If you’re a graduate student teaching for the first time as part of your assistantship (aka, a GTA), today’s post is for you. If you’re a new adjunct who hasn’t been in the college classroom for a while, I also suggest checking out these ten tips. Finally, if you’re an experienced college instructor wondering what your students might find most important about some of your teaching decisions, check out this list. I’ve focused my advice on course elements that heavily affected me as a student and/or affect me now as an instructor.
When Designing The Course
1. If possible, design major assignments to include multiple options.
I’m a big believer in giving my students the power of choice as often as possible. I want them to be the ones deciding what’s involved in their learning experience, even if each assignment has some basic requirements that must be met. Most of my major assignments, then, give students multiple options to choose from when deciding how they will complete the assignment requirements. For example, in spring 2018, I started the semester with a short autobiography assignment so that I could begin to learn about my students as individuals. My students had the options of writing a short narrative or creating a non-narrative autobiography through the use of lists, infographics, poetry, a board game they created, etc. As long as they met the assignment requirements (here’s my post all about this assignment), my students could choose whether they wanted to start the semester on a formal or more creative note.
[Another prime example of giving students options is my Literary Analysis Discussion Posts assignment, in which students are given 8-12 opportunities to write about a course text, but they are only required to complete 3-5 (with the option of completing more in order to improve their overall assignment grade). You can find out more about this assignment here.]
In addition to giving students the power to decide how they want to style an assignment and/or what they want to write about, assignments that include multiple options can help you spread out your grading load. For the discussion posts assignment described above, the last few options had the most submissions, but there were still plenty of students who completed the posts in various earlier weeks. My group project assignment (described here) is structured so that only 1-2 groups present during the same week. In this way, as long as I grade the assignments as the weeks pass, I never have to worry about grading all the group projects at one time.
2. If you teach different courses in the same semester, schedule the assignment deadlines so they don’t overlap with one another.
This course design decision doesn’t work well if you’re teaching the same course multiple times in one semester, as changing the deadlines for each section means changing the pacing of each one, as well. However, if you are teaching different courses, don’t pile up deadlines in the same week (unless you’re someone who prefers to grade in bulk). For example, I’m teaching a section of ENG 170 and a section of ENG 101 this fall semester. I’ve made sure that across the two sections, no major projects or units (that are submitted all at once) are due in the same week. While this design means I’m grading pretty constantly during the semester, I don’t tend to feel overwhelmed by my grading load at any one time. This was especially beneficial when I was still taking courses while teaching during my first two years as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA).
Additionally, if students submit your assignments digitally, I suggest making the deadlines 11:59 PM, rather than class time or 5:00 PM. Of course, if you’re the type of instructor to start grading immediately after receiving the assignment submissions, go ahead and use earlier deadline times. I feel that’s pretty rare, though, especially if you’re a grad student taking night classes. So, if you’re not planning on grading an assignment until the next day or the weekend, why not give your students the whole deadline day to turn in their assignment? [There are exceptions to this design, of course, especially if discussing the assignment immediately after it’s turned in is part of your assignment/course design.] My students tend to really appreciate this approach to deadlines. I also feel it’s more fair than creating a 5 PM deadline as some students play a sport/work/etc. during the week, and would therefore not have the same chance as other students to use the time leading up to the mid-afternoon deadline.
3. Create a balance between different types of major assignments, so that students can feel confident about at least one of them.
In designing my first ENG 170 course, 30% of the overall grade derived from (non-essay) quizzes and exams, 30% from analytical writing assignments, and 30% from creative projects. [The other 10% derived from their class participation.] With this decision, my intention was to insure that all students felt confident in their ability to complete at least one major assignment. I’ve been in undergraduate classes were 80-90% of my overall grade stemmed from writing assignments. This design made me anxious, even as an English major. I’m sure it’s even worse for students majoring in subjects like mathematics and nursing who are taking a general education humanities course. As I teach English courses, I can’t just not include writing assignments and I wouldn’t want to either, as they create pivotal opportunities for thinking critically and articulating these thoughts and researched material in written form. To create a balanced ENG 170 course, though, I design multiple choice, short answer, true/false, and matching questions for my exams (only short answer questions for my reading quizzes) along with short and long(er) literary analysis writing assignments. To round out my design, students work alone and in groups to design and lead a class assignment.
