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Preparing to Teach

First Day of Class

Jack Dudley lecturing during an English class

The first day of class is your opportunity to present your vision of the class to prospective students. It is helpful if you can introduce yourself as a scholar and educator and provide insight into how the course learning community will be organized. What can your students expect of you and what are your expectations for students to contribute to the learning process?

Students have many activities competing for their time and attention during the academic year. Some may need a specific schedule due to athletics or employment, others may prefer a particular learning environment (i.e., lab-based or lecture style), or a class with a certain workload to balance the demands of their other courses and extra-curricular responsibilities. During the first class session, students will appreciate a clear roadmap of what you will require of them over the course of the semester. You may also want to model, as specifically as possible, the classroom environment you intend to foster during the class. For example, if they will spend a good deal of time doing group work over the course of the semester, you may want to break them into groups the first day.

Welcoming: How to Create an Inviting Classroom

“Professors who established a special trust with their students often displayed the kind of openness in which they might, from time to time, talk about their intellectual journey, its ambitions, triumphs, frustrations, and failures, and encourage students to be similarly reflective and candid.”

–From the chapter “How Do They Treat Their Students” in Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard Press, 2004).

Introduce Yourself

The point of an introduction is to establish yourself as a unique individual sharing the classroom learning community with other unique individuals. Other than providing your name and the name of the course you’re teaching, here is some information you may consider sharing:

  • Personal biography: where you are from, family, education, hobbies, sport and recreational interests, how long you have been at the university, and what your plans are for the future.
  • Educational biography: how you came to specialize in your chosen field, a description of your specific area of expertise, your current projects, and your future plans.
  • Teaching biography: how long have you taught, how many subjects/classes have you taught, what level of class you normally teach, what you enjoy about being in the classroom, and what do you learn from your students.
  • In making your decision about what information to share, consider how much you want your students to know and how much you want to reveal about yourself.

Allow Students to Introduce Themselves

This is your opportunity to focus on students as unique and diverse individuals. Consider how introductions can lead into a productive and welcoming classroom environment. Instead of just asking general questions concerning their name, major, and year in college, ask them questions that are pertinent to the subject and the atmosphere you want to build through the semester. Here are some examples:

  • In a geography or history class, you may want to ask students to introduce themselves and explain where they are from. You could mark these places on a map of the world as they talk.
  • In a math class, you may want to ask students to introduce themselves and state one way mathematics enriches their lives every day.
  • You may also want to have students break into pairs, exchange information, and introduce one another to the class.

This may also be a good time to give your students a short formative assessment to help you determine the state of their previous or current learning on course content. Using Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) can be an effective way to do this. For more information on CATs visit the "Instructional Stratgies" section of the  CIDD website.

Discuss and Evaluate the Learning Environment Together

Following introductions, ask your students to comment on the effectiveness of the learning environment such as acoustics and how well you can hear and see one another. Consider, as a learning community, how changes to the course environment might optimize learning (i.e., altering seating arrangements, use of a microphone, other environmental controls).

Similarly if your course is being taught online, ask your students to comment on the effectiveness of course organization and adjust content in the LMS accordingly, where possible.

Course Expectations and Requirements

“By giving students an interesting and inviting introduction, I was able to reduce anxiety about the course and help students view the class as a collaborative learning process. Every field has its own exciting research or striking examples, and it is a good idea to present a few of these up front. The teaching challenge is to find special ideas within your own field. Your class will thank you.”

–From “How to Start Teaching a Tough Course: Dry Organization Versus Excitement on the First Day of Class” by Kevin L. Bennett, in College Teaching, 52(3), 2004

Course overview and objectives

Provide a map of where the class will start and end, and what you expect your students to understand at the end of the semester. Resources on creating and summarizing course goals and module/unit learning objectives are provided in the "Instructional Strategies" section of the CIDD website.

Departmental Requirements/Expectations

If your department sets standards and requirements, you may want to share with your students their parameters.

Presentation of material

Tell your students how you will provide them with the materials they need to be successful in your course learning community. Do you post web-based materials on Canvas, or rely on electronic course reserves through the Library? Will your students have to schedule evenings to watch films or attend performances? Will you lecture and expect them to take notes on your presentations? Whatever your methods are, you will want to be certain your students understand them and how to access course content.

Expectations for class time

How will students feel confident and competent in your classroom? Is the class discussion-based? Do you strictly follow your syllabus or do you differentiate lessons, and activities based upon student performance? Do students need to bring their books every day? Be certain your students know what they can expect and how can they interact within those expectations to be successful in your classroom.

Expectations outside of class

Provide students with an idea of what they will need to prepare for the course outside of class. Is their preparation primarily reading and writing individually, or will they be working in groups? Will they need to turn in assignments electronically outside of class hours? Give your students detailed information so they will be able to plan their schedules accordingly.

