Making a Strong Start to a New Semester

The first few weeks of class usually set the pattern for the semester. Making a strong start requires that teachers communicate their expectations to the class in an effective manner. What is said and done during the first few weeks of a class may determine the outcome of the semester for many students.

On the most obvious level, students have a right to know what will be required of them during the semester. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • papers, exams, and/or projects;
  • policies on attendance, late assignments class participation, etc; and
  • how final grades will be calculated.

You should also provide a detailed syllabus which states this information. If all has been carefully prepared and explained at the beginning of the semester, and no surprises are sprung later in the semester, students have no grounds for complaints.

Perhaps less obvious but equally important are the other messages that must be conveyed. Unless students get a sense that the teacher views them as capable adults on equal footing with all others in the class, they will almost certainly not respond to the class with active participation and enthusiasm. Students need to get the message from their teachers that they will be treated with honesty, respect, and fairness.

Treating students honestly does not mean being brutal or cruel. If, indeed, the truth sometimes hurts, it may be because the truthsayer, in many cases, seeks to hurt rather than help. Every student has weaknesses in one area or another; rather than focusing on the students’ weakness alone, look also at the students’ strengths. Let all the students understand that you regard them as capable, especially those who are experiencing difficulties in the class. Don’t portray a student’s problem as failure; transform it into an opportunity to approach a problem in a different way.

It is important, however, always to be open and honest with students about grades. Kindness doesn’t mean glossing over a students’ bad performance on a test or a paper. Work with the student to set realistic goals and then determine what level of work will be necessary to reach these goals.

Respecting students as individuals is another crucial element in creating an environment where students are able to learn. Encourage them to think independently and to express their ideas without fear of ridicule. Pay attention to students when they speak; for some undergraduates it is extremely difficult, almost painful; to speak up in class—an inattentive or joking response could inhibit that student from participating in the future.

Be fair to all students. Do not just teach to the three smartest students or to the majors, ignoring the rest. Set high expectations for all of your students. Research has shown that students work up (or down) to the expectations of the teacher. Give up on your students and they will give up on the class; inspire students to put forth their best efforts and they may surprise you and, even, themselves.

(Originally posted on 1/22/2106)


Register for a Fall 2017 workshop

Each semester TAP offers free workshops to assist TAs with their continued professional development. Students who attend at least four sessions in a particular workshop series (listed below) will receive a certificate of participation.

Preparing for the Professoriate

Teaching with Technology


Incoming Students with Strong Prior Beliefs

We often come across students who simply state, “They aren’t good at this ‘stuff.'” Having such a strong prior belief of one’s own capability can have negative effects. In particular, it can result in “fulfilling” the prophecy that they had written for themselves. How do we weaken these beliefs?

Dr. Melissa Wehler suggests 5 tips to resolve such an issue in this article. Check it out!

If your classroom was a movie genre .. what would it be?

Dr. Vincent Genareo argues that the classroom should have the same elements as a zombie movie (see article here).

According to Dr. Vincent Genareo, there are the six zombie movie characteristics that can help improve the classroom:

  1. Hook: grab the students’ attention
  2. Collaboration: implement group activities
  3. Problem Solving: allow opportunities for students to apply course material
  4. Risk-Taking: encourage students to master material despite possible failure
  5. Humor: relate to students
  6. Hope: provide feedback to students to demonstrate their progress in the course*

What movie genre is your classroom?

* I would also include in this element that you should summarize all students’ mistakes — from experience, students feel relief that they are not the only ones that made the same mistakes. This also gives you, as the instructor, a sense where your instruction may need improvement!

Activities for Engaging Students

Need fresh ideas to engage students? Take a look at this article by Dr. Lynne N. Kennette and Wes Hanzuk!

Literacy Levels

Food for thought about literacy levels in higher education.

Students’ Perception of In-Class Participation

As instructors, we have strong beliefs that in-class participation is crucial to the learning process as well as a confirmation that students understand the material. But have you ever wondered what students’ thoughts on in-class participation? In a study outlined in this article, students reported believing that in-class participation increased their engagement with the course’s content, facilitating memory of the course’s content, confirmed their knowledge of the course’s content, clarified confusion about the course’s content, and deepened their understand of the course’s content.

Mid-semester Evaluations

While student’s complete end-of-semester evaluations, these can only help you improve your teaching in the future. Early and regular feedback can help you to:

  • Improve a course immediately;
  • Get a class back on track if it isn’t going well;
  • Refine a course that is going well; and
  • Alert you to problems that some of your students may be having.

There are a variety of ways to elicit feedback from your students. TAP offers a sample mid-semester evaluation (pdf) that you can use as is or adapt.

Instead of, or in addition to, a formal mid-semester evaluation, you can ask your students for feedback more regularly. Some instructors like to ask students to write a one-minute memo at the end of each class, in which they quickly answer the questions: “What was the most important idea of today’s class?” and “What questions were you left with?”

You can also hand out slips of paper every few weeks or after major assignments and ask specific questions about the coursework or something more general, like, “Is there anything you want me to know about how the class is going for you?” Customize the questions for your particular class. For instance, if few of your students speak in class, ask them why they don’t participate and what would encourage them to do so. However you choose to ask the questions, allow your students to answer anonymously, to encourage honesty. Take feedback from your students seriously.

Keep in mind that if you ask students for their opinions but then don’t respond to those opinions in any way, they will be understandably frustrated. You may not be able to make the kind of changes your students request, but if that’s the case, you should talk to them about why it’s not possible. Be willing to implement reasonable changes, and don’t be afraid to try new teaching methods in response to student feedback.

TAP’s mid-semester evaluation template (pdf)


(This article was originally posted on 10/16/2015)

Changing the Structure for the First Day of Class

The first day of class is incredibly formulaic. We review our syllabus and typically outline our expectations and the various rules unique to our course, but we forget that undergraduates often take multiple courses. So if we are expecting students to remember all the nuances of our courses, so are others, which according to Roy Starling alters a student’s composure drastically, namely from “learning to survival.”

Instead Starling have suggested to reformat the first day of class in two different ways to prevent this from happening:

  • For the first day of class, have students engage in group work so students 1) can meet each other and 2) be introduced to the course content.
  • For the first day of class, emphasize the assignments’ reasoning instead of its requirements so students understand that the assignments are designed to help them gain certain skills.

To quiz or not to quiz

There has been quite a bit of controversy as to whether or not quizzing periodically and consistently is helpful for students.

Recent research by Batsell and colleagues (2016) has found students performed better across all three different testing conditions where tests were either identical to the quizzes throughout the semester, similar to the quizzes throughout the semester, and completely different both on wording as well as concepts from quizzes throughout the semester. Batsell and colleagues (2016) offer several reasons why this effect may be occurring such as instructor style or type of semester, but the explanation that they believe is most plausible is the daily engagement with the course material. By having scheduled quizzes, students are 1) engaging with bits of information at a time instead of gigabytes (i.e., cramming for their exam the night before) and 2) reviewing the material for a sum total longer than if quizzes were not scheduled (i.e., again not cramming for eight hours the night before).

For the primary source, see Batsell et al. (2016)