Center for the Advancement of Teaching

Teaching Tips: Getting Started in the Classroom


Getting Started

If you're just starting out, the most important piece of advice we can offer is to pay attention to other teachers: watch what they do, and when someone seems to be doing something particularly effective, steal it without compunction. Student learning is our collaborative project—we are all working together to provide the conditions for transformative learning—so you need never regard any teaching strategy as private property. Student learning is our first priority, and the great thing is that we're learning all the time, too. You'll be developing as a teacher for the rest of your career. Here are a few basics to help you get off to a good start.

The First Day of Class

The first day of class sets the tone for the rest of the semester, so make the most of it. If you simply pass out the syllabus, read over the requirements, and dismiss your students, you’ve lost a great opportunity. 

Just like you probably are, students are excited and apprehensive on the first day, so you have the chance to show them what your course has to offer, and to convey your enthusiasm for your field. Now is your chance to make your classroom a stimulating and a welcoming place.

Habits are formed surprisingly fast: not only are students likely to sit in the same seats for the rest of the term, they’re likely to form their expectations of the class on the first day, so the first class meeting will be a model for the rest of the semester. Students who sit passively while you read over the syllabus for them will expect to do the same for the next fourteen weeks; if you make them feel comfortable, and get them excited, engaged, and participating on the first day, they will be better disposed to enjoy the course, and to nourish their intellectual curiosity.

Although the administrative tasks (handing out the syllabus, pointing out important policies, etc.) are important on the first day, we suggest leaving them to the end of this first session. Getting to know the students is even more vital.

Be early for class: greeting students as they walk in is a great way to take attendance, and can help you start learning names. Some professors even shake hands with students as they enter the classroom (data suggests that this improves student performance: see Bain). Depending on the size of your class, you might ask students to introduce themselves, or to form small groups and introduce themselves there.

You may be daunted, in large classes, by the number of names, but please--learn as many as you possibly can, and use them often. In very large classes you can ask students to give their names when they ask questions. Your students will appreciate your effort, and they will feel both encouraged and more accountable if they are not anonymous. You should introduce yourself, as well, and you can humanize yourself without being overly personal: for example, you might explain the source of your interest in the field you teach, or your path to FIU.

You can make even the administrative minutiae interactive, if you choose: some professors ask students to read the syllabus, then require small groups to each formulate a question about it. If you plan to run a discussion-centered classroom, you can ask students to work together to devise the policies for keeping discussions productive and comfortable.

Again, whatever happens on the first day will set the standard for the rest of the semester, so if you expect active discussions later on, you must get students involved and talking in the first session.

If you have time left after introductions and business, plunge into the course material. Don’t waste time and good will by letting the class out early. The first day is your chance to “sell” your course, so you need to convince students of the material’s intrinsic value. What questions will your course answer? What skills will it offer? Why should students want to learn what you have to teach them? You’ll never have a better opportunity to demonstrate the value of your course.

Have fun!

For more detailed suggestions, here are a few useful pages of tips, from some great Teaching Centers:

Getting to Know Your Students

In those first few semesters of teaching, many of us are anxious about authority, and worry that humanizing ourselves and our students may erode our tenuous control of the classroom. It’s true that you shouldn’t let students think you’re their friend—not only will it confuse them, but it will cause difficulties for you--but you must show them that you care about their learning, and you must show them that you see them as human beings.

One of the first ways to do this is to learn students’ names--as quickly as possible: you may have to study, to repeat them over and over, to play memorizing games—whatever it takes, you should do it.

Even if you have countless students, learn as many as you can. Use the names, so they will feel acknowledged. Make eye contact. Show that you’re interested in what students think. It’s best to arrive early to class, so you can speak to students as they enter: this is a good way to take roll without wasting class time. You can ask them how assignments are shaping up, or what they think of particular topics, but it’s also fine to ask them how they’re settling in, even what they thought of the football game or the popular movie.

If you can relate current events to the class material, this is a wonderful way to engage conversation and get students started thinking. This informal chat before the class begins will make it easier for students to ask you serious questions in class, and may make them more comfortable with participation. If you’re checking your iphone when students walk in, you’re losing an important chance to connect with them, and hindering their engagement with the course.

