teaching

My Bed. The shower. The kitchen. A packed commuter train to Birmingham. What do all these seemingly unconnected places have in common? They’re all places where I’ve prepared for my next seminar and, curiously enough, some of my most effective and efficient preparation time has been done in these places. Confused? I certainly would have been a few months ago.


The dangers of overpreparing 

New teachers probably assume that teaching preparation involves reading as many articles as possible and ensuring that you know enough about the subject to answer whatever questions your students will throw at you. This is true, but only up to a point. One of the most common anxieties amongst new teachers I’ve talked to is that they are afraid that they won’t appear knowledgeable and authoritative enough to their students. But taking this mentality too far is counter-productive – not only will you find yourself over-preparing, but you’ll probably end up trying to show off this knowledge. In short, you will find yourself talking far too much. If the class think that you will give them the answers then they will be more than happy enough to let you do the work for them. This isn’t what university is about and it isn’t the best use of your time – or your students’ time.



My Tuesday morning commuting nemesis… or a great place to prepare for a seminar.


This is where that rattling abomination hurtling towards Birmingham comes in. When I started teaching, I read far too much in preparation. I now try to limit my reading on the subject to a minimum. When I’ve read the most essential materials for the seminar I think about the key concepts I want my students to take from this. Then I stop preparing. Over the next couple of days I’ll think about the two or three key ideas that I want to get across and how I can communicate these ideas most effectively. This might be en-route to my next French class or while vacuuming the living room, so it doesn’t eat into my research time or other commitments. Finally, when I’ve settled on the best way of doing this I’ll make a plan of how I want to structure the seminar. This might involve setting up a mock inquisition, seeing if the students can identify words I’ve deleted from a primary source, or something a bit more traditional. In any case, if I feel that I’ve got those key ideas through to a good proportion of the class by the end of the seminar, then I class that as a success.


Learning from teaching

Now of course, there’s no reason you have to do this while making tomorrow’s lunch, as I tend to do. For anyone who has been teaching for any length of time communicating their message will undoubtedly come much more naturally. For this reason it is important to make use of the wealth of experience in your department, as I mentioned in my previous blog. Your colleagues will have some great ideas about getting essential concepts across and asking them will save you a great deal of time and effort. Equally though, I find that it’s important to try your own ideas out and be prepared to blaze your own trail. One thing that I wasn’t prepared for when I started teaching is how tiring it can be. Teaching requires a lot of attention and energy and I often find concentrating afterwards very difficult, especially if the adrenalin is flowing. Having asked around a little, this doesn’t seem to be that unusual, even among more experienced teachers.


But I also find that teaching is an inherently political act. Having twenty faces prepared to ask you questions or listen to your concluding remarks tends to make you ask questions of education and the world more generally. In other words, it has made me reflect more on how and why I am teaching the way I am rather than what I’m teaching. These are not always easy questions to answer, which perhaps explains why I end up thinking about teaching in such unorthodox locations. I would like to stress that this effort has definitely been worth it: I can’t apply that unnecessary knowledge of crusader principalities outside of that particular seminar, but I can apply my new-found knowledge of how to pitch ideas to an unfamiliar audience to future seminars, academic presentations, research proposals and funding applications. In fact, I can already feel teaching experiences improving the way that I write and present my research. So in that sense teaching can be very rewarding and, importantly, preparing for it need not take up all your time.


Carl Dixon
I am a second year M3C funded PhD student at the University of Nottingham with a fascination for all things Byzantine. I have recently begun teaching history and will be sharing my experiences of my first forays into this exciting and sometimes intimidating world. In the process I will hopefully give other new teachers a few pointers along the way.

2 thoughts on “Effective preparation and how to learn from teaching

  1. These are fascinating reflections about learning to teach and learning from teaching (inseparable) and though you raise a lot of issues here I just want to share some thoughts on a few of them.

    Learning to teach is a never-ending process (that’s part of the fun of it); learning from teaching involves a combination of musing and more systematic reflection and, in truth, there’s quite a lot of literature out there to read on teaching history to help you. Core though in my view is attentiveness to what’s going on that involves observation without immediate judgement and is much harder to do when you’re starting out because there are just so many things going on.

    We often talk about a ‘reflective cycle’, and terms like ‘reflection on action’ and ‘reflection in action’, and these certainly help make the process more systematic. But we tend to forget a point you make which is that a lot of reflection goes on very informally in the midst of day-to-day activities. Sometimes it’s good to jot things down as you do other things (making lunch or vacuuming in your case; for me digging our garden or going for a walk). Sometimes the best ideas come that way – as they do in research, of course. So, reflection comes in many forms and it’s interesting to think also about the purposes of reflection (for you) e.g. teaching development; self-development; source of new ideas (about teaching; about learning) etc. etc. Reflection can also uncover powerful feelings as well as thoughts about teaching – an area we don’t talk about much.

    You are also right that teaching takes a lot of energy and attention. For an outsider it’s easy to think it can’t be that hard sitting in a seminar, but it requires a lot of concentration, observation and careful interventions. Even deciding when to intervene or not requires a careful judgement – a bad intervention can shut the whole class up very quickly. It would be interesting to hear more on this sometime. And, as you point out, a class will stay with you long after it’s finished as you ponder what went right/wrong and how you could have done it better. Best though not to get obsessed with this – there lies the danger of perfectionism.

    Finally, you raise a really interesting point about teaching as ‘an inherently political act’. Teaching operates on so many levels and so does reflection on it. A focus on why we teach (our subject) (in the ways we do) is a question we all need to address more than we often do: as departments and as a discipline community. And as historians we perhaps need to look more at how teaching has become what it is today, how it relates to our professional selves and what frames our teaching (e.g. the History Benchmark Statement in the UK?). We need, in short, to problematise (to use an ugly word) our teaching more than we do.

    Teaching is not just a ‘common-sense’ thing, something you can just learn to do like ride a bike then it’s done. As I said at the start it’s something you have to go on learning and more and more layers are revealed. It’s really good to see you thinking about such deeper meanings at this stage in your teaching – at this point I was just trying to survive!

  2. Some very interesting observations here. The idea that teaching is exhausting is something which isn’t discussed enough. Physically and mentally it can be draining, especially if you’re actively involved, on your feet, moving around a room, etc.
    In terms of preparations, what you’re discussing here is the difference between ‘teacher focused’ preparation and ‘student focused’ preparation, with the latter resulting in a concentration less upon your needs than on those of the students. This comes with confidence in your understanding of the material, but also a reflection on what the teaching is trying to achieve and I think you describe that process very well here. Thought provoking stuff.

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