With this course design, my students work on their writing, content recall and critical thinking, and collaboration and presenting skills, among others. While your courses might not allow for this variety (due to institutional requirements, time constraints, or content type), I do strongly suggest checking your course design and seeing if there’s at least some assignment-type balance to be found.
4. Offer office hours at different times of day, so there are 2-3 chances that students can make your assigned hours.
If a student can’t attend your office hour at 1 PM on Monday, then chances are they can’t attend at 1 PM on Wednesday or Friday, either. While this student could always request a meeting outside of your office hours, there might be 15 others with the same problem. So, reduce the amount of outside-office hour appointments you have by designating 2-3 different times in which your office hours are held. I tend to have one of mine before a class period and the other one after a class period (unless I teach at 8 AM, in which case both occur after class). On the first day, I ask if any students can’t make either of my office hours. If the majority of my students can’t make those hours, I work with them to find better times.
Note: If you share an office with another GTA or adjunct, make sure your hours don’t overlap. Perhaps you have a really spacious office (I doubt it), but I definitely feel more comfortable insuring that my student and I can talk at length without the feeling of being observed by someone else. Your students will likely talk more freely without someone else in the room, too.
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First Week of Class
5. Go through the whole syllabus with your students in person.
I’ve taken classes where the instructor passed out the syllabus (or gave a hyperlink to it) on the first day of class and then either (a) told us to read through it and ask them any questions before we moved on to icebreakers or the first lesson, (b) told us to read it for homework and then started the icebreakers or first lesson, or c) told us to read it for homework and dismissed us for the day.
Of these three, the last type of first day was the worst, because it immediately made me feel as if the instructor just wanted one more day of summer vacation, wasn’t interested in getting to know us students as soon as possible, and/or was hoping that some of us would drop the course after reading the syllabus and didn’t want to bother beginning anything at all until add/drop week was ending/over. The second type of first day wasn’t bad, as it made me feel like the instructor was really interested in getting to know us during the icebreakers and/or wanted us to get a sense of the course material and their teaching style before add/drop week ended. The first type was the best of the three, as it allowed at least a bit of time to look through the syllabus and ask any questions about the information included. Of course, on the first day of class, before even icebreakers occur, many undergraduate students don’t feel comfortable speaking up, especially when asking a question means admitting aloud and to your new instructor and peers that you are “already” confused about something. Still, of the three, this first day was the one I preferred.
My favorite first days, however, start with the instructor briefly introducing themselves, taking attendance and asking students for their preferred name/nickname, and then deep diving into the course syllabus before getting into any icebreakers. The syllabus elements I was most interested in as a student: the required class materials, the grade breakdown by major assignments, the late work and attendance policies, and the semester schedule.
Unless your syllabus is so long that it can’t be discussed completely on the first day (and if it is, I suggest creating a short version for the first day and including a hyperlink to the long version for them to read for homework), I highly recommend taking the time to inform your students about what they can expect from the course and from you over the course of the semester. You don’t have to read the syllabus word for word; just go over the most important information in each section. Whatever choice you make on day 1, you’ll likely need to repeat “It’s on the syllabus” multiple times throughout the semester. By going over the syllabus in detail immediately, however, you’ll likely decrease the amount of times you say that phrase by at least 1-5 times.
6. Discuss all the major assignments during add/drop week.
Along similar lines to the above piece of advice, I think it’s important to give students a full understanding of the workload they are expected to complete over the course of the semester. My way of doing this involves going over all the class’ major assignment requirements before add/drop week ends. If the amount of work, type of work, or pacing of the work doesn’t seem like something a student can handle, they can look for another course to take before the first week ends.