Designing a Syllabus

It is common to think of the syllabus as a contract between instructor and students, and it should indeed spell out, clearly and thoroughly, all the policies pertinent to the class, including the expectations of both students and teacher. Both parties should be expected to abide by the syllabus—it’s unfair to change requirements mid-semester, and students will be certain to protest. 

However, the syllabus can be far more valuable than a simple contract. This document can convey your sales pitch to your students. Constructing it presents you with the opportunity to determine precisely what you want your students to learn during the course of the semester.

This means that writing a syllabus is an occasion for reflection. Rather than duplicating the classes we ourselves took years ago, or simply listing topics and assigned readings, we have the opportunity to decide what skills, concepts, or proficiencies our classes should teach, what overarching questions they should begin to answer, what perspectives they should provide.

If we present students with what Ken Bain calls a “promising syllabus,” we show them what they can expect to gain by engaging fully with the course, and we evoke their curiosity: this intrinsic motivation is more auspicious for transformational learning than the extrinsic motivator of fear of a bad grade. A well-crafted syllabus can make students desire the mastery promised by the class, and convince them that it can be pertinent to their lives.

In the same vein, grades can be presented not as punitive, summative measures, but as a communication between teacher and student about the student’s learning. Since student learning is the purpose of the course, designing a good syllabus is not just an exercise: it means building the foundation of the class. The best place to start is by determining the goals of the course—what we want students to learn.

From there, we can determine how best to accomplish these goals. What readings, what assignments, what exercises, etc. will best facilitate student learning? And how will we measure that learning?

Students will appreciate your explanation of these issues: why and how were readings selected? What purposes do certain exercises and assignments serve? What skills build upon which concepts? What are the conventions of research in your field? Is there a language they must employ with skill? How does your field determine mastery?

Many courses are constructed on autopilot, so that the work of the course doesn’t meet the expressed goals. This can lead to confusion and frustration on the part of the students, and the conviction that their time is being wasted on “busy work.” Students are likely to work harder, and learn more, when they can see and understand the value and utility of what they’re learning. 

The nitty-gritty of the syllabus can be inviting, too. The course and instructor must be identified (course number, department, semester, time, location, etc.); office hours must be listed; you might even need to give directions to your office. Your contact information should be clear and prominent. It’s useful to explain the purpose of office hours, and invite students to come speak with you. The syllabus is an introduction—to you, to the course, and to what students need to do to succeed.

Testing Prior Knowledge

Before we can teach our students effectively, we need to determine what they already know—and what they don’t. If we want to introduce them to challenging, threshold concepts, we need to be aware of their misconceptions, and of gaps in their knowledge.

It’s often difficult for faculty and graduate students to remember what it was like not to understand certain important concepts, or to exist without certain knowledge, but it’s essential that we make the effort to imagine what it feels like to be on the other side of the learning threshold: otherwise we cannot help our students to learn.

Very early in the semester—perhaps even the first day—it’s useful to find out what your students know and don’t know. 

When people learn, they need strategies for organizing and understanding masses of new information, and they need to be able to make connections between things they already know and the new material. We need to understand where our students are starting in order to help them build effectively; and if we want them to challenge their assumptions—to question what they think they already know—it is of utmost importance that we understand these assumptions.

Each of us interprets new information based on what we know (or think we know) already, and as teachers we need to be aware of the range of students’ perspectives and levels of preparation. For example, it would probably be very difficult to teach calculus to a class of students who did not have a firm grasp of algebra, or the multiplication tables; most examples will be more complex, but we must never assume that students already understand the conventions and parameters of our disciplines.

There are various methods for assessing prior knowledge: concept inventories, concept maps, self-assessment probes, pre-tests, etc. (Please see the Carnegie-Mellon site for examples and further links) These are not graded: they are administered to help you gauge your students’ strengths and weaknesses, and to help you shape your course.

An added benefit of testing prior knowledge at the outset of a course is that you are better able to measure what students have actually learned during the semester, since grades may actually indicate how much they knew before the class started.

Inhabiting Your Classroom

Yes, you’re a physical body, standing up there at the front of the classroom: this makes a lot of us uncomfortable, especially since we academics tend to identify ourselves in terms of our minds. Students will notice our attire and our body language—we may not like this, but we need not let it bother us. In fact, we should make use of it.

