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)

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