I have the opportunity to teach an undergraduate class in statistics. However, I've never taken statistics and the material and concepts are a little foreign to me. I'm concerned, as a graduate student, that it may take up a lot of my personal time just to learn the material, much less teach it. I really don't want to turn the opportunity down because I know its a good learning experience, but I don't want to become overwhelmed by it. What are some effective strategies to teach a class that you've never taken before without overloading yourself?

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    "I really don't want to turn the opportunity down": I warn you against this kind of thinking, especially if you are interested in a research postdoc. You will have many, many opportunities in grad school and beyond, and regrettably you will have to turn most of them down.
    – Anonymous
    May 2, 2013 at 11:34
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    See also "Teaching What You Don't Know" by Therese Huston, helpfully mentioned in ff524's answer to another question.
    – J W
    Feb 1, 2015 at 18:06

4 Answers 4


It will be a huge timesaver if you can get lecture notes from someone who has taught the class before. There's a big difference between understanding the material well enough to solve problems and answer questions and understanding it well enough to find the clearest, most succinct way to present it. If you get someone else's lecture notes, you will only have to attain the first level of mastery, rather than the second; this will save you a lot of time.

Before the class starts, you should sit down with the syllabus (presumably you can get one from someone who's taught it before; typically, the first time I teach a class, I don't change much unless I have a good reason to) and try to understand the structure ("story arc") of the class. What are the big ideas? For example, in Calculus I, some of these are: limits, derivatives, integrals, applications. That gives you a sense of where you're going and helps you to know what may be important.

Don't feel like you have to know every little detail perfectly. The stuff that will likely stump you will be the obscure corner cases. The stuff that most of your students will struggle with will be much more basic, like the limit definition of a derivative, and precalc and algebra. If a student asks you a question that you can't answer right away, learn to be comfortable saying "that's a great question"; it's a little outside of the scope of this lecture, but I'd be happy to talk with you about it after class.

Thinking on your feet in front of an audience (especially about unfamiliar material) can be really tough. Most of the time, you can avoid it. Usually the student will be happy to talk with you after class. The reduced pressure of not being in front of the other students will help you to think more clearly. If you still can't answer the question after a reasonable amount of time, say "This is a good question. Let me think about it some more and get back to you in class next time." At that point, feel free to ask your colleagues. Often one of them will have encountered the question before, and will know the answer off the top of their head.

tl;dnr Get lots of help from colleagues who have taught the class before. Typically, it won't take much time from them, but it will save you a lot of time (later, when roles are reversed, be willing to do the same for someone else). You don't have to be perfect. If you have decent lecture notes, and you really engage with the students and answer their question, you'll be fine.

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    That's really awesome advice! I never thought there was a difference between knowing it well enough to "solve problems" versus "explain things succinctly". How should I approach answering students' questions during office hours when I don't know the answer... should I rely only on the "i'll get back to you on that" approach or is there another way to go about it?
    – Paul
    Sep 16, 2012 at 20:44
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    @Paul A great all-purpose response in office hours is: "What did you try? And where did you get stuck?" This won't solve everything, but it will help you pinpoint where to focus your explanation. It will also buy you time to think while you listen to the student's answer. Another good approach is to verbalize your thought process: "Let's try such and such, and see what happens?" This has at least two benefits. First, it allows you to think through things, without feeling like you have to know the answer ahead of time. Second, it teaches students how to problem solve. Both are valuable.
    – Dan C
    Sep 17, 2012 at 3:30
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    @Paul In regards to "solving problems" versus "explaining". The first requires you to have a decent understanding of the technique. The second requires you to have that same understanding and to know your students well enough to know what will be easy and what will be hard for them. For the second, it's helpful to be able to look at the subject matter from multiple perspectives. In particular, when you're answering a student's question, you should try to step into their viewpoint. This is often easier said than done. Fortunately, detailed lecture notes do some of this work for you.
    – Dan C
    Sep 17, 2012 at 3:37
  • these are really great suggestions. Thank you so much, DanC
    – Paul
    Sep 17, 2012 at 13:48
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    Regarding "What did you try? And where did you get stuck?" I've used this tactic to guide students through solving problems without actually telling them anything substantive, and even without having any idea how I would solve the problem myself! It can be surprising how much most students will fill in for themselves if you just keep prompting them. And in the cases where that doesn't work, it often comes down to incorrect knowledge of some fact which is a trivial thing to correct.
    – David Z
    Sep 20, 2012 at 3:58

Dan C gave a tremendously good response to this question, but I thought I'd add one more idea: with the preponderance of online classes, it is very much possible to follow a set of lectures online as you teach a class for the first time (especially for introductory classes), and many times you can find full semester classes for free on YouTube, or Khan Academy, or MIT OpenCourseWare. I've done this for an Astronomy class that I taught, and I not only learned a lot from watching the class, but I was able to set up my own classes with a good idea of class-long topics. Furthermore, I've said it at least once on Academia.SE before: observing other teachers teach is one of the best professional development methods around; you learn the good and the bad, and you see what works and what doesn't work.