You can and should use your body. Start out by relaxing. If you’re tense and nervous, if you feel uncomfortable on display, your audience of students will be able to tell. Don’t worry—you’ll get used to it.

In the meantime, just accept that you’re putting on a performance, and use some valuable theater techniques. Relax. Breathe deeply before you enter your classroom; stretch. Roll your shoulders so you don’t start out hunched and anxious.

If you pull your shoulders back and open your chest, you’ll be able to project your voice better, too—but keep in mind that you need to enunciate, keeping your consonants crisp, rather than just being loud. Vowels are loud, but don’t convey meaning, only volume. 

Move. Act animated. It sounds superficial, but people pay more attention and feel more engaged when a speaker uses gestures and varies her intonation and delivery. When the speaker is mobile, the audience stays awake.

If you must restrict yourself to the front of the classroom, pace around. This will keep you relaxed and the students more alert. If you can, walk amongst the desks, wander in the aisles.

If you can arrange the chairs in a circle, you can stroll around the classroom. Roving around the room personalizes things—you can look at what individual students are doing, check to see who’s taking notes and who’s texting; you can move toward a student who asks a question, to demonstrate your attention; you can prompt further questions just by changing your space.

If a student is chatting to a classmate, or obviously doing homework from another class, it can be useful to walk over and stand nearby: this usually stops the behavior, since it directs the entire class’s attention to it, but you don’t have to make yourself the bad guy by saying anything.

Your energy will be energizing to your students; conversely, if you look bored or uncomfortable, your students will tend to follow suit. You need to project excitement about the material you’re presenting. Do whatever it takes to look like you’re having fun—the enjoyment will end up being genuine.

If you have 45 minutes, check out this video from Nancy Houfek at Harvard on employing theater techniques to enhance your teaching.

Classroom Strategies

These strategies will be covered, in more substance, by the Fundamentals Workshops, but please feel encouraged to use these quick thumbnails and links to jump-start your classroom practice.

Classroom Strategies: Interactive lectures

We’ve all suffered through lectures where we could barely keep our eyes open, or drowsed through PowerPoint presentations when the speaker merely read the text from slides. If you want students to retain anything from your class, you need to keep them mentally active; lectures can accomplish this, but in order to be effective they must engage students in some way.

There are immediate, performance-oriented strategies for reminding students that you’re alive up there—vary your delivery; enunciate clearly so that you project all the way to the back rows; move around, for heaven’s sake—but it’s even more useful to make your lectures interactive.

The average human has an attention span of about seven minutes, so you can count on students zoning out after you deliver even a small amount of dense information. Good lecturers know to structure material into a few digestible concepts, or chunks.

Students will look forward to coming to your class, and more learning will take place, if you break things up. Ask students to answer a question and then share their responses; take their questions; have them write a three-sentence response to a question or problem; break into pairs for “think-pair-share”; use clickers to assess their comprehension (and pose thought-provoking questions); have them apply the concepts you’ve just explained.

Any kind of active learning exercises you choose to employ will enhance—not detract from—your lecture. The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers some great suggestions for what they call “quick-thinks”.

These active learning techniques have many benefits: they solidify learning, they assist with retention of material, and they help you gauge how much your students are learning.

We discuss CATs (Classroom Assessment Techniques, from the book by Angelo and Cross) under assessing student learning.

Here’s a great site on interactive lectures and memory.

…and three good pages from teaching centers:

This video, featuring a distinguished MIT professor, demonstrates good all-around lecture techniques.

Classroom Strategies: Leading Discussions

Discussions are a great way to energize your class. You can use them to assess whether (and how carefully) students have done the assigned reading or otherwise prepared for class, and when they’re done well discussions get the whole class engaged and involved.

Discussions call upon all the resources in the room, and you may often be surprised by the ideas and experiences students have to offer. Discussion also provides a great way to let students pose hypotheses, apply new concepts, and test their classmates’ logic.

A productive discussion can be the most thrilling of teaching experiences, one which democratizes the classroom, so that faculty and students are all learning together, and one which enables close intellectual contact.

