Thursday, January 3, 2013

Tips for Starting a New Teaching Term


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

Today, it is recommended that instructors use that [first] class to set the tone (anticipate challenge, but expect my support), actively engage students with the syllabus, and use activities to exemplify what students can expect.  Many instructors now create a mutual dialogue with students about what instructors expect of students and what students expect from instructors.
~ from Hawaii Pacific University’s website:   First Day Tips

To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.
~  Bell Hooks, from Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom, London: Routledge (1994)   Bell Hooks is the pen name of American author and social activitist Gloria Watkins (b 1952).

Executive Summary    A new term offers opportunity for new results.  This message focuses on three kinds of changes:  (1) helping students understand that feedback about teaching is least helpful (and least able to prompt change) when offered at term’s end, pushing them to think more deeply about their own investment in education; (2) simple strategies that add warmth to your relationships with learners; and (3) building student skill in civil dialogues with you and with each other.  In the classroom, relationships are key and you can begin building them and building trust when (or perhaps before) your students walk into the first class.  The question of managing early classes started some sharing on the POD Network (faculty development) listserv, and I have exerpted--at the close--some of the suggestions put forth in that exchange.

Links are tested and live except as noted.  If you find otherwise, please tell me:

1--Explain to students that feedback helps you; ask them 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.   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 below will tickle your funny bone and highlights the many advantages of asking students for within-term feedback on teaching.  Find it at:   John Lemuel's "Evaluation Anticipation"  Self-assessment of teaching need not involve others and is the simplest and most powerful of means to improve your teaching practice and to augment student trust: 

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.  Ask students to respond reflectively to some short reading(s) or to specify supportive behaviors they would value from peers or from you. See Marc Gilbert's lead article here: 

community-building activities Incorporate activities to help learn student names and help students to 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 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/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 understand and build on their learning strengths   This link
Hawaii Pacific University: Learning Styles  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, then discuss the results in class groups.

3--Make expectations clear in discussion-style exchange, and 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 the TLC-equivalent 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.  Look at his early-class activities in the supplement under this message.  Explore 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 a lot of very interesting things!  Drill deeper from non-specific terms, like “well-prepared,” to what those words mean in behavior.  

4--Keep Open the Department of Skill Development   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, use of communication tools, and discourse with teachers and peers.  What, for example, are the boundaries of acceptable response when a peer makes a point you find 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.  Use a “looks like/sounds like” T-chart to develop--in  less than five minutes with student input--to focus on any skill you need to develop.  The instructor should be able to develop such a chart but it is most powerful if the students develop it in class, with the instructor and students modeling some of the skills.  Focus on one skill at a time.  

SUPPLEMENT:  Suggestions from other faculty development professionals

A query on the POD faculty developers’ listserv January 2 kicked off an exchange of resources, among which were the following (some edited or re-formatted to save space.
Mick LaLopa, Purdue:   I am starting my graduate course on teaching and learning with, "What do you want to learn about teaching and learning?"  They will then help design the course.  That is a great way to learn teaching and learning.  I am doing the same in my undergraduate Human Resource Management class.  I will ask the kids what they want to learn about HR and how they want to learn it and we will build the syllabus and course agenda together to meet the stated description and course objectives.  I did this last spring with resounding success.  Then there is no selling them on why they need to learn what I am teaching leading to learning, given the research on teaching and learning.

