I am in the final year of my PhD. My work was on using Finite element method to study tribology. It was completely modeling based. I developed various models and have gained quite expertise in modeling with the commercially available finite element code.

However, I come from materials engineering background and I don't have any formal education on statics, dynamics, continuum mechanics or finite element method. I had taken some advanced courses on mechanics. But, they did not cover the undergrad stuff and straightaway went for the modeling part or some applied stuff.

Whatever theoretical I have learnt during my PhD, I have done that myself. So, it's neither structured or formalized. I read books, online videos, and I only concentrated on portions applicable for my research. As a result, I know how to model my problem statement which involves dynamic and transient behaviors. But know nothing about statics or quasi-static behaviors.

Now, I am asked to teach a short summer finite element analysis course to mechanical engineering undergrads from July to September (8 lectures ~ 12 hours). and I have no idea what and how to teach them. I have to teach theory and introduce modeling. How do I teach students who have more formal education than me on topics like statics, dynamics, continuum mechanics?

  • 9
    There is a somewhat more general question at CSEducators: cseducators.stackexchange.com/q/4379/1293. It will give general advice for how to attack the problem of teaching something you don't know yourself. It is a fairly common problem, actually.
    – Buffy
    May 20, 2019 at 12:55
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    FYI, the question in the title is not quite the same as what you are asking. Maybe "without previous formal training in the subject" is a better fit for what you are asking. (I've never taken a calculus course, high school or college, and yet I've taught over 30 calculus courses and never had an "expertise problem" with it. Of course, teaching calculus is quite a bit different from your situation, as lower level math is very hierarchical and the content is generally very structured and standardized.) May 20, 2019 at 13:02
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    Whatever you do, don't lowball the time commitment. For me, a new course can easily mean 60 hours/week. Personally, I don't think this is a fair ask for a final year student, unless you're effectively done. May 20, 2019 at 13:59
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    From the other question, Don't be dishonest with your students or try to hide your lack of background. -- this is important; don't hide it with "just read the textbook again" or "you are expected research this on your own" if you don't really know if they're going down the right path; one particular math professor I had consistently failed to answer questions and gave up trying to solve his own examples ("you can finish this one at home"); at the very least try to come prepared. Also saying "I have to look into this and get back to you" isn't a bad response.
    – jrh
    May 21, 2019 at 3:01
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    Will you have a TA? May 21, 2019 at 15:26

3 Answers 3


The more I think about this, the less I like it. A summer course is SUPER ACCELERATED. You blink, and the course is half over. The opportunity to fix problems that arise is tiny.

I hope this is a low-credit course, as I really encourage you to stick to a workshop-style approach. Teach by example. This will essentially be a "getting started" guided tour. Pick a problem, and walk the students through that problem during the summer session using a number of the tools you're trying to teach.

If you can find somebody that's taught this before, make that person your best friend.

  • 6
    I agree, teaching summer courses can be especially problematic. Besides the compressed global time scale, local time scales are extended, so if you have an off day it's likely that 2+ hours are blown (rather than 45 or 50 minutes). Also, depending on the type of course, you might get stuck with a fairly high percentage of students thinking the class will be easier in summer and students who have to retake the class for academic reasons. I taught a statistics class one fall semester with no statistics background, and I spent more time on that single course than my other two courses combined. May 20, 2019 at 18:18
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    "The opportunity to fix problems that arise is tiny." This. May 20, 2019 at 21:37

Having been in the same situation not a few times but in a different subject, here are my recommendations.

First of all, if you truly feel unqualified to teach this course, see if you can get a different course assignment, one that you have more experience with. It is unreasonable enough to be teaching in your final year (although understandably unavoidable for funding reasons at many institutions), but teaching a new course from scratch is quite tough.

If you cannot get out of teaching this course, then try the following:

  1. Find out which of your colleagues has taught this course before and see if you can use their notes. Ask for textbook recommendations, online tutorials, any and everything to help you master the material (which you can probably do fairly quickly given your self-training). You should keep track of which resources help you, so you can build them into your lectures and give your students recommendations. The best teachers steal and borrow from each other all the time.

  2. Write detailed notes for your lectures. This will take a lot of time, but I've found it to be an indispensible step when delivering lectures for a new course. Review and rehearse your first lecture with a friend, if possible. Over time, the prep work will take less time, but to feel confident for the first couple lectures, it's worth it.

  3. Be honest with your students-- if they see what an expert you are after teaching yourself, and if you pass on your tips and tricks to them, they will trust you more. There's no shame in saying, "I didn't know what this was a few weeks ago, but now I do and I think it's cool and I want to tell you about it."

  4. Make the class interactive. This goes for teaching any subject, but especially highly technical fields where there are a lot of details to absorb. Allow some time each class for students to work through some problems on their own, while you walk around the room and help. This takes some pressure off of you and allows you to pass on the intuition you've gained from self-teaching.

  • What subject do you have this experience with?
    – Zenon
    Dec 10, 2019 at 0:02
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    Math, physics, English
    – user108403
    Dec 10, 2019 at 7:38

I think the main problem that you are going to have is that you will not know what your students know or don't know right before they take the course you will be teaching. (That is, you have not been "in their shoes" before.)

I strongly suggest that you find out what courses the students have already taken (and what they haven't taken) then look at the syllabi for those courses. This will prevent you from wasting time and effort teaching them things they already know, as well as inform you about what necessary skills and understanding you need to introduce to them.

Of course, if the course you will be teaching has been taught before, then look at the previous syllabi (notes, exams, textbooks).

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