Teaching a Course
The first thing that any responsible website should say is that there is no single, best way of teaching a course. A combination of faculty personality, class dynamics, course content, levels of student preparedness, and year of study (freshman, sophomore, etc) defines what the 'best' way might be. We've outlined the basics below—we'd be happy to talk about these ideas in person, so please contact us.
Do your homework: find out who your audience is (freshmen, sophomores, etc.), what the prerequisites for your course are, how many students are expected to register for it, and so on, as well as the location of the lecture theater in which you will be teaching. A reconnaissance mission to this classroom is always useful, especially if you have never taught before or if you have never taught in this particular location. This is an important activity because you need to get a sense of the room and its set-up—that way, there won't be any unpleasant surprises on your first day of class.
What the course content will cover (both as a 'big picture' and broken down into key themes), including the assessment tasks.
Why the course content is important—either for the students' degree or for their development as life-long learners. That is, what value will this course add to their academic and intellectual growth?
What is expected from students (in terms of preparation, class attendance, behavior, and so on) and what they can expect from you (such as coming to class prepared and on time, an openness to interaction and student questions, and the like).
How the course will be taught. For instance, faculty may decide that active learning in the form of quizzes, presentations, student-led seminars or audience response systems ('clickers') and so on will be the defining classroom pedagogy. Whatever you decide, it should be made explicit to the students from the start of your course so that they know what style of teaching to expect and what kinds of responses/interactions will be valued in class.
When the lectures, recitations, laboratory sessions, assignments, and your consultation times are.
Where the lecture, laboratory, and test venues are.
Any additional information that you believe might be important for students to have at hand, such as the course's prescribed textbook, a list of recommended introductory articles, dates and times for any planned field trips, and so on.
This outline needs to be handed to students at their first class with you, and you should talk them through it, making time to clear up any misunderstandings that may arise. A copy of the outline should also be posted on your Blackboard page or the course website for students who mislay the hardcopy. In addition, it is good practice to refer to this outline frequently during the course of the semester so that students recognize it as the resource it is intended to be.
You only get one opportunity to make a first impression, so make it a good one. Be on time and have your notes and visual aids ready to begin—nothing says 'disorganized' and 'unprepared' quite like a professor who arrives late, and proceeds to waste valuable class time connecting the projector and laptop.
Greet the students and introduce yourself—an obvious, but often overlooked tool for creating a welcoming environment in the classroom. Some faculty like to tell the students a bit about themselves—where they studied, what their research interests are, and so on.
Define the 'rules of engagement' for your class:
- What the students will learn.
- What you expect from them in terms of preparation, participation, and behavior (a recap of what is in the course outline, essentially).
- What they can expect from you.
- What your teaching philosophy is—that is, what you believe about teaching and how learning happens, as well as how you teach in order to achieve this learning. For instance: I believe that teaching is an interactive endeavor between a teacher and students that requires the latter to be fully engaged with the content being taught. Therefore, I use a lot of activities in my classes to encourage students to connect at a deep level to the course content.
- If the class is small enough, get your students to introduce themselves and tell the group what their majors/minors/clusters are. This is a great ice-breaker.
- Hand out the course outline and spend some time going through it, highlighting key information and inviting questions.
- If time allows, start teaching. Time is precious!
Most faculty members, when they were undergraduates, were taught didactically; that is: the lecturer talked and the students listened and took notes. This is known as the transmission model of teaching and involved minimal engagement between the students, the faculty member, and the material being taught. This is arguably not the optimum method of teaching because it implies that students are empty vessels waiting to be filled up with information. In reality, most students already know something, no matter how little, about the subject and want to learn more by active engagement with their professor and their peers in the class. Also, bear in mind that the average attention span of your students is between 15 and 20 minutes. Therefore...
Plan activities—such as quizzes, problems to solve, minute papers, debates, and role plays—for use every twenty minutes or so in order to hold the students' attention and get them actively involved in their own learning. Use these active learning techniques where there is a natural break in the material being taught, such as at the end of a section.
Start each lecture with a summary of how the previous lecture ended, as well as how it fits into what has been taught in the course so far (the 'big picture'). Another opening strategy is to briefly address any questions that may have been brought to your attention since the last class, either during your consultation times or via email.
End each lecture with a summary of what was covered during the period, and what will be dealt with in the next lecture.
Use signposts, also known as discourse markers. In educational discourse, the term 'signpost' is used to denote a word or phrase that directs students' awareness and understanding in certain directions. For instance, when a faculty member uses the signpost 'In other words', they are indicating that a previous point is being repeated in a slightly different way. Implicitly, students understand that if the faculty member is repeating the point, then it must be important and they are more likely than not to note it down. Examples of commonly used signposts include (but are not limited to):
- This is important because...
- Remember ...
- On the one hand... on the other...
- In addition...
- For example/for instance...
- Firstly, secondly, thirdly... (denotes a structure)
- In conclusion...
Use examples throughout your lecture to illustrate what you are teaching—they are vital in helping students to situate theory in practice. There are two ways of doing this: either you can offer examples, or as an activity, you could ask your students to generate some of their own.
Keep 'checking in' with the students to see if they understand the material being taught. Doing this offers the students an opportunity to ask questions and to seek clarity in a safe space. It also allows you to gauge their level of understanding of the material, and from this, to decide whether you need to go back and re-explain the work from the beginning, or whether you can continue with the syllabus. 'Checking in' can include phrases such as:
- Are you with me?
- I know that you must have some questions at this point—what are they?
- Do you understand how...?
- Is there anything about this that you aren't sure of and would like me to go over before we move onto the next section?
Specific references to the course textbook, readings, and assessment tasks throughout the class session helps students to see that they are an integral part of the course, rather than simply as 'add-ons'.
A big caveat is that you should never use Blackboard solely as a 'dumping ground' for articles or readings. This adds no value to the students' learning experience, especially when they can get this kind of information from the Library.
To learn more about Blackboard, click here.
This is a golden opportunity for you to pull together all the major themes that have been taught during the course, and fit them together into a 'big picture'.
It is generally a good idea to use this time to summarize the key themes of the course.
Ask students in advance to bring any questions that they might have about the course material to the final lecture, and spend the period working through these questions. You may ask the students to give you these questions a day or two before the final class, so that you can collate them, and then get the students to work together in groups to find answers. Remember to always encourage peer collaboration before offering your solutions—it is important for students to be able to work together to find solutions.
End the lecture with some broad comments about the exam, its structure, and what kinds of answers are expected.
Student evaluations of your teaching are vital because they provide a 'dipstick' measurement of how the students are experiencing both the course and your teaching.
Evaluations can be anxiety-inducing for faculty, especially if they are understood to be the 'deal breaker' in tenure decisions.
How well am I doing in class? Am I meeting the educational needs of my students? Am I adding value to their education? What areas of my teaching need attention? What am I doing well? What might I do differently? These are the kinds of questions that a faculty evaluation seeks to address. They are not designed to be punitive or undermining. Thus, an evaluation can be understood more constructively as an opportunity for reflection, self-improvement, and quality assurance.
- Be careful of using red and green text on these slides, because color blind people struggle with these two colors. If you want to double-check whether or not your slides are accessible to people with this condition, view this article on Color Universal Design.
- This could include examples of a particular type of ore-bearing rock in geology, an instrument or piece of equipment commonly used in an engineering laboratory, or the leaf of a particular plant. Essentially, an artifact is any tangible object that you can use in your class to advance the learning of your students.