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.

Creating an Effective Lecture

Combining short lectures with active learning keeps students engaged. This also allows the instructor to provide context and information. Remember, a lecture is not a paper. The types of things that may make for a good paper (e.g., analytic detail and deep engagement with the literature) don’t make for good presentations.

Don’t try to cram all of your knowledge on a given subject into a lecture. Your purpose is to help your students learn. Do this best by limiting the number of points you make and the information you provide. Students will retain more if you provide them with less material.

  • Have one central topic and a few main points
  • Tell students what you will cover and how you will do so
  • Put the material in context (explain how it relates to the course as a whole)
  • At the end, reiterate the main points

In addition:

  • Avoid complex sentence construction
  • Use simple, direct language
  • Offer aural guides along the way (e.g., “The second argument against…”)
  • Use illustrations and memorable examples
  • Don’t simply go over the textbook or reading material

Public Speaking Tips

Speaking in public is a common fear, but it’s one that TAs need to confront to be successful. Fortunately, public speaking is a skill that can be learned and which becomes easier with practice. Below are some tips to help you feel more comfortable, and be more effective, as a speaker.

Before the Presentation:

  • Familiarize yourself with your notes.

  • Practice as frequently as you can—in front of a mirror, friends, pets, etc.

  • Familiarize yourself with the room in which you’ll be speaking.
    • Will you have room to move around?

    • How much will you need to project your voice?

  • Choose an outfit that makes you feel confident and professional.

  • Bring a bottle of water.

During the Presentation:

  • Don’t read from your notes—use them as a guide;
    • You’re not reading to the class, you’re speaking with them.

  • Concentrate on the audience and your presentation, not your nerves.

  • Take a sip of water if you need a second to regain your calm.

General Tips on Delivery:

  • Make frequent eye contact with your audience.

  • Vary the pitch and tone of your voice—don’t speak in a monotone.v

  • Speak loud enough for everyone to hear you.

  • Vary your volume to emphasize a point.

  • Enunciate clearly.

  • Speak slowly.

  • Avoid repetition of filler words such as “okay,” “like,” or “um.”

  • Allow your enthusiasm for the material to come through!

Accept that you will make mistakes. Remember, public speaking gets easier with experience.

Managing Class Time

Many TAs worry that they won’t have enough material to fill the time. Others try to cram too much into a class meeting. As you gain experience, you’ll get a better sense of how to pace your classes and how much time various activities should take. In the meantime, thorough preparation and a willingness to be flexible can help you manage class time effectively.

When you prepare for a class, prioritize the information. Consider everything you might potentially cover and decide which topics are:

  • Absolutely necessary;
  • Somewhat important; and
  • Only to be included if there’s extra time.

This way you can be sure to cover the most important topics. If you have extra time, you’re also ready with additional material. (This may seem obvious, but many instructors often simply cover material in the order in which a text presents it.) At the beginning of class, give students a quick overview of the topics you plan to cover.

If you plan to spend part of a class session lecturing and part using more active learning techniques, be sure to leave sufficient time. Trying to cram in a brief discussion or group work session at the end of a long lecture sends the message that these activities aren’t really important.

The layout of Rutgers and the bus system all conspire to promote lateness, but class should still begin on time. If you routinely start five or ten minutes late, you’re letting students know that you will wait for them. Make it clear that class begins on time, and that students who are forced to show up a few minutes late should slip in quietly and speak with other students after class to find out what they missed.

If, during class, one or two students want to linger over a point when you feel the class needs to move on, invite those students to take up the issue with you during your office hours or at some later time. If the class as a whole seems to be getting a lot out of the discussion of a particular point, don’t rush them on to the next issue just to stick to your agenda.

Wrap up the class with a summation of key issues (or have a student do so) and give students some sense of what the next class meeting will cover. Immediately after class, take a few minutes to jot down some notes. These can include:

  • What went well;
  • What you might like to do differently next time; and
  • Whether there are any residual issues that you’ll need to cover in the next class.

This will help you better manage the time during future class meetings.

Nervous about the first day of teaching?

Not surprisingly, many TAs are apprehensive about the first day of class. This is natural–even experienced teachers feel anxious in facing a new class.

Among the common fears expressed by TAs are:

  • What if I can’t control the class?
  • What if I freeze and am unable to think or speak?
  • What if I lose my train of thought?
  • What if a student asks me a question I can’t answer?
  • What if I give a wrong answer or make a mistake in presentation?
  • What if a demonstration or experiment does not work properly?

Your position–the person in front of the classroom–vests you with authority. Use this to bolster your confidence before you step into the room. Also, remember that students are probably feeling a bit anxious about how you will judge them.

Having a lecture outline can help you get back on track if you momentarily freeze or forget your next point. Simply telling the class “I forgot where I was going for second” will not erode your authority.

Taking the time to prepare beforehand will help insure that class goes smoothly. However, accept that sooner or later you probably will make a mistake–it happens. Consider beforehand how to respond to such situations.

If you realize that you’ve given incorrect information, correct it at once. Don’t try to cover it up. Admitting that you were wrong will not cause students to lose respect for you–refusing to admit a mistake may.

Not everything will work out exactly as planned. Be assured, however, that your errors will not seem as disastrous to the students as they do to you.

For more tips, check out our TA Handbook.

Study Smarter, Not Harder

One of the major tasks in college teaching is helping students develop appropriate study skills and engage in class preparations that will bring them much success in your course.  How to Get Your Students to Come Prepared describes the use of “class preparation assignments” as informal, structured assignments that motivate students to complete all pre-class preparations (e.g., assigned readings) and engage in higher-order learning activities during the class session.  Why Students Should Be Taking Notes outlines findings from a research study that highlights how undergraduate students engaged in restructured note-taking opportunities serve as more meaningful learning opportunities compared to passively receiving instructors’ pre-made PowerPoint slides and lecture notes.

Mark your calendars!  The Rutgers TA Project is hosting a panel discussion, Helping Your Undergraduates Learn How to Study, led by experienced TAs from the Computer Science, Education, and Psychology departments who will share their insights on useful ways to engage their undergraduate students in “studying smarter, not harder.” Join us on Thursday, March 12th at 12:00pm in the Busch Campus Center (Room 117) for this TA professional development panel discussion.  Register here.