Instructor responsibilities

Establish what you will provide for your students to be successful in your class. This may include in-class material, study guides, meaningful and prompt feedback on assignments, facilitation of discussion, attention to students with special needs, and a positive and welcoming classroom environment.

Assert your boundaries: Let your students know how to contact you and when. For example communicate or provide your office hours, office phone number, availability for instant messaging, email, and when you do not respond (evenings, weekends, and traveling for example). If you are traveling during the semester, you may want to explain the dates that you will not be available.

You may also want to alert your students to the events, habits, or situations that detract from your ability to fulfill your responsibility. For example, if late assignments, lack of participation, or sleeping during your lectures distracts you from timely and persuasive teaching, explain why you cannot tolerate these events and how you handle them when they occur.

Student responsibilities

If attendance is required, participation is mandatory, or you want your students to read the assignment before class, explain to your students that this is expected of them throughout the semester. Explain policies on absences, make-ups, emergencies, and accommodating special needs. You may also remind students that they are responsible for their success and communicating with you when they have need for assistance or have other concerns.

Assessment

How will you assign the course grade at the end of the semester? How many assignments will you grade? Do you have grading policies and/or rubrics or criteria for grading? These details should be included in your syllabus.

Cooperation/communication/resources

Finally, you may want to spend a few minutes discussing university, department, library, or other resources for students to use in through the course of the semester. The "Resources" tab off of the Canvas course landing page is a helpful link to many of these resources for students. Be certain to highlight these resources for students (i.e., Library, Writing Center).

Additional resources

  • Angelo, T. A., and Cross, K. P. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
  • Erickson, B. L., and Strommer, D. W. Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.
  • “The First Day of Class: Advice and Ideas.” Teaching Professor, 1989, 3(7), 1-2.
  • Johnson, G. R. Taking Teaching Seriously. College Station: Center for Teaching Excellence, Texas A & M University, 1988.
  • McKeachie, W. J. Teaching Tips. (8th ed.) Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1986.
  • Scholl-Buckwald, S. “The First Meeting of Class.” In J. Katz (ed.), Teaching as Though Students Mattered. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 21. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.
  • Serey, T. “Meet Your Professor.” Teaching Professor, 1989, 3(l), 2.
  • Weisz, E. “Energizing the Classroom.” College Teaching, 1990, 38(2), 74-76.
  • Wolcowitz, J. “The First Day of Class.” In M. M. Gullette (ed.), The Art and Craft of Teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Syllabus Design

josey chacko teaching a business class

A syllabus serves many functions in a class. In The Course Syllabus: A Learning Centered Approach (2008, 2nd Ed.) Grunert O’Brien, Millis, and Cohen identify at least sixteen elements of a learner-centered syllabus:

  • Establishes an early point of contact and connection between student and instructor.
  • Helps set the tone for the course.
  • Describes your beliefs about educational purposes.
  • Acquaints students with the logistics of the course.
  • Contains collected handouts.
  • Defines student responsibilities for successful coursework.
  • Describes active learning.
  • Helps students assess their readiness for your course.
  • Sets the course in a broader context for learning.
  • Provides a conceptual framework.
  • Describes available learning resources.
  • Communicates the role of technology in the course.
  • Can provide difficult-to-obtain reading material.
  • Can improve the effectiveness of student note taking.
  • Can include material that supports learning outside the classroom.
  • Can serve as a learning contract.

Writing a document that serves all these purposes can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are many resources to help you, including this teaching guide.

A good syllabus relies on thoughtful course design.

The strongest syllabi are built on a solid foundation of course design. In course design, the instructor first chooses learning goals that are appropriate for the level of the class and the students in it. These are goals that can be achieved in one semester, and that are rooted in the discipline. After selecting learning goals for the class, the instructor decides how to measure whether students have achieved those goals, and then decides what learning experiences in and outside of class will help students practice what they should learn, that can be achieved in one semester, and that are rooted in the discipline. The syllabus provides the students an introduction to this unified design and also is valuable evidence of a reflective teaching practice to colleagues, including review or search committees.

What does a syllabus contain?

At Mount St. Mary's University, a syllabus template is available for use in Canvas. This template includes many standard syllabus elements such as: basic information (instructor's name, contact information, office hours), course meeting time/format, course description, textbook requirements, course learning objectives and program/instutional goals, course and institutional policies (i.e., attendance, academic integrity), technology needs and resources, assignments and descriptions, and course calendar. This template may automatically be applied to your Canvas course shell, dependinig on the requirements of the program in which you teach, or you may request of CIDD to have the template applied to your course.

