The calendar turned to August a few days ago and soon, over the next month or so, college campuses around the country will swell with new and returning students and faculty. Most of the new faces will belong to students, but some will be new full-time or adjunct faculty members taking their maiden voyages in physical classrooms or online. Teaching a college class for the first time can be exciting as well as a bit daunting. New instructors want to do well–but how?
What follows are some tips of the trade I’ve learned and used throughout my career.
1. Introduce the course. Many new teachers make the mistake of assuming that students know what a course in psychology is about before they sign up. Guess what? Most don’t. Use the first class meeting to put the course, whether it’s introductory psychology or advanced cognition, to put the course in some perspective. What are your teaching goals? Does the course represent a broad or a narrow topic? Why should the content matter to students? Speak clearly and passionately about the course and why it is important to psychology and to the students’ education.
2. Then introduce yourself. Students are often interested in their instructor’s academic journeys. I am not suggesting you provide them with a memoir, but you should explain how you became interested in psychology, how you arrived at the school where you are teaching, and so on. This should not take more than a few minutes but your goal is help students to realize that you are human, that you are approachable, and that you are interested in their success.
3. Review the course syllabus. The syllabus is a road map to the semester or quarter. It should be detailed but not obnoxiously so. My rule of thumb is simple: When I was a student, I did not like my instructors to surprise me with unannounced exams or papers (I once had a philosophy prof who would say things like this at the start of a Friday class: “Say, why don’t you guys write me a 5 page paper on Plato’s Crito for Monday’s class—after all, you have the whole weekend to work on it.”). Students should know what is expected from day 1 and when it is expected. You can make changes to the syllabus, but only those that benefit everyone (i.e., if you are a class or two behind in your lectures, then move an exam a class or two later). Your course should never be a “mystery hour.”
4. Point out due dates and stick to them. Part of the college experience is meant to mimic real life where things are due when they are due. When you assign a paper or other exercise, make sure students understand that they must submit it on (or before—a few will!) a due date; anything submitted after the due date receives some penalty. The goal here is not to be loved but to be respected and to be fair to all. It’s only fair that students who submit their work late do not receive the same level of credit as those who were on time. Be nice but firm, explain the goal of fairness, and also point out that learning to manage one’s time is an important part of adulthood. Bend rules only when it is necessary and done in a reasonable way (see tip 3 above).
5. If possible, learn the students’ names; do so ASAP. My typical class size is relatively small, only 25 or so. I try to learn my students’ names quickly, by the end of the first few weeks of the class. I have a friend who routinely learns around 100 names. If you are teaching 500 people in a class, then learning their names may not be possible. Still, when you call on a student who has a question or comment, try personalizing the exchange by saying, ”Before you begin, please tell me your name so I will get to know you better” or something like that. If you are teaching online, be sure to address the student by name in any messages or threaded discussions.
6. Grade assignments and exams quickly. If you want students to follow your rules (see point 4) then you must also behave responsibly when it comes to grading their work. Psychologist and author David Myers of Hope College offers sage advice: You have to grade the work anyway, so why not do so as soon as possible? You will be done with what can be an arduous task and the students will get helpful feedback on where they stand in your class. 95% of the time I return papers and tests at the next class meeting (as I usually start grading once I walk out of the class). Taking two weeks or longer to return assignments is just bad form. Faculty, too, need to learn to manage their time effectively (see point 4 above).
7. Be yourself in the classroom as much as possible. Authentic teachers present themselves as they are, they don’t pretend to be someone else. Be approachable, encouraging, and friendly—but not friends. Some teachers enjoy student adulation and end up being to chummy with some but not all students. Doing so is unprofessional and risky. Again, be friendly, not friends. In the same way, you can share your values about ideas—your opinion will manifest itself through your actions, anyway, if not through your words. As one of my colleagues told me years ago: “Professors profess.” You are free to do so as long as you do so contextually, allowing your views to inform the course topic. If the comments are not correlated to the topic, then don’t make them (i.e., keep those red state/blue state views private).
8. Remember that depth is usually preferable to breadth. College level teaching is not a race to finish the book(s) or to convey everything you know about a course topic. Moderation is usually the best teaching approach. If an interesting aside leads to a class discussion, hold the discussion; don’t fret that you didn’t make it all the way to the end of chapter 7 (but remind the students that they are responsible for reading the book, all of which may be fair game for exams, etc.; see tip 3 above, where all expectations should have been explained.
9. Have fun. And remember my favorite things about teaching—if it goes well, you will know it because you will see the students’ expressions and engagement. If not, you get to try again in the next class meeting or reinvent yourself the next semester.