Facilitating discussion is a craft that you can hone over the course of many years, but you can jump right in, with great success, if you keep in mind a few important basics.


Create a comfortable classroom environment:

If you’re just starting out, you may feel like the uncomfortable center of attention in the classroom, but students are at least as self-conscious, and they’re terribly anxious about what their classmates think of them. No one wants to risk looking stupid, or nerdy, or obnoxious—especially in front of that cute guy or girl in the fourth row.

It is your task to make sure that students feel welcomed, that it’s clear than their ideas are valued, and that they will not be made to look or feel like idiots. You need to acknowledge all student input, respond to their questions thoroughly and thoughtfully, and never, ever ridicule a student’s insight or confusion.

You can build on a response, ask if anyone agrees or disagrees, etc., but you need to be able to take all contributions seriously, or you will squelch participation. Positive reinforcement is immensely valuable, and will stoke student engagement.

However, you must also establish classroom etiquette, so that no student bullies another; any good-faith contribution should be acknowledged, but you cannot tolerate hate speech.


Ask open-ended questions:

Yes/no question, listing questions, and one-right-answer questions are all counter-productive in discussions. How-? Why-? questions are likelier to produce good results.

You need to craft questions that prompt students to think, to weigh, to judge, to evaluate, to analyze.

Don’t give in to the temptation to answer the questions yourself. Discussion allows students to do the thinking, and this process is essential for learning. Do keep the ball rolling by asking follow-up questions—when things are going well, students will take over this task.

Don’t be afraid to wait: When there’s not an immediate response to your question, you may feel anxious, and rush to restate the question or even answer it.

See if you can wait an entire minute—it will feel like an eternity, but good, provocative questions often demand that students pause to think. They may need to ponder, formulate a response, and screw up the courage to offer that response with classmates listening.

Be patient while this happens. A long silence will usually prompt some student to jump in—they find the silence as loud as you do. This video makes a compelling case for “wait time”.

On the other hand, if you’ve asked a truly confusing, unclear or unfair question, someone is likely to protest that she doesn’t understand, and then you can restate and clarify your question.

Some students may need to write down their ideas before they feel comfortable offering them aloud, so if you’re nervous about waiting, you can give them time to reflect and then jot down ideas before answering.

The UCAT at Ohio State provides excellent guidelines for conducting discussions, including suggestions for good questions and strategies for addressing complications like the student who dominates discussion.

The University of Kansas’s CTL website, as always, offers excellent advice.

This video featuring Harvard’s Chris Christensen is extremely valuable.

Here are a few more fun and useful video links on leading discussion. One includes a clip fromFerris Beuller’s Day Off that shows exactly what NOT to do if you want to encourage discussion.

And here’s a Chronicle column on generating discussion:

Classroom Strategies: Working with groups

Well-planned group activities are a great way to get all students involved. Students who are hesitant to speak up before the entire class are often readier to participate in small groups, and it’s easier to hold everyone in the group accountable for active learning.

In a large lecture there’s no time to take questions from each student, but groups offer opportunities for questions, and they allow students to learn from each other.

Because they are constantly asking and responding, students working in effective groups are highly engaged with the material, especially when you can harness peer pressure to enforce this.

The caveat is that the group assignments need to be good, and students need to understand why they’re working in this format. There is considerable resistance from some students, who feel that group work is just busy-work, or worry that they will be responsible for a disproportionate share of the work, while others freeload.

You need to give your rationale for group assignments, and you must make sure that all members will be accountable. Groups are highly effective for problem-solving, and grappling with projects that are too big for a single student.

Cooperative learning and collaborative learning are strategies for encouraging students to learn from each other. Vanderbilt’s CT has a good page of tips and links and the Derek Bok Center at Harvard offers useful guidelines, as well as a good video on collaborative learning: 

Click here to see the video.

Team-Based Learning is a particularly effective teaching strategy using small groups; we’ve given TBL its own page, under Developing Your Teaching.

Listening

We spend a lot of time thinking about what we're going to say, and how to present it, but in the end it may be more important that we know how to listen. Learner-centered teaching is impossible without this skill—and it is a skill, one we need to cultivate.

You need to pay attention to student questions; more than that, you need to elicit questions, make space for them, interpret them carefully, and think about their larger implications.