To go over these assignments during the first week, I create a folder titled “instruction sheets” in my LMS’s resources tab. I use the class projector to show all of these sheets on the second day of class, and I go over the general details for each assignment. I don’t read through all the information on the sheets; I just go over what work they’ll need to do for each assignment and when they are due. I also ask if there are any preliminary questions. Once the assignments become more immediately relevant, I go through the individual assignments sheets thoroughly in class.
I’ve had very few students drop my courses over the years, but there is often 1-2 students who will drop by the end of the first week. I’ve been told by my students that knowing what to expect from the course so early on and having the assignment sheets available at the beginning of the semester really made them feel like I was doing my best to keep them informed about what I expected from them.
Note: While posting all the major assignment sheets during week one definitely isn’t necessary (and might overwhelm a class full of freshman), I do think discussing the course workload in detail can help your students feel well-informed when deciding if they want to drop the course and/or creating their work/study plans for the semester.
7. Make student names central to all icebreakers.
I know that there are plenty of instructors (and students) out there that don’t like icebreakers or feel like they are a waste of time. Personally, one of the main reasons I use icebreakers on the first day of class is because I don’t want to overwhelm my students by immediately going over the major assignment sheets on day 1. I also don’t want to go into important course material before students have a chance to add/drop my course once the first week begins. Another reason I like icebreakers, though, is because they can really help me start learning my students’ names. I know learning names isn’t always possible, especially for large classes. But, if your class load is small enough (my heaviest semesters have 60 students) or you want to at least try to learn as many student names as possible, icebreakers are a great way to naturally have your students say their names multiple times in one class period.
Icebreaker #1: Name Snake – Starting from one side of the classroom, the first student says their first name. Then, the student next to them says their name and the first student’s name. The third student says their name, the second student’s name, then the first student’s name. This continues until the last student in your class says their name plus the name of every student that came before them. Finally, it’s your turn. If a student (or you) can’t remember names in the snake, their peers can help remind them. This is my favorite icebreaker for helping everyone in class to start putting names to faces.
Icebreaker #2: Bingo – Create a course-themed bingo game that requires students to introduce themselves to each other and start learning about their peers. Students draw a 4×5 bingo card on a piece of paper and number each box 1-20. For my children’s literature course, I created a list of 20 prompts that I projected on the screen like “1. favorite Pixar movie” and “15. favorite Disney World/Land ride.” Students must go around the class and introduce themselves to each other by name before asking their classmate to answer one of the prompts in their bingo card. The first student to meet 20 classmates and fill out their board wins. While you won’t learn too many names with this icebreaker, your students will start learning names and getting comfortable talking to their peers about related course content. Also, you can listen in and learn a few names and facts, too, or even participate as someone who can answer a prompt for their bingo cards.
During the Semester
8. After you grade all submissions for an assignment, go through the grades and feedback to make sure there are no inconsistencies.
Imagine you need to grade 60 6-8 page papers over the course of a week (or many more than that if you teach 3 or more sections and/or classes with a large number of students). You might be feeling curious and relaxed when grading on Monday, but frustrated with the lack of rigorous research included in the papers by Saturday. To combat an imbalance in grades, I highly suggest skimming through your individual feedback for all your students in an individual class, just to make sure you didn’t give the second student whose work you graded a B+ because they didn’t include a third source, but your second to last student a B- for this same lack.
To help combat any inconsistencies, I tend to bulk grade an assignment for a specific section of my courses. So, I’ll grade all of my section 1 discussion posts on Wednesday and all the section 2 discussion posts on Friday. At the end of each day, then, I only have 30 grades/feedback to go through, rather than 60. And, since I graded all submissions for one section on a specific day, it’s less likely that I’ll let any frustrations cause me to forget what grade I originally assigned to a specific issue.
Of course, discussion posts are quite short and therefore don’t require too much time to thoroughly read and assess. For longer/larger assignments, I might spread my grading across 2-5 days. At the end of each day, though, I skim through all the feedback and grades to make sure I’ve been consistent. This habit means I only have to read through a few earlier responses to remind myself of any decisions I made while assessing the projects on earlier days.
