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Faculty Development Center

Teaching Tips Archives

Five Things for the First Week

1. Introduce yourself to the class. Let them know how you prefer to be addressed (first name or last name prefaced with Dr., Professor, Mr. or Ms.). Share a bit about yourself, your educational background, where you grew up, your interests and passions. Above all, share your enthusiasm for your discipline and for teaching.
2. Introduce the syllabus and explain the learning objectives of the course. Go over course requirements and give estimates on the workload. Invite students to stop by your office and to post questions on the course discussion board.
3. Gather information about the students in your class. You can learn a lot from a questionnaire handed out in class or completed online. Ask students for: name (what they prefer to be called), hometown, campus address, email address, phone numbers and how they prefer to be contacted, year in school, participation in campus clubs and activities, chosen major. You may also want to know what courses they have taken already in this field, other courses they are taking this semester, reasons for enrolling in this course, career plans, hobbies and interests, and jobs/internships completed. Some faculty have asked other questions such as: How do you learn best? What do you most want to know about this course? Where do you feel strongest in preparation for this course and where do you feel the need for improvement? What do you expect to do with what you learn in this course? Some teachers ask students to write a paragraph about themselves and attach a photo. This can be emailed or printed out and brought to class within the first week of the course.
4. Learn students’ names. When you call roll the first day, ask them to correct your pronunciation and how they would like to be addressed. If you have small classes of 20-30 consider calling roll for the first few sessions. Try to call upon students using their names in the first week or so of discussions. If you make a mistake it can be a learning experience for the class and for you—and provide a laugh as well.
5. Introduce students to each other. Have students introduce themselves to the person next to them and then each pair introduces each other to another pair. Everyone should leave the first week of class knowing at least two other students.

Derived from Davis, Barbara. (2009). Tools for Teaching, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publ.

Two Mistakes To Avoid Early

NOTE: Here are timely words at the beginning of the semester for any teacher. These are two of the mistakes featured in a column from Rick Reis’ weekly Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter from Stanford University. For the full 10 go to:

— Barry Casey, Interim Director, Faculty Development Center, UMBC (;

The posting below looks at common teaching mistakes we need to avoid. It is by Richard M. Felder, North Carolina State University and Rebecca Brent, Education Designs, Inc. See also Felder's: RESOURCES IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING EDUCATION at:

Rick Reis -

[Two of] The Ten Worst Teaching Mistakes

Like most faculty members, we began our academic careers with zero prior instruction on college teaching and quickly made almost every possible blunder. We've also been peer reviewers and mentors to colleagues, and that experience on top of our own early stumbling has given us a good sense of the most common mistakes college teachers make. In this column and one to follow we present our top ten list, in roughly increasing order of badness. Doing some of the things on the list may occasionally be justified, so we're not telling you to avoid all of them at all costs. We are suggesting that you avoid making a habit of any of them.

Mistake #5. Fail to establish relevance.

Students learn best when they clearly perceive the relevance of course content to their interests and career goals. The "trust me" approach to education ("You may have no idea now why you need to know this stuff but trust me, in a few years you'll see how important it is!") doesn't inspire students with a burning desire to learn, and those who do learn tend to be motivated only by grades.

To provide better motivation, begin the course by describing how the content relates to important technological and social problems and to whatever you know of the students' experience, interests, and career goals, and do the same thing when you introduce each new topic. (If there are no such connections, why is the course being taught?) Consider applying inductive methods such as guided inquiry and problem-based learning, which use real-world problems to provide context for all course material.6 You can anticipate some student resistance to those methods, since they force students to take unaccustomed responsibility for their own learning, but there are effective ways to defuse resistance, 7; and the methods lead to enough additional learning to justify whatever additional effort it may take to implement them.

Mistake #2. Teach without clear learning objectives

The traditional approach to teaching is to design lectures and assignments that cover topics listed in the syllabus, give exams on those topics, and move on. The first time most instructors think seriously about what they want students to do with the course material is when they write the exams, by which time it may be too late to provide sufficient practice in the skills required to solve the exam problems. It is pointless-and arguably unethical-to test students on skills you haven't really taught.

A key to making courses coherent and tests fair is to write learning objectives-explicit statements of what students should be able to do if they have learned what the instructor wants them to learn-and to use the objectives as the basis for designing lessons, assignments, and exams.11 The objectives should all specify observable actions (e.g., define, explain, calculate, solve, model, critique, and design), avoiding vague and unobservable terms like know, learn, understand, and appreciate. Besides using the objectives to design your instruction, consider sharing them with the students as study guides for exams. The clearer you are about your expectations (especially high-level ones that involve deep analysis and conceptual understanding, critical thinking, and creative thinking), the more likely the students will be to meet them, and nothing clarifies expectations like good learning objectives.