Student questions can remind you of gaps in their prior knowledge, alert you to misunderstandings, and (thrillingly) spin discussion off in unexpected directions. If you can draw questions from students, help them formulate inquiry and foster genuine curiosity, then you've gone a long way toward facilitating learning.

Don't be fearful of questions you can't answer; it's fine to say "I don't know," "Wow, I've never thought of that before—I'll look into it" or "that's a fascinating question: why don't you research it for the next class and let us all know what you find?"

Feedback

To maximize the learning that happens in your classroom, feedback should be both continuous and mutual. In other words, you need to be monitoring students’ progress all the time, not just at a midterm and final exam; you need to let them know how they’re doing, and you need to keep track of the effectiveness of the learning environment.

Students make better progress when they know where they stand, so it’s important that both you and they get consistent feedback on their learning. Using CATs (Classroom Assessment Techniques, addressed in the section on Assessing Learning) gives you the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings right away, before time is lost and frustration sets in.

You can kill two birds with one stone by making frequent use of CATs like minute papers, muddiest points, etc. These help you assess how well your students are learning—and, by extension, they give you an idea of your own effectiveness.

Teaching is a complex skill, which you’ll be developing for the rest of your career: don’t be daunted when everything doesn’t work perfectly on the first (or second or third) semester. Weneed feedback, too, in order to keep improving our work in the classroom. You can administer anonymous evaluation forms at midterm to get feedback from your students, and CAT staff are happy to conduct Midterm Interviews or Course Observations.

However, there are also the traditional forms of feedback to address. Exams and grading are fraught with anxiety for many new teachers, but it’s fine to build on models and examples from your peers or mentors, and to ask for advice.

Writing Exams

If you want to encourage critical thinking, it’s important that your exams test for more than just rote memorization. The questions you ask on exams should require application of the ideas you cover, so you can ensure that students have mastered the concepts.

It’s helpful to use a variety of formats—not just multiple choice but short answer, true-false, matching, and especially essay. As long as you don’t have a gigantic class where reading the essays would be impossible, this format is best; essays demonstrate, and even cultivate, mastery more thoroughly than any other form of exam. They don’t allow for guesswork, and they prod students to synthesize.

It’s essential that you design the exam with your real class in mind—you need to know what you want students to learn, and test for those skills and competencies. If you haven’t covered something thoroughly, it’s obviously unfair to hold students responsible for it. If you’ve stressed a particular concept, students will expect the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of it.

Keep in mind that students will require a good bit more time to complete the exam than you would. They will need time to grapple with the questions and determine what is being asked, then to search their memories, muster their confidence and apply their skills.

It’s helpful to give practice exams, to give students a sense of the sorts of questions you’re asking. This can show them that critical thinking may be as important as memorization, and going over correct responses helps them practice their analysis.

The Berkeley website gives a very valuable excerpt from Barbara Gross Davis’s book Tools for Teaching on constructing exams.

The University of Kansas also offers great suggestions, including some useful examples of application questions in multiple-choice format.

Designing and Grading Writing Assignments

You should always give a written assignment for any paper or even essay exam. It’s essential to spell out the expectations and guidelines, to give students something to go back to when they tackle the assignment. (This can be in hard copy or online form, but it’s important that you commit the requirements to writing. A few notes on the board will not suffice.) At a minimum, your written assignment should do the following:

  • Explain the pedagogical purposes of the assignment—what students will learn and what they need to demonstrate. Of course this is clear to you, but it’s often mysterious to students, and they are unlikely to produce good work when they’re uncertain of the assignment’s goals or purpose. Make sure you situate the assignment in the context of the course. What skills will they hone? How will they employ them later?
  • Set out the rhetorical terms of the paper (audience, purpose, situation, voice, etc.) Are students writing for an intelligent general reader or for you, in particular? Should they incorporate personal experience, or stick to summary and analysis? Do they need to spell out the basics, or can they assume certain points are common knowledge?
  • Stipulate the standards for evaluation. It’s a good idea to give students your rubric along with the assignment. Your goals and expectations need to be perfectly clear, not in order to baby your students but because it is incredibly easy to misunderstand the purpose of any writing assignment. This is the purpose of distributing your rubric: it’s not intended to make things too easy for anyone, but to help students understand what they’re trying to produce.
  • Explain any terms that might be vague, and clear up disciplinary jargon. Beginning students often have difficulty distinguishing even between summary and analysis, so in order to get good papers, you need to teach them what analysis, synthesis, creating, etc. actually mean.

