Sitting in on classes

My supervisor is experimenting this semester with a new way to teach an undergraduate class. He’s trying a few new things – from how they run assignments and labs, how he lectures, and the focus of the course. Because I have an interest in teaching and education, I’ve made it a point to try to keep on what he’s doing and how things are going. Today, I sat in on the class to observe the change in lecture style.

I’ve sat in on classes before, and found it hard to pay attention because I wasn’t going to be tested on what I was suppose to learn in the class. If I’m going to learn with out the motivation of marks, I find it much easier to do so on my own, then by listening in on a class. However, this experience was much different.

I think the experience was different for a few reasons:

  1. I mostly know the subject matter. There was some stuff they were covering I didn’t know, but it wasn’t “hard” material. I could learn it quickly if needed.
  2. I wasn’t there to learn, I was there to observe. And I wasn’t really observing my supervisor, although I was watching how he taught. Instead, I spent a lot of time watching the students in the class. What were they doing? What kinds of questions did they ask?
  3. I had/have lots of stuff I need to get done this week, so I was also testing some of my own work, that didn’t require a lot of thought or effort on my part. But it gave me something else to switch my focus to briefly.
  4. I was genuinely interested in seeing how the class progressed, and therefore actually wanted to be there.

I actually think I’ll attend a few more lectures in the coming weeks to get a better feel for the class. They have a procedure they follow as they work through topics in the lectures, and I didn’t get to see the whole procedure – it takes multiple lectures. So attending a few more will give me a better understanding of what goes on.

I wish universities generally had a much more positive attitude towards sitting in on lectures. Sure, you can audit a course, but that usually requires paying some level of tuition and setting things up. But sometimes, you just really want to hear a few specific lectures that may pertain to what you’re doing or an interest you have. And I think we become a better community of learners if we encourage people to do so.

As a grad student, I’ve found that professors are much happier to allow this at the grad level then they are with undergrads. In fact, I’ve had some profs discuss how at the university they went to as a graduate student, it was quite common for both grad students and professors to sit in on classes and often resulted in lively discussion and debate on topics. I wish that happened, as I think grad students benefit from having discussions with professors where they are all seen as being on an equal footing. And professors can benefit from hearing and learning about some of the latest research being done without having to wade through the papers themselves.

Have you sat in on any classes? Were they grad or undergrad? And what was your experience like?

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