6. M.J. Prince and R.M. Felder, "Inductive Teaching and Learning Methods: Definitions, Comparisons, and Research Bases," J. Engr. Education, 95(2), 123-138 (2006), .
7. R.M. Felder, "Sermons for Grumpy Campers," Chem. Engr. Education, 41(3), 183-184 (2007), .
11. R.M. Felder & R. Brent, "Objectively Speaking," Chem. Engr. Education, 31(3), 178-179 (1997), .

Teaching Effectively and Efficiently

Lecture less. Rethink the coverage/transmission model in which you do all the work in lecture, and students sit passively listening. Giving students an opportunity in class to think, reflect, and practice the intellectual skills that you model when you lecture promotes their learning and uses your time more efficiently. Consider having students analyze texts, interpret graphs, or work through problems in groups as part of the class time. An added benefit is that you see how students are processing the ideas that you’re sharing with them.

Put time limits around class prep. Don’t let preparation take an unlimited, unspecified amount of time. Set aside prep time and stick to that.

Assign realistically and efficiently. Consider sequencing assignments toward ever greater depth/development rather than asking students to write several papers or solve hundreds of problems. Your providing feedback on drafts of a single paper can be much more productive for their learning than assigning several papers with no chance for them to revise. Similarly, asking students to solve a limited number of problems that gradually get more challenging, rather than lots of problems that require only rote processing, saves you time and promotes better learning.

Establish your grading criteria and, if applicable, your point allocations for particular assignments. Being explicit about the basis for your grading promotes consistency in assigning grades including partial credit, and saves you time overall.

Give thorough assignments. Clarify your expectations in the assignment. Share your grading criteria with students, thus telling them what you value in their learning. Consider providing exemplars of prior students’ work (anonymously and with permission, of course). Save time by not having to field questions about title pages, citation methods, and research expectations.

Have students use resources other than you. Let your students know about Learning Resources Center and the Writing Center. If students can hone their critical reading or problem solving skills or get their drafts in shape, it may save you time for addressing their specific disciplinary questions in office hours.

Give feedback, but don’t do all the work for them. Ask questions, point to places where students need to rethink an idea or computation. Avoid the urge to edit their work. Instead, decide on 2-3 strengths of the paper and 2-3 areas where they need improvement. Write up these remarks separately and save them. This way you have a record for later discussion with students and a way to follow their progress. Consider providing answer keys for problem sets that highlight strategies for solving problems and point out common errors, rather than writing these same comments over and over on individual student work or not giving students enough feedback.

Use Blackboard. Post course materials online, rather than field questions about individual assignments or course expectations. If a student asks a question that you suspect other students share, use the communication functions or discussion board to get your response to the others.

Adapted from materials of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, Princeton University.

Helping Students Move Beyond Mid-term

By mid-term you as an instructor often have several sources of information about your students’ experiences in your course. You have their homework, exam, and paper grades, and you may have their input on a mid-semester feedback form. These sources may show you what research bears out: novice learners often have a different idea of what doing the work in the course entails than you do. So how can you use that knowledge to help move your students forward productively?

In some cases you may want to refer your students to the Learning Resources Center for special help. But you may also want to consider some class activities that demonstrate and provide practice in the various learning processes and skills needed to succeed in your discipline. To experts like professors these processes and skills are invisible—a concept known as expert blind spot. And we as experts can often presume that what is familiar to us is obvious to our students. Below are some ways to help students develop the skills needed to do meaningful work in our disciplines:

Help students think about their own thinking. The practice of thinking about one’s thinking (metacognition) is a powerful aid to learning, and making students do this work explicitly can help them develop this habit. In quantitative work, occasionally ask students to explain their reasoning in words for each step in solving a problem, either in writing on homework or orally to a fellow student during class. When students are preparing to write essays, have them analyze writing samples for thesis, claims, and evidence. Consider having students read each other’s work with guidance on critique, or have students evaluate some samples of their own work using a rubric. In class discussions, ask students to explain the reasoning behind their comments.

Model the thinking processes and specific skills needed for your course. Show students how you work in your discipline. Demonstrate a close reading of a piece of fiction or model how you read a journal article. Show them how you interpret a data set. Solve a sample problem in class, showing students how you ask yourself questions and try alternate paths. Bring to class a stack of drafts of a manuscript you’re working on, illustrating your own revision process. Students often assume that learning should be easy—we need to show them the kinds and amount of effort required for learning, even for us.

Allocate some points on assignments based on the processes of learning rather than the products. Assign some points on problem sets or in-class exercises to students’ explanations of steps of a problem, thus forcing them away from “plus and chug.” Give students credit for identifying and/or generating thesis statements and evidence in portions of written work. Include drafts of papers as part of the grade (think about peer review, another powerful tool, as a way to lessen your grading burden). When students are doing design or engineering projects or major term papers, have them keep a journal or portfolio of their ideas and drafts and include it as part of the grade. Students know what you value by what you grade, so if you want your students to develop the thinking habits and practices for your discipline, help them focus their attention on the process, not just the product, through your assignments.