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This spring break, the Kaneb Center challenges you to create one new action plan for your teaching. One new activity, assessment, or approach to teaching. An update to an old syllabus or lesson plan. Take your pick. Then let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you!

Don’t know where to start? Check out some of our selected resources below:

Recent Blog Posts

Books in the Kaneb Center Library

Other Kaneb Center Services

Have a great spring break, and good luck with your teaching challenge!

Teaching Study Skills

One semester a student came to me disappointed about his grade on an exam. He told me that he had studied for nine hours yet felt unprepared for the exam. I asked him to describe to me what exactly he did during those nine hours.  He explained his review strategy: he reread all of his notes from class; identified unfamiliar terms and concepts; and then memorized definitions for each of these terms and concepts.  While he had stored in his brain a huge treasury of relevant information, he did not know how to use this information.  The exam required him to do more than just regurgitate memorized facts or recognize familiar concepts; instead my student was challenged to relate familiar concepts to unfamiliar concepts and to synthesize distinct ideas.

My student’s struggles prompted me to ask two different questions: (1) what was I doing during class time to prepare my students for the higher level of learning required by my exams; and (2) what should my students be doing outside of class to prepare effectively for an exam.  Apropos to the first question, several recent Kaneb blog posts have offered strategies for prompting higher levels of learning in the classroom such as the use of in-class writing assignments, concept mapping, and guided discussions.  I encourage you to scroll down and read these for yourself.  In addition to utilizing such strategies, I suggest preparing students for exams by requiring them to solve questions and problems during class time that are similar to those that will show up on the exams.  In other words, early on and throughout the semester, expose students to the kinds of tasks and puzzles that you hope they will be able to accomplish and solve by the last day of class.

With regard to the second question, if students are to perform well on their exams, it is important to teach students how to study and review class material effectively.  Consider the following tips:

  • Invite, inspire, and require students to review subject matter from class early and often.
  • Encourage students to review their notes from class as soon as possible after class is over. Explain that students learn more effectively when they review newly learned material promptly.
  • To motivate such prompt reviewing, for each class period, consider assigning a review problem/question that is due twenty-four hours after the class.
  • Require students to come to class prepared to recall the main points from the previous class. Tell students that as a part of their grade, you will call on them at the beginning of class to summarize the previous class.
  • Offer frequent low-stakes, self-diagnostic quizzes (or short practice tests) that expose students to kinds of questions and the higher level of learning that will be required on the exam.
  • Grade these quizzes in class and talk through the correct answer.
  • Encourage students to form weekly study groups for discussing class content. Consider offering extra credit to students who commit to meeting in such a group.
  • Urge students to practice discussing ideas and answering questions from class out loud and on paper. Explain to them that putting their thoughts into words spoken and written, will force them to thinking about class concepts on a deeper level.

For a bibliography on teaching study skills:

Consider the study skills handouts prepared by Dartmouth College:

and their learning strategies videos:

Also, consider Joe Landsberger’s very popular collection of study guides and learning resources:

I am a big proponent of assigning writing as an active learning tool in the classroom. This should not come as a surprise, as I am pursuing a PhD in English and have primarily taught English courses that require writing as a major component. Yet, I actually learned the best methods for incorporating writing into the classroom from a philosophy professor I observed who decided to make writing the focal point of his classroom after finding himself frustrated by traditional methods of knowledge acquisition in philosophy classrooms. Upon altering his pedagogical approach from one that was test and teacher centered to a student centered course in which students weekly articulated substantial responses to philosophical texts in writing, he observed a significant increase in critical thinking and theoretical sophistication in the majority of his students.

Writing as a tool can benefit every discipline if it is implemented as an active learning strategy, in which students are tasked with developing a deep, focused written engagement with a question or idea. This means that the focus should be on quality of thought rather than on grammatical conventions. This is not to say that a final draft should be turned in without having been carefully proofread but only to emphasize that thinking is sometimes messy and that, especially in early stages, good, interesting written ideas might still need to be polished. Writing, like thinking, is a process.

Writing as Active Learning Strategies:

