The new academic year is fast approaching, and course
preparations are either underway or on everyone’s mind. We begin every semester,
every year, wanting all our courses to go well. Even more importantly, we want
our students engaged and learning. And they begin each new course with high
hopes. They want it to be one they “like,” taught by a teacher who cares. The
challenge for teachers and students is moving forward and staying connected. Below
are pieces of advice on beginnings that keep everyone traveling together in the
direction of learning, activities to help you implement that advice, and links
to other relevant articles within the Teaching Professor archives.
Let learning center the course from day one. Yes, there should
be rules, policies, and specified procedures—signposts leading the way to a
successful course experience—but they aren’t what matters most. Start with
learning: the knowledge and skills that students will develop in this course.
- Showcase the content. Shine a light on what makes
it so interesting, so worth knowing. To do so, you might make a list of the top
10 things you love about this content.
- Give students the opportunity to learn how to do
something with the course content: solve an interesting problem, run a test on
some data, or create a clever computer graphic. There are many options. The
idea is to show the content in action—what it can be used to accomplish.
- Share something that establishes the relevance and importance
of what students will learn: a skill that the course develops and that
employers say they want, an issue on campus or in the community that course
content can address, or testimony from a former student who regularly uses course
content and skills on the job.
- Talk about something you’re learning—preferably unrelated
to your discipline and, best of all, that you’re struggling to learn.
- In required courses that students don’t want to
take, identify the learning skills the content can be used to develop, such as evidence-based
study skills, critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, or teamwork
- Ask students to jot down a quick answer to this
question: “What’s the most important thing you hope to learn in college?” Using
their answers, talk about what your content can contribute to that learning. Be
specific and mention those contributions multiple times.
They’re important! Get everyone involved in learning and using
each other’s names. Communities of learners aren’t populated by anonymous
persons. Community building starts with introductions, the opportunity for
students to meet, greet, and begin talking to each other. Unquestionably the
challenge is bigger in a large course, but it’s not impossible, and it’s not
necessary for teachers to learn every name. See the links below for details.
- Introduce yourself to students; share then-and-now
photos (what you looked like in college and what you look like now when you’re
not teaching); tell the story of how you fell in love with what you teach; and,
if you have them, share your memories of taking the course you’re now teaching.
- Have students introduce themselves—to each other,
to you, online, in person. Whatever it takes, get them talking to and
connecting with each other.
- Shake hands. Often 18–20-year-old students aren’t
used to shaking hands. Talk about the importance of a good hearty handshake in
professional contexts. Invite everyone to stand up and meet their classmates
with a handshake. Get the activity started by moving around the classroom and
shaking some hands along with students.
- Introduce students to some of the important people
they’ll meet in the course. Share photos and say who they are, what they
contributed to the discipline, and something interesting about them.
- Keep the introductions coming for the first several
class sessions. Start class by having everyone move to a different seat and
meet those they’re sitting nearby now. Ask a couple of volunteers to introduce
someone they just met. For bonus points on the first quiz, ask students to list
the names of five (or seven, or 10) of their classmates.
syllabus makeover (in terms of what’s on it and what you do with it)
Start by clarifying your thinking about the role the syllabus plays
in your course. Is it a detailed roadmap that gets students from the beginning of
the course to the end? Is it an introduction and overview of what’s to come? Does
it focus on student responsibilities? Is it an invitation to an exciting
learning event? Is it a contract?
- If students aren’t reading the syllabus, consider
making it shorter. Think outline rather than book chapter; that’s what’s
recommended in the first link below. If the syllabus content and format are
predetermined, distribute the required information but also share a personal
welcome with students.
- Opt for a relaxed, conversational tone, one that’s professional
but personal. The language used in the syllabus carries important messages
about the course and the instructor. Look at the syllabus tone link below to
see how it influences what students can conclude about an instructor.
- If the official—as in catalog- or college-approved—version
of the course learning objectives are required on the syllabus, include them
but offer a translation that indicates what about these objectives makes you
enthusiastic and passionate.
Encourage students to read the syllabus
Avoid “going over” the syllabus—that is, talking about every
detail of the course. That gives students a good reason not to read the
syllabus: they’ll expect you to tell them everything they need to know. Teach
in ways that make students responsible for what’s on the syllabus.
- Use speed dating to introduce students to each
other and the course. Students introduce themselves and answer a question about
the course syllabus. There are more details at the link below.
- Give students time to read the syllabus and then
respond to any questions they have. If have none or only a few, give them a
short quiz. They don’t need to know you aren’t going to count it. Go over the
quiz—that is, discuss their answers. If there are divided opinions as to a correct
answer, announce that they need to review the syllabus and you’ll start with
those questions in the next class session.
- If you want students to read the syllabus, don’t
answer questions that are answered in the syllabus. Be polite. Say, “The answer
to that question is in the syllabus section on assignments. Check it out and
let me know if you have any questions about what you find out.” In a lot of
courses, students don’t read the syllabus because teachers tell them everything
they need to know about the course.
climate for learning
You can say that you want to establish a climate for learning
in this course. You can put that in your syllabus. But climates of respect,
collaboration, and engagement are created by what teachers do, not what they
say. The old adage applies: actions speak louder than words.
- Facilitate a discussion of the climate for learning
by having students take a survey about it. If you take the survey and compare
your results with your students’, you can talk about your expectations and
theirs. The first link below suggests some survey questions.
- Don’t say you value participation. Rather, make
time for participation and purposefully pursue it. Don’t say you want students
to ask questions. Instead, ask for questions, wait, smile, walk around, and wait
and smile some more. And when a question comes, acknowledge it gratefully and
- Have students form groups and share what happened
in the best and worst courses they’ve taken (no mention of course or instructor
names). Have them talk about what the students did and what the teacher did in
those courses. Move to a whole-class discussion, listing things that teachers
and students did in the best courses.
- In small groups have students agree on five things
teachers do that make it hard to learn (or easy to learn, if you want emphasize
the positive). Collect and integrate the lists. Return or post the list along
with the five or six things students do that make it hard or easy to teach. Promise
you’ll try to avoid what’s on their list if they’ll do the same for what’s on
information on what it takes to do well in the course
Avoid giving teacherly advice on how to study. Even though students
should listen to you, most won’t. They’re thinking that it’s been years since
you were a student and that students now are way smarter about what they need
to do than you were back then. They do need good advice on succeeding in the
course, just not from a teacher who sounds like a parent. The links below
highlight research relevant to succeeding in a course.
- Let the advice on how to succeed in the course come
from those who have succeeded as well as those who didn’t. Ask former students
to answer questions like these: How much time did you spend studying for exams?
What did you do when you studied? Is it important to regularly attend class? Did
the homework problems prepare you for the exam? Did you read the text? When? What
did you do when you needed help? What’s one thing that would have improved your
performance in this class? Share a collection of their answers with incoming
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