Teaching in China and some Good and Bad Teaching Practices

By: Hilary Weller

In April 2019 I visited the Nanjing University Institute of Information, Science and Technology (NUIST) where students are studying for a degree in Meteorology jointly between Reading and NUIST. Staff from Reading visit a couple of times a year to observe the lectures taught by the NUIST staff, teach the students and make new research links. Students study for years 1 and 2 in Nanjing and then come to Reading for their 3rd year. This is an interesting teaching challenge because Reading staff teach a random 2 weeks from 3 undergraduate modules.

I was sent PowerPoint files of seminar style slides — some bullet points, nice pictures and topics for discussion. I can imagine that these could make a terrific lecture if delivered by a charismatic visionary in the field who people would flock to hear talking, using the slides as illustrative prompts. But this is not me and these were not my slides. So, I needed to plan my teaching more carefully. I was asked to teach about measurements and instrumentation and tropical meteorology ­ a particular challenge as my area of expertise is numerical modelling of the atmosphere. I spent plenty of time learning about these subjects and planning my teaching.

I enjoyed learning about measurements of atmospheric radiation from Giles Harrison’s book Meteorological+Measurements+and+Instrumentation so much so that I have started making some YouTube teaching videos. and some online quizzes.

I observed loads of lectures while visiting NUIST, I have observed lectures in Reading, I have attended lectures as a student and I have delivered good and bad lectures myself. Based on this I will describe some difficult teaching situations and how they can be turned around, with or without preparation.

An Example: A Derivation

A lecturer (you?) plans to go through a derivation with students. In Meteorology it might be, for example, deriving thermal wind balance. You would like them to be able to provide a clear, thorough derivation, explaining each step-in full sentences. You have prepared some slides which outline the derivation but do not include complete sentences because you do not want to clutter your slides with words. You will say the linking sentences instead. This is a problem. You cannot expect the students to be able to write a good derivation if you haven’t given them a complete example. So, you might write it out in full for them and give them a copy of the lecture notes before class. But then they have nothing to do other than try to listen during your class. This breaks my first rule:

Make sure that the students have something to do during your class.

To give the students something to do, you go through the derivation on the board and ask them to volunteer what they think the next step might be. This is a natural way of explaining a derivation. However, if you do this with a class, one or two students may give you the answers you want, and the rest might be getting lost without asking questions. After the same person has answered a few questions, you direct your next question to a student who has so far remained quiet. Who cannot answer and is now humiliated. My next rule:

Do not single students out to answer questions.

These two rules seem to be mutually exclusive. I do not know the best way to teach while following these two rules, but I have some suggestions which will also work for large classes.

  1. Notes with gaps.

You could supply the students with printed notes with gaps and the students fill in the gaps during the lecture. They may copy the text for the gaps from the board or work it out for themselves. This way, the students take away a well written derivation, with all of the linking sentences between equations, and they have something to do and think about during the class. After you have gone through the derivation you could give them a couple of similar derivations to work through in pairs, asking for help if needed.

  1. Flipped classroom.

This teaching style can work very well but can also take a lot of preparation ­ you need to prepare material for the students to work through before and during class. The pre-class activity might be to read a section of a book or watch some SHORT videos. But you need to be careful not to overload the students. The activity before class should be straightforward and not take longer than the homework would have taken (which you must cancel). During class you can help them with more challenging material (assuming they have had time to go through the material before class). The tasks during class might be similar derivations or using the equation derived to explain some observed phenomena.

  1. Multiple choice questions.

I am keen on these as a quick way of engaging the whole class and they do not need to take a lot of preparation. When you come to a point when you would like to ask the class a question, you can instead write 3 or 4 possible answers on the board. They don’t all need to be plausible, you are just trying to encourage engagement. Then ask the students to show 1, 2, 3 or 4 fingers in front of their chest. That way you can see all the answers, the students cannot easily see each other’s answers (to avoid copying or humiliation) and every student is required to try to think of an answer. You may need to encourage them to guess and their answer doesn’t count for anything.

Another trap that people sometimes fall into:

If a student answers a question wrong, do not ask them to justify their answer. Ask someone else or explain it yourself.

  1. More challenging questions.

If you want to ask more challenging questions you will need to give the students more time to think about their answer, perhaps reread their notes or discuss with their neighbour. You should find out about “think-pair-share” or peer instruction. You can also use online quizzes which are popular with students but more time consuming to set up. Another rule:

Do not ask difficult or open-ended questions without giving the students time to think about, research or discuss an answer.

Also, make sure that your questions make sense and have well-defined answers. Check with a colleague to make sure that they are clear.

  1. Old fashioned teaching.

It may seem old fashioned but when I was teaching in China I asked the students to read a sentence in turn from the slides and fill in some simple gaps and copy text from the board. In the feedback, some of the students liked this approach, having an opportunity to practice speaking English and answer simple questions.

I would welcome more ideas for engaging all students while not humiliating anyone. Please leave a comment.

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