Friday, July 27, 2012

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Refresh:  Strategies for Starting a New Teaching Term

  (Monarch butterflies, emergence from chrysalis]
First Impressions matter. The first two days of class – even the first 15 minutes of the quarter – will make or break it. The first class is your opportunity for culture-building. It’s crucial that you get students talking– that you not just hand out a syllabus and send students off to do their homework, already numbed to the prospect of another quarter of the teacher talking at them.
~ Luke Reinsma, Seattle Pacific University
If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you
can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at
every meeting with another person.
~ Fred Rogers (Presbyterian minister and PBS television personality for decades, d 2003)

As early summer fades: new teachers move to anxiety, and veterans discover ways to enliven and refresh their practice.  We all wonder what the new crop of students will be like, and how well- or under-prepared they will be.  After forty years in one kind of classroom or another, and about a decade of experience as a director of faculty development, I am retired and in the midst of a long move from Honolulu to Shelburne, Vermont.  Here I offer a few specific strategies for teachers new and not-so-new.  
Michael W. Dabney
Retired, Director of the Teaching and Learning Center, Hawaii Pacific University
702 Wake Robin Drive •  Shelburne, VT  05482      808-781-3294

1  Seek Student Feedback Regularly Explain to students that feedback helps you.  Ask for it; and use it to reinvigorate your practice and deepen trust.  In the essay “Evaluation Anticipation,” in the January 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education, John Lemuel notes the challenge of sorting useful from simply ego-bruising feedback: ("Evaluation Anticipation" is here:   A teaser: I've started introducing the topic of student evaluations early in the semester, mainly to point out the folly of saving up grievances to unload anonymously after grades are in. I can't deal with problems I don't know about, and finding out about them sometime next semester won't help the students currently afflicted. So I tell students, try talking to me, and see if we can't resolve the problem. If I help some learn how to be a self-advocate in the process, that's a plus. But I know I won't appeal to every student, so I ask them to write only comments they could sign their names to, and some actually do. I point out that anonymous denunciations have all of the courage and none of the effectiveness of a drive-by shooting. Some of the denunciations I keep for my own amusement in a folder labeled "Student Hall of Shame." The rest get pitched. I am as free to ignore them as they are to write them.)  The article linked above highlights the many advantages of asking students for within-term feedback on teaching. Here is more on the logic of inside-term feedback and a variety of ways to get that feedback:
2   Try a new strategy to build trust, add warmth and safety One joy of academic life is the fresh start offered by semester, quarter or term organization. Even after 45 years, I still have “butterflies” before a new class or workshop, but I thrive in the opportunity and excitement of trying new things, seeing new responses, making improvements. As you polish plans for the first days of class, consider some possibilities:
proactive welcoming contact  . . .   Make contact before classes begin.  See an article 
about Marc Gilbert’s work at Hawaii Pacific University:   
community-building activities . . . Incorporate activities that help you learn student names and help students learn each other’s names. A wonderful resource for name-learning strategies is an article by Joan Middendorf: Learning Student Names (Indiana University) . That article at and begins thus:   In his 1993 book, What Matters in College, Alexander Austin reviewed the literature on college teaching, finding two things that made the biggest difference in getting students involved in the undergraduate experience: greater faculty-student interaction and greater student-student interaction. Though learning student names may seem a trivial matter in the entire university enterprise, it is a powerful means to foster both of these interactions.
process your syllabus . . . Have students read (and in groups, derive questions or concerns from) selected parts of your syllabus; then answer the questions. By using groups you preserve anonymity. By compelling students to process parts of the syllabus in class, you assure it will be reviewed even if not read in its entirety.
make a strong start . . . Introduce rich, engaging content immediately (but provide with care the means for students who enroll later—a near certainty at many institutions—to catch up)
help students identify and build on their learning strengths . . . This link  on learning styles/preferences includes some easy-to-use quick online assessments which provide students with immediate feedback on strengths and preferences, prompt goal-setting. You could demonstrate online in class, ask students to triangulate three different assessments as an early assignment (I owe this suggestion to John Collins at the University of British Columbia), then discuss the results in class groups.
3   Make expectations clear . . . In discussion-style exchange, ask students what they expect of you. All faculty include course expectations in a syllabus. A few go further, to engage students in discussion of the syllabus, and still fewer ask what students expect of faculty. Rarely, a faculty member engages students in co-development of expectations. Mano Singham, head of faculty development at Carnegie-Mellon University, did an experiment in which he ditched his “rule-infested” syllabus and asked his students to build a syllabus with him. At  see a discussion about making expectations explicit; this  also explores the possibility of talking openly with students about (a) what is reasonable for you to expect of them, e.g. in preparation; (b) what they expect of each other in class or online (this forestalls a lot of potentially uncivil behavior) and (c) what they expect of you. You’ll learn many  very interesting things! Drill deeper from non-specific terms, like “well-prepared,” to what students believe those words mean in behavior.  Singham’s description of how he built a syllabus with students is described in an article linked 
4   Embed Student Skill Development in Teaching  We often assume that students already know the skills they need to thrive in your classroom. The harsh reality: often they do not know the behavior meaning of such common words as participation, preparation or listening.   They often are unclear about the fundamentals of civility in such behaviors as punctuality, the use of communication tools, and discourse with teachers and peers. What, for example, are the boundaries of acceptable response when A makes a point B finds offensive? Such skills are critical keystones of success in today’s collaborative workplaces. You can create simple activities to help forge these understandings; and you can focus on the how-to of specific skills, such as reading a textbook or listening for and understanding another’s point of view. A T-chart at the link below, an example of what you can build in class,  identifies what “active listening” sounds and looks like in behavior terms. It takes less than five minutes to construct with student input and can focus on any skill you need to develop. (See an example in this article:   The instructor should be able to develop such a chart but it is most powerful if the students develop it themselves in class, with the instructor and students modeling some of the skills. Focus on one skill at a time.   Ground rules and expectations for class dialogue and controversy can be taught like T-charts. 
Managing conflict, between instructor and student or between students in discussion, is another crucial skill. At Managing Conflict: 10 Video Vignettes the University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning Services offers ten film-clip scenes, with analysis, of common conflict situations ranging from grade disputes to helplessness. These are used by UM primarily for graduate student training, but apply to any college classroom:
5  Teaching Online?   Consider reviewing online best practices and then select small ways to modify your own practice:  Find What does an Excellent Online Teacher Look Like?  at
6 Teaching for the First Time?   These tips may help:  

Introduction and Welcome

Bookmark this link to revisit for new posts:

Thanks for visiting.   I spent my most rewarding employment years helping a diverse, clever, and spirited faculty and staff at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu.  Writing for them monthly was a source of immense joy, for it opened conversations between us that stimulated professional growth of the community and was one of my most important sources of learning.  

I retired in early 2012 and as this is published, I am beginning a cross-country journey to a new residence in Shelburne, VT.

In part this blog revisits and refreshes some of my previous writing, and I am doing it in a form that makes it accessible to my earlier readers at HPU, as well as to other faculty developers who may wish to use parts of it to engage their own faculty.  The blog address can be passed on to anyone, and I can make it available in a document form so that you can use parts of it or all of it to create your own newsletter.

Future posts:

August:  developing supportive relationships with students and between students

September:  motivation

October: preventing and managing student incivility.

Please write me with ideas for new topics, or to ask for a document attachment for any specific blog post:

Michael W. Dabney
702 Wake Robin Drive
Shelburne, VT  05482