Within each of these categories it is helpful for instructors to be as detailed as possible.

Additional items you might include in your syllabus to help your students be successful might include:

  • Resources: What can students use to be successful in this class? This might include tips for success, model student assignments, glossaries of technical terms, links to support materials on the web, academic support on campus, and even space for students to identify two or three classmates to contact if they miss class or want to form a study group.
  • Statement on Accommodation: Though information from Learning Services is provided in the Canvas course template instructors may want to include language on their syllabi to describe reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs and observations, conflicts due to participation in athletics or upcoming interviews.
  • Evaluation of the course and assessment of student learning: Letting your students know you value their feedback on the course learning community is important. Beyond waiting for the end-of-semester evaluation, how will you solicit students' feedback on course design and content learning. It is recommended that you ask your students what is working well and what could be changed to help their learning in the early weeks of your course. A good way to remember to do this is to put it on your syllabus.
  • Safety and Emergency Preparedness: What to do in case of fire, tornado, accident or injury, or other emergency, procedures for inclement weather, evacuation procedures, lab safety precautions. 
  • Disclaimer: In a guide from Hamilton College’s Center for Teaching Excellence on writing a legally sound syllabus, the general counsel recommends including a disclaimer about possible changes to the class. Her example is: “This syllabus is intended to give the student guidance in what may be covered during the semester and will be followed as closely as possible. However, the professor reserves the right to modify, supplement and make changes as the course needs arise.”

How can the tone of the syllabus affect learners?

This discussion leads us to the consideration of tone in a syllabus. The syllabus is the first introduction students receive to you as an instructor and to the content of the course. Researchers at James Madison University surveyed student responses to detailed and brief versions of the same syllabus, and concluded that students associated the detailed syllabus with qualities of a master teacher (Saville et al 2010). Researchers have explored the effect of “warm” and “cold” language in a syllabus on student perceptions of the instructor. An example of “warm” language in a syllabus is “I hope you actively participate in this course. I say this because I found it is the best way to engage you in learning the material (and it makes lectures more fun.)” “Cold” language, on the other hand, expresses the same idea using different words: “Come prepared to actively participate in this course. This is the best way to engage you in learning the material (and it makes the lectures more interesting.)” Students who read the syllabus with the “warm” language rated the hypothetical instructor both more approachable and more motivated to teach the class (Harnish and Bridges 2011). 

Office Hours

student and professor meeting in the library

Office hours are important opportunities for good teaching and are required for all full-time faculty. Adjunct faculty should determine how they can best support student learning needs for individual conferencing.

During and individual student conference/office hour, students often share their confusions, misunderstandings, and questions more candidly and completely than they do in class, and you are in the best position to give them the individual attention they need.

In an online setting office hours may be held using multiple technology resources such as synchronous web conferencing, synchronous chat in Canvas, email, telephone, and/or discussion forum.

Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors by Linda B. Nilson, is a great source of information on how to make your office hours more effective.

Office Hours: Selecting the time and encouraging attendance

 

Be careful and considerate in scheduling your office hours. If you are available only briefly during prime class time–that is, when students are attending their other classes–then you immediately reduce your students’ ability to see you. If you teach a discussion, recitation, or laboratory section, make sure that your office hours do not overlap with the lecture portion of the course. If you teach graduate courses for working adults, daytime office hours might not be convenient. Consider times immediately before class. If there aren’t enough hours in the day, consider scheduling an early evening office hour or using technology to facilitate communication. Throughout the semester, remind your students that you also meet by appointment.

Start out by publicizing your office hours, first in your syllabus, then on the board during the first day of class or using an announcement in Canvas, and intermittently during the term before “high traffic” weeks (before exams and paper deadlines). Post your office hours prominently outside your office door. Even the warmest encouragement may not get students into your office hours, so you may have to “require” their attendance. For example, you could require each student to schedule a meeting with you early in the semester–as part of a paper assignment (draft review) or to go over a problem solution. This first meeting will foster repeat visits.

When students arrive to meet with you, especially the first time, make them feel more comfortable with some brief personal chat. It is helpful to spend the first few minutes finding out how they are, how they find the course, and how they are experiencing college. However, be careful to maintain appropriate boundaries in your relationship with the student. If you are meeting in your office, close the door for privacy but leave it slightly ajar. Also, maintain a respectable seating distance.

Making Office Hours Productive

Advise students on how to prepare for meetings with you. You might instruct them to bring appropriate materials, such as their lecture notes, books, homework problems, drafts of their papers, or readings with troublesome passages marked. You might suggest that they write out their questions or points of confusion to help clarify and prepare before meeting with you. In addition, remind your students that office hours are not an opportunity to receive a recap of a lecture or lesson.

