Issues to Consider: The Dreaded Mistake
Mistakes happen, but you can reduce their likelihood.
You make this all sound so positive. What could go wrong?
One typical worry is that you’ll make a mistake in class. People sometimes lose sleep over this one. What I heard in the interviews I conducted is that instructors rarely make mistakes on the big, fundamental concepts—you’ll probably see those concepts in multiple sources with varied examples so you’ll have opportunities to check your understanding.
So I don’t have to worry about making any mistakes?
Well, a common mistake for content novices is a transcription error, like the one I described at the start of this piece. A content novice could easily type “1945” when they meant “1954.” Of course, anyone could misread something, but an expert is more likely to catch that mistake—the error wouldn’t match other things they know. A content novice, however, is more likely to charge ahead without correcting the mistake and only discover the typo in class, if at all.
How can I avoid making this mistake in the first place?
My first suggestion is simple: Don’t take notes when you’re most likely to make errors. For me, late at night is my worst time. And I think that’s often when we find ourselves preparing a topic we don’t feel ready to teach. I now make an extra effort to prepare new topics in the mornings, when it’s easy (for me, at least) to focus on details. If I can’t prepare on weekday mornings, and let’s face it, I often can’t, I’ll make time on weekend mornings. Understandably, you may not be able to prepare for a new class during your best time of the day. When you’re preparing a topic you don’t know very well, just be sure to avoid your worst time of day.
Reduce your responsibility for providing every key detail. Two of my interviewees said they bring in guest speakers for their least familiar topics. Another professor structures class so that she explains the basic, core concepts and students supply the details.
What if I do make a mistake?
Don’t worry—it happens to all of us. Admit it. I know that’s difficult to do, but students know you’re human. If a student catches the error, thank them for finding it. I hope I thanked that student years ago. I know I joked and said “That will teach me to take notes late at night! Let’s take a quick break and then review these concepts because they are easily confused.” The point is to stay focused on creating a good learning environment. If you’re honest about your mistakes, it’s easier for students to be honest about theirs.