University of Oxford Laboratory Practical Sessions… Hello from the other side
By Chloe Cassaro
Full disclaimer, I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow, so this post will only be about my experience as a demonstrator during the laboratory practical sessions, not a student.
I have been demonstrating in diverse laboratory practical sessions over the course of my DPhil, which, as the name suggests, are large classes, held in a laboratory environment, to develop practical skills. I have mainly been working with 1st year Biochemistry students so far, but did the occasional classes with biologists, medics, or even postgraduate doctoral training centre students… and what a ride it has been!
Before undertaking any teaching activity in Oxford, you have to undertake a short training module, the PLTO or Preparation for Learning and Teaching at Oxford. The programme varies from department to department (I did it twice in two different departments…) but covers the basics of teaching in Oxford, which can be very useful if you are not a previous undergraduate from the University.
However, that is about it in terms of training usually, and for the practical sessions themselves, other than a few minutes prior to the sessions, you have in your possession about the same amount of information as the students themselves have on CANVAS. Whilst for some sessions, I was able to rely on previous knowledge or experiences during my degree, more often than not, it was not sufficient to answer theoretical questions, or even often, very practical questions such as “Where does this liquid go?”. Thankfully, for most sessions, I was paired with other demonstrators that have been demonstrating for long enough that they are able to help if I am stuck on a question. Overall, the sessions tend to require some work and preparation to be able to anticipate some questions or issues.
Overall, the demonstrator position is fulfilling, it is interesting, and most importantly, it gives a great insight into what education is like in Oxford. And there, no surprise – it is challenging! I am always in awe at the wit of the students, their prior knowledge, and their understanding of the subject they study, and that, even quite early on during their 1st year. It does sometimes makes me wonder if I was even remotely as smart as them a few years back … but let’s not think about that too much! I also get to grade the laboratory practical write-ups, which can be a bit stressful at times, but again gives a wonderful overview of the students’ knowledge, making it quite exciting too!
Demonstrating might not be for everyone, just like teaching tutorials, but I would definitely encourage postgraduate students to consider applying for positions available, if nothing else, at the very least it adds a nice line on the CV!