Make your sessions with students a chance to continue teaching them, by helping them work through their own confusions or problems. It may be helpful to respond to their questions with further questions that will lead them to their own conclusions. Provide guidance toward problem-solving rather than simply giving students the answer.

Communication Tips

Inform your students about your use of email

The following guidelines suggest ways of structuring your email exchanges with students. Once you’ve decided how you will use email in your teaching, it’s important to make these decisions clear to your students.

Recognize the value of one-to-many emails/canvas announcements

In the classroom, it’s not unusual that a question articulated by one student is a live question for many students. If a student emails you to ask a question that is generally relevant to the class, you might send your response to the entire class using Canvas Inbox email and/or Canvas Announcement. In many instances, it’s a good idea not to include in your response the name or email address of the student who asked the question.

Use canvas discussion forum or page to post a FAQ

If a question is asked often, either in the same class or from semester to semester, consider adding it and your response to it to a course Frequently Asked Questions collection.

Consider establishing email office hours

If you’ve published office hours, students know when they can expect to find you to ask a question about the class. It would be helpful to them also to know when they might expect a response to an email message about the class. The notice here could be something rather general (e.g., “I generally check email only once a day.”) or specific (e.g., “I will respond to student email messages between 2:00 and 3:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”) You are free to respond at other times, just as you are free to be available for student appointments at times other than your stipulated office hours. But it’s important for students to know when they can reasonably expect an answer to an email message. 

Assign pre- or post-class "quick checks"

Depending on the size of the class, consider requiring students to email, post a discusssion question, complete an entry or exit ticket. This might include having students send a question about the reading before the class starts. A quick skim of these can give you a sense of the students’ understanding of the material and shape your approach to teaching it during the class session. Similarly, requiring students to send/post a question they have about the issues discussed in a particular class can give you a sense of the effectiveness of that discussion.

 

Academic Integrity

professor giving lecture in a classroom with large windows

Mount St. Mary's University's Academic Integrity policy is included in each Canvas course template. It is helpful for your students if you refer to this policy often. Certainly at the onset of your course as your review syllabus content, but also throughout the course as you describe course assignments and activities.

Policies and Information

An academic community, regardless of delivery modality (e.g., in-person, online), must operate with complete openness, honesty and integrity. Responsibility for maintaining this atmosphere lies with the students, faculty and administration. Therefore, the achievement of personal and academic goals through dishonest means will not be tolerated. Academic misconduct includes but is not limited to:

  1. Cheating: the unauthorized use, access, or exchange of information before or during a quiz, test or semester examination. Unauthorized collaboration on a class assignment, submitting the same work in two courses without the professor’s permission, and buying or selling work for a course are also forms of cheating.
  2. Plagiarism: The representation of someone else’s words or ideas as one’s own. The various forms of plagiarism include but are not limited to copying homework, falsifying lab reports, submitting papers containing materials written by another person, and failing to document correctly in one’s written assignment words, arguments or ideas secured from other sources including content available from websites, and/or generated through A.I. without the instructor’s permission. Plagiarism detection software may be used with assignment submissions to verify original work.
  3. Providing or receiving assistance in a manner not authorized by the professor in the creation of work to be submitted for academic evaluation including papers, projects and examinations; presenting as one‘s own the ideas or words of another (including those generated from A.I.) for academic evaluation without proper acknowledgement and permission from the instructor.
  4. Doing unauthorized academic work for which another person will receive credit or be evaluated.
  5. Misrepresenting student identity: posing as another or having someone pose as you is an act of academic misconduct. Identity verification may be required to complete course activities and assessments.
  6. Attempting to influence one’s academic evaluation by means other than academic achievement or merit including unauthorized access to computer systems.
  7. Assisting in misconduct: cooperation with another in an act of academic misconduct. A student who writes a paper, posts a paper or exam questions online, or does an assignment for another student is an accomplice and will be held accountable just as severely as the other. Any student who permits another to copy from his or her own paper, examination, or project shall be held as accountable as the student who submits the copied material. Students are expected to safeguard their work and should not share papers, projects, homework, or exam answers with other students unless specifically directed to by their professors.
  1. Failure to protect University accounts and computer systems such as sharing of accounts, passwords, and other assigned resources whether with intention or through negligence.

Preventing, Detecting, and Responding to Plagiarism

  • Turnitin – The Mount subscribes to a plagiarism detection service called Turnitin. Faculty can access it through Canvas, our course management system. See the Canvas Help for resource pages for more information, or contact Canvas support for help (24/7 chat, phone).

About this Guide

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License and was developed from content from Vanderbilt University.

Contact CIDD

The Center for Instructional Design and Delivery is available by phone at 301-447-5084 or by email at cidd@msmary.edu.