  • Provide students with time to write down their initial responses to a new idea or topic, especially one that is particularly complex, in writing before discussing the topic in depth. This writing does not need to be collected or formally graded but should rather be thought of as a springboard for discussion. If students have had time to articulate their ideas on their own first, they will be more confident in their knowledge and more likely to participate in the class discussion. Even five minutes is helpful.
  • Generate specific writing assignments or writing prompts. The complexity of the questions can vary depending on what you are looking for from the assignment. Are you looking for understanding of key concepts or are you expecting students to delve deeply into a difficult concept? The more transparency you provide the better the students will be able to engage with the assignment.
  • Have students present their writing in class. This option can include a formal presentation or a more informal presentation given to select group members. The idea is to give the students a chance to test their ideas out on others. As the saying goes, the best way to learn something is to teach it.
  • Divide the class into groups based upon specific topics or questions. For examples, in a philosophy section on Kant, you could task each group with responding to a specific Kantian principle. Each student would develop a rough draft of a written response independently and then get into their shared groups to enhance other’s grasp of Kant’s concepts. You could then have them each develop a further draft of their individual ideas to hand into you.
  • Build in multiple drafts. As emphasized above, writing and thinking take time. The first articulation of an idea might be the seed of a more complex argument that just needs more time to germinate. Providing students with a response to an initial draft and requiring them to hand in a revision based upon your comments will help them to think more deeply about their initial ideas and give them a chance to further enhance their argument. It is important not to frame revision as corrections, as that implies that there was something negative about the student’s initial draft that needs to be fixed and this could frustrate a student. Instead, frame it as what it is: a chance to develop their argument. How many drafts should you allow? That’s up to you. My advice is to allow or require at least one revision.

Even STEM Classes Can Benefit from More Writing

Writing is important to any discipline, as anyone who has drafted a grant or had to give a public lecture understands. Yet, writing is too often attached only to English courses, or at best, the humanities. While the suggestions I have provided above would work for any discipline, the links below provide resources that include discipline specific information related to the importance of writing in the classroom and specific strategies that can be used to effectively implement writing into your course.

Further Reading:

Writing Across the Curriculum Page at Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (Includes extensive bibliographies for further reading): https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/671/01/

Example of a Writing Across the Curriculum program: http://www.wac.pitt.edu/

What are concept or mind maps?

Concept or mind maps can help learners think through a question or topic by visualizing the relationships between concepts, arguments, evidence, and themes.  Links between nodes show the connections between these ideas.  In general, the term concept map describes hierarchical diagram building downward, connecting multiple ideas in a more formal way.  Mind maps tend to focus on a single idea at the center, building outward in a creative way often using color or images.  Your learning goals are more important than the formal distinctions between concept and mind maps, and it may be most natural for your students to combine aspects of both types of maps, as in the following example:

Example of a student concept map


What are the benefits of small-group concept mapping? 

Incorporating concept maps in the classroom can:

  • Increase student engagement though active learning. Having students produce concept or mind maps in small groups offers more time for each student to grapple with and articulate key ideas.
  • Improve student performance through collaborative learning, which studies consistently show to be more effective in producing learning outcomes than individual learning.
  • Connect to diverse learning styles.
  • Provide a low-stakes assessment of student learning.
  • Offer students variation in students’ studying routines, which helps students move beyond memorization to deeper learning. Consider incorporating a concept mapping activity into a review session before an exam.
  • Foster higher levels of learning in Bloom’s taxonomy.  Beyond simply remembering facts, students must also analyze the relationships between ideas, justify their choice of connections between different nodes, and construct a visual representation of a topic.


Incorporating small-group concept mapping in class:

Explain the idea of a concept map and distribute an example map of a different topic in your discipline.  Depending on your academic discipline and learning goals, you may instruct students to visually differentiate or label different types of nodes and connections.  Give students a key question or problem as the focus for their diagrams.  It might be a singular question that forms the central node of the diagram (what are the elements of…?), instructions to compare and contrast two concepts, or a question that puts a few key themes into conversation (what is the relationship between race, class, and gender in…?).  If you choose, you can also give students a list of concepts or sources to include in their maps. Be transparent in your teaching:  explain how the exercise relates to the course goals and what students should get out of it.

Divide students into small groups to begin mapping.  Circulate around the room as students work on their concept maps, asking for the rationale behind their decisions and prompting them to consider new factors.  Once students have produced their maps, use a document camera to project each group’s diagram.  For the sake of time, you might ask each group to explain a particularly important or original portion of their work.  These maps do not need to be treated as final products.  Encourage students to offer suggestions or ask questions to improve other group’s maps.  As the instructor, you might find it useful to draw changes on a map to explain a common misunderstanding that needs correction.

Leave enough time to debrief the exercise.  Ask students to construct an answer to the initial question. Collecting a final map from each group will allow you to gauge student understanding.  Just remember to make photocopies or post scans of all the groups’ work to Sakai so that students can refer to the material for future projects or studying.


Practical tips:

  • Consider the physical constraints of your classroom. Will there be enough space for small groups to work around a sheet of paper?  Do you have a document camera in the room to project each group’s work?
  • Depending on your constraints and learning goals, you might do a variation of the above activity by having students begin individual maps before working collaboratively or working as a whole class using the whiteboard.
  • What preparations are necessary? Will students need to have notes or texts from previous weeks at hand?  Should they bring colored pens or pencils?
  • Several online tools have been developed for concept mapping. See this list developed by our own Chris Clark.


Additional Sources: 

John W. Budd, “Mind Maps as Classroom Exercises,” in The Journal of Economic Education, 35 (1), Winter 2004, pp. 35-46.

Michael Prince, “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research,” in The Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), July 2004, pp. 223-231.