Note: I grade projects holistically rather than with a detailed rubric that breaks down what each element of the project is worth in points (a decision I’ll write more about in a future post, perhaps). Still, even if you have a really detailed rubric that you follow, be wary of how your mood and/or energy might affect your grading decisions across different days (or even different hours).
9. Return feedback and grades for assignments at least 1 week before the next deadline, especially if the assignments build off one another.
If you require four reading responses or lab reports throughout the semester, for example, it’s incredibly important that your students receive feedback on the first response/report before the next one is due. Students should have enough time to process the feedback and integrate any necessary changes to the next assignment, so they can see their work improve not only through their revisions but (hopefully) through the grades they earn in response to these revisions. As a student, I was very frustrated when I didn’t have feedback for my first paper worth 20% of my course grade before my next paper worth 30% of my course grade was due.
As an instructor, one positive comment I often receive from my students is how quickly I give back their assignments with individual feedback. I might not grade larger assignments immediately, but I definitely make sure my students have time to integrate my feedback into their future assignments. They might not always use this feedback, but I want to make sure they have that option. [On that note, make sure you tell them in person that the feedback is available and where they can find it, if you submit feedback digitally.]
Personally, I think individual, written feedback is an important element when assessing any major assignment. However, this philosophy is especially true for assignments that scaffold one another. While I might not release feedback on my students’ last discussion posts before their final exam, having that feedback won’t help them with this latter assignment. When I assign an annotated bibliography before their researched article is due, though, requiring students to submit their article before they know of any issues with their annotated bibliography makes no pedagogical sense to me. And just telling them they earned a B on their bibliography without any feedback on why that’s the case is not enough either. A 1-2 paragraph response might not be needed (or possible with large classes and/or extremely heavy grading loads), but a basic “You included 3 resources when 4 are required” or “Your last resource isn’t from an academic source” would help your students know what went wrong and how to improve going forward.
10. Check out your campus’ CTLT for resources, especially a “Midterm Chat.”
CTLT stands for Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology and it’s my favorite resource on campus. CTLT’s tend to offer a lot of professional development (PD) opportunities, like workshops on using your learning management system (LMS), PD groups for discussing your teaching ideas and concerns, resources for designing your syllabus and courses, and more. My favorite CTLT resource is called a Midterm Chat. This service has four steps. One, I sign up for a chat and meet with the facilitator to discuss my class design and teaching practices. Two, the facilitator leads my students through the chat, discussing what’s working for them in the class, what they are struggling with, what I can do to improve their learning experiences, and what they can do to improve their learning experiences. I, of course, am not present during this discussion. Three, I meet with the facilitator a day or so after the chat to discuss my students’ feedback. Four, I decide what changes I will and will not be making to my class in response to the feedback and go over these decisions with my students during our next class period.
I’ve requested a Midterm Chat almost every semester I’ve taught as ISU. Since the chats take place about 5-9 weeks into the semester, I’m able to make changes to my courses with enough time in the semester left to see results in the students’ learning experiences (and likely in their evals). I’m perpetually asking my students if they have any questions or concerns about our content and assignments. With the Midterm Chat, I’m able to guarantee at least a portion of my students will actually speak up about what’s working or not working for them before we reach the point of no return.
If you haven’t already, check if your campus has a CTLT and find out if they offer a Midterm Chat or something similar to it. If they don’t, I’d suggest submitting a request that they look into adding the resource ASAP.
These ten teaching tips above are all based on my personal experiences as a student and instructor of English courses. They won’t work for everyone. Nevertheless, while course designs differ heavily from course to course, major to major, class size to class size, I definitely think incorporating at least a few of these tips into your teaching this year can help improve your semester experience (and the experiences of your students).
Let me know in the comments below: Which of these tips do you already use and which are you going to incorporate into your courses? Feel free to offer your own tips in the comments, as well!
Reminder: If you want the 1-page PDF that includes each point on the list discussed above, click here and sign up for my “College Life: Instructor Edition” email list. After confirming your email address, you’ll receive access to a private page on this site where this PDF and all my future opt-in PDFs will be located.