It’s always a great idea to provide examples. Show students what a successful paper does. What does it look like? How would YOU complete this assignment? If you can let them see a good paper, they will better understand what you expect.

Keep your mind on your goals for the class when you craft writing assignments. Writing is a powerful tool for generating learning, not just for demonstrating learning, but if the goals of the assignment don’t fit the learning goals for the course then the assignment may confuse your students, and strike them as a waste of time.

Don’t just ask students to summarize or repeat material covered in class—have them synthesize, develop, analyze, critique, and learn actively. Help them tie the assignment to things they already know, so they feel confident to explore.

But when you do all this, be clear and specific about what you expect to receive. Writing center directors across the country confess that baffled students arrive daily with assignments that they themselves would be uncertain how to approach.

The better crafted your assignment, the more pleasant the experience will be for all concerned: students will produce better work, and you will be able to enjoy reading the papers.

Here are some good resources for fashioning writing assignments. The University of Hawaii-Manoa helps to explain how students (mis)understand vague directions.

Grading writing assignments is another challenge. Offering thoughtful, useful responses can be very time-consuming, but you need to learn to focus on a limited number of important learning issues in each paper, rather than getting bogged down in correcting each logical or mechanical error. Rubrics are immensely valuable tools for grading writing, and should be made available to your students. You can also address common problems with the entire class rather than scribbling in every margin. 

Here are some links to tips for effective grading:

See also our section on Writing for Learning.

Classroom Management

Nobody enjoys having to waste energy on student disruptions, and for many new teachers classroom management is a major source of worry. It need not be. If you keep your students engaged and learning, there will be very few problems. If you project confidence and enthusiasm, your students are likely to cooperate.

Here are a few things to remember, which will help you keep your head:

  • Never take anything personally. Students have complicated lives outside of the classroom: if they fall asleep, or look sullen, don’t interpret this as disrespect for you—you probably aren’t involved. The student may be working two jobs to support a family, or in an abusive relationship, or grieving, or anxious, or enduring a myriad of life stressors. You will do much better to demonstrate concern (and feel it, if you can look at things in perspective). You can ask a dozing student if he’s feeling well, or ask a student what’s worrying or bothering her. BUT—
  • Never embarrass students in front of their peers. It’s best to make these inquiries discreetly, perhaps even in the hallway or after class. Not only is this sensitive and considerate, it protects your position—you can easily become the enemy. Even when they are embarrassed or frustrated by a fellow student’s behavior, students may close ranks against you if they perceive you as bullying or humiliating a classmate. They are more easily able to identify with the classmate than with you, the authority figure, so be very careful about singling out anyone for scolding. If you do have a hostile or confrontational student (which should be very rare) you will do best to speak to this person outside of class, also, to ask what’s wrong, or request that the student cooperate.
  • Remember your sales pitch. Before you ever enter your classroom, you need to have a clear idea of what you’re offering your students. Why do they need what you have to share with them? Why should they want to learn it—how will it help them? How is it pertinent to their lives and their world? Start off the semester by convincing your class of the value of the learning they will be doing, and they will be far more willing to cooperate. Remind yourself and them of the value of what they’re doing, and it will minimize disruptions and distractions. If you establish an atmosphere of cooperation, where you’re all working together to promote their learning and best interest, it should be easy to maintain order and engagement. If students trust that you’re on their side, you can cajole them into staying on track. Establishing a good relationship with your class is the best foundation for learning.

However, if you have a seriously disruptive student, you should contact the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution:

Graham Center Room 311 
11200 SW 8th Street 
Division of Student Affairs 
Florida International University 
Miami, FL 33199 
Phone: (305) 348-3939
Fax: (305) 348-6477



Contact Us

MMC PC 237
11200 SW 8th Street
Miami, FL 33199 
305-348-4214
teach@fiu.edu
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