The reality is that sometimes, staying one step ahead of the students is the best you can do, even if it isn't ideal from a pedagogical perspective. As DR famously said, You "go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.".

  • I'm not sure, but wouldn't this be considered plagiarism? How much would you be allowed to "copy" or take away from one of these courses when constructing your own?
    – iric
    Apr 14, 2016 at 20:32
  • @ciri You would still be teaching your own course, but you would be modifying the material from the lectures. You are free to teach a course however you'd like, and if it is like another teacher's classes, so be it. Apr 15, 2016 at 21:11

I know this answer might be controversial, but I think it is important to mention it. The solution is to not teach the class.

  • Teaching is a huge responsibility: you are responsible for the enthusiasm (and possibly the career) of a lot of students. If you do not feel ready you are not ready.
  • Good teaching takes a lot of preparation. You indicate that you are concerned about the time it will take you. My conclusion: you do not have the time to prepare properly. This is a good reason not to teach the class.
  • You are looking for effective strategies. There is no such thing; teaching is not some kind of "trick". The next two points explain why.
  • You need to have good (if not excellent) knowledge of the field: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough" can be reversed as well: if you do not understand the material well enough you will not be able to explain it simply. Reading a few course materials in the short time before the course will not be sufficient.
  • Teaching takes planning. Planning takes time and experience (even if you are using existing course materials, you need to be very familiar with them and what they are meant to achieve).

Don't take the responsibility of teaching when you are not ready. But you can start preparing for next year, or ask to teach subjects you are more familiar with.

  • I disagree strongly with many of these points. The first time I teach a course, I rarely do it as well as the third or fifth or... time I teach it. But the reason I get better is that I learn from the mistakes I make. I also don't always have the choice of which classes I will teach. Finally, I think there are many "tricks" that significantly improve teaching (start with an example; more generally, work from concrete to abstract; use pictures wherever possible; follow a clear outline; find a style that suits your personality; etc.). No one of these fixes everything, but they all help.
    – Dan C
    Nov 17, 2021 at 16:59
  • These "tricks" you mention strongly depend on the content and goals of the course. It is fine to make mistakes (it happens that mistakes made by the teacher are the most educational part of the course), but is is not fine to teach a course if you admit in advance that you do not have time to prepare adequately.
    – Louic
    Nov 17, 2021 at 18:12
  • The way that you implement the trick depends on the course, but the idea of drawing a picture (for example) is useful in a very wide range of courses.
    – Dan C
    Nov 18, 2021 at 20:45
  • Precicely. And this implementation requires skill and experience. Incomplete ("simplified") pictures may do more harm than good. And so do confusing images that are quickly cobbled together. GOOD pictures help, not ANY picture. Similarly, finding a style that suits your personality takes time. The question from OP states that they do not have time: not to make good quality pictures, and certainly not to find their own teaching style. I think you missed the point of the question.
    – Louic
    Nov 19, 2021 at 7:48

This question is ancient history for the site, but the following may be helpful to some. I assume that the scale of the class is relatively small, probably no more than 20 students, with about 10 being better. It won't work for large lecture sections.

The main idea is to turn the class into a seminar, rather than a lecture. Admit to the students that this isn't your specialty and that you will all learn the material together. Some students will balk at this, but it can be made to work. The idea is that face time in the course is used for discussion and exploration, rather than lecture. You assign some work one day and let them work on it over night. Then you have small groups develop solutions together. You can also assign topics to students who will then, a few days later, give their best explanation of the ideas.

I asked a very similar question at CSEducators here.

This technique probably works best with somewhat sophisticated students. It is, in fact, how a lot of learning at the research edge takes place. People discuss topics then work individually and together on the ideas. But the group work aspect of it can, perhaps, entice beginners into participating and developing better study habits along the way.

Note that it doesn't depend on "staying one day ahead of the students" nor developing sophisticated teaching materials. But it does require some creativity in keeping discussions moving along.

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