Mano SIngham, Case Western Reserve:   Here is what I do on the first day:   (1) I go early and place name tents with student names at each seat.  (2) I distribute a half-sheet with the following questions: 1. Name 2.  Original hometown 3. Favorite book/author 4. Favorite film 5. Little known but interesting fact about you. I ask them to fill them in. We then go around the room and read from them (myself included).  (3)  I pass a sign-up sheet with 15 minute time slots for the first week for them to meet privately with me.  (4) On index cards, I ask them to write (anonymously) any questions they would like addressed during the course.  I collect, shuffle them and redistribute so that each student reads aloud the questions written on a card by a different (and unknown) student.  (5) I do not start the course with a prepared syllabus that lays out course policies or grading schemes. The only thing I hand out on the first day of class is a list of readings and a tentative schedule of when we will do the readings, and a tentative list of due dates for the papers to be handed in. I point out them that the course website already has a lot of resource material and routine information. I show the website and discuss posting questions and journals for discussions.  (6)  On the first day of class, I ask students why they registered for the course and what they hope to learn, and use this information to structure a general course outline. I tell them that while I am open and flexible to any and all suggestions, I also tell them that I have an ethical responsibility to my field of study and the university to ensure that the course content has academic integrity and conforms generally to the published course description.

I ask the students to list all the things that they expect from an instructor who is giving 100% to the course. One year the students came up with this list, which is actually quite revealing about their prior experiences with teachers:

1.     Give students their papers back in a timely way
2.     Give students lots of criticism and feedback on work
3.     Have passion for the material
4.     Listen and respond to student concerns
5.     Care not only about academics but also about students as people
6.     Realize that students have a life outside of class and not make unreasonable demands on them
7.     Not stick only to the class readings for discussions
8.     Take all questions seriously and not fake it if you don't know the answer to something
9.     Provide inspiration to students so that they will want to change their minds

I then ask them to list what they would expect to see in their peers if they were giving 100% to the course. On their own, they came up with the first eight items, and I added the last three.

1.     Doing the readings
2.     Listening to others and appreciating diverse opinions
3.     Students learning from each other's ideas
4.     Keeping things light-hearted
5.     Not putting others down if you disagree
6.     Showing up for every class and being on time
7.     Showing respect for everyone's ideas
8.     Going beyond just academic conversation and bringing personal elements into the discussions too
9.     Responding thoughtfully to weekly journal prompts
10.  Being conscientious about sending weekly private emails to instructor
11.  Checking the website regularly so that you know what is going on and can carry out your responsibilities

Emma Bourassa, Thompson Rivers Univ:   When I contact students in advance I ask them a question that I can use in a 'find someone who...' mixer. It starts to build community right away.

Alan Bender, Indiana University:  Courses can start prior to the first class meeting.  For example, you could email to students a writing assignment to be done prior to the first meeting, and students could then discuss in class what they wrote.   (That's what I do.)

Brian Greenwood, Cal Poly:    I believe the key is effectively framing for your students your philosophy, goals and expectations.

Curt Naser, Fairfield University:  This routine may be more specific to my subject matter (ethics) but I always start the first day with a simple question, right off the bat:  "Why are you here?"  After the initial looks of disbelief and nervous laughter I cox and cajole them to answer the question.  This ultimately leads to a reflection on their goals, most of whom want to get credits to satisfy a distribution requirement, so that they can graduate so that they can get a job so that they can make money so that they can have a family so that they can, etc....  A great object lesson in deferred gratification and general consequentialist thinking.  This gives them a taste of what class will be like (constant questioning and probing) and has the virtue of laying out for them a very common form of thinking about action.

This post is part of a series published monthly and intended for college and community-college level educators.  Readers should feel free to use parts of any post in their own newsletters, with appropriate attribution, and to contact me with questions or suggestions at

An immensely rewarding part of my retirement life is helping individuals or groups, playing a part in their growth.   Often the issues are simple, involving classroom irritants.  Sometimes it’s about locating a resource, suggesting a fresh approach to a classroom challenge.  It’s sometimes about thinking ahead to a challenge, such as a re-appointment portfolio.  Sometimes it involves a broader or more complex matter, such as ways to improve end-of-term evaluations (and to eliminate the “bombs” that often come attached), or dealing with challenging dynamics in a class or in a faculty group.   In such conversations, I learn and  thrive.  You can engage full and confidential attention from me by using email:   Telephone or Skype conversations can be arranged.   I travel often to west and east coast cities.

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

1 comment:

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