Mahler. Mozart. Mendelssohn. What can they teach us about teaching? You may have a flash of genius for a particular course or lesson plan, but most artful teaching requires planning, revision, and contextualizing the lesson or course into the overall curriculum. Much like the composition of the great musical symphonies. Fortunately, most composers do not have to go into the composition blind – and neither do you as a teacher. When structuring the first movement of the symphony, many composers follow the sonata form: exposition, development, and recapitulation. This can also be a useful way to structure your lesson plans:


The exposition of a sonata introduces the major themes of the movement. It sets the stage for everything to follow and provides direction for the piece, and often contains the most memorable melody. In the classroom, it is helpful to start by introducing the major themes of the class. Start with the learning goals that you want to accomplish in the class and the major questions you hope to answer. Make sure that these are clear and memorable to the students, and use them to direct the remainder of the class. This means keeping the number of goals manageable and realistic to achieve in the time available.


Following the exposition, the composer begins the development of the major themes. The material is complexified and nuanced, building on the basic musical ideas set out from the beginning of the piece. Importantly, the themes set up in the exposition guide what happens in the development section. Likewise, as you teach, be sure that the course material relates to your learning goals. Plan the lessons around the main questions in 10-15 minute mini-modules or “chunks,” using active learning techniques to break up lectures and engage students. Research shows that this is the approximate attention span of college students, so using the structure of the exposition (learning goals) allows you to stay on message and accomplish what you set out to do in the class without losing students’ attention.


The sonata movement ends with the recapitulation, or recap of the exposition section. It reiterates and reaffirms the primary themes, bringing the movement full circle – back to where it began. After developing each of the main course ideas, just like the sonata, you should return to the beginning and assess whether the learning goals were achieved. Consider asking students to write down the most important thing they learned or what questions remain after the class. Remind students of the main takeaways and highlight what was accomplished during the session.

Moving from a Movement to a Symphony

Whether it is one movement of a symphony or a single class of the semester, it is important to consider how the part fits into the larger whole. Composers will often draw on the themes introduced in the first movement throughout the rest of the symphony; instructors should also draw on themes introduced at the beginning of the course throughout the rest of the semester. Consider how each class fits into the overall theme and the broader learning goals you have for the course. Structuring your course in this manner will help you organize your materials and ensure that your objectives are met.

Want to learn more about structuring and designing effective courses?

The Kaneb Center is currently offering a workshop series on the Fundamentals of Course Design, and offers private, individual consultations to those who are revising an old course or planning a new one. Contact us today for assistance in composing your next course!

Additional Resources

You spent winter break painstakingly selecting readings and learning materials and constructing assignments that will engage your new students and teach them to truly value, and perhaps even learn to love something about, your subject matter. Now, a few weeks into the semester, someone has yawned, someone has tweeted during a lesson, perhaps many of the students have failed a quiz or did not do as well on the first essay as you would have liked. Often we can feel a bit powerless when courses don’t go as well as we had imagined. The most important thing to remember is that even the most seasoned professors run into similar problems and that class dynamics are rarely perfect and depend upon multiple factors including the specific skill level and initial interest of students in the class. In other words, this doesn’t mean you have failed at teaching. Actually, it means you have exhibited one of the attributes of a good teacher: the ability to recognize that something is not working as well as it could be and the desire to address this issue.

Remember, you are not alone. You have colleagues, department heads and other university or college services that you can reach out to. Most importantly, however, you have your students. They are the best people to ask about the particular issues in a class because they share this environment with you at least once a week. If they are struggling in the course, they will likely be able to give you a good indication of why. Even if you feel like a course is going well, it is a good idea to see what the students are thinking so that you are all on the same page.


Build in Time Specifically for Feedback

Feedback is only helpful if you truly build in the time to enable students to adequately respond. Trying to cram in student feedback into the last few minutes of a course might turn out to be counterproductive. I would suggest setting aside at least 10 minutes at the end of a class for student feedback. 10 minutes might seem like a long hiatus from precious content time but evaluating your students’ understanding of the material and taking time to figure out how this specific group of students best learns will ultimately strengthen your ability to teach them the material. If you really feel that taking time out of class is not possible, then it would be best to implement an online feedback option.


When to Elicit Feedback

It certainly is not overkill to ask for student feedback after every class, as this can be a great way to gauge a student’s learning progress. It really depends on what you are trying to evaluate. In general, the best times to ask for feedback are:

  • After teaching a particularly difficult lesson of introducing a complex idea.
  • At the end of a specific multi-class topic or module to assess students’ understanding of key concepts and ideas before moving onto the next topic.
  • After returning an assignment, especially if it contains feedback from you. (I have found this method to be extremely helpful. I give a lot of written feedback on essays and want each of them to reflect on my comments instead of just noting the grade and shoving the paper into the abyss of their folder or backpack. Building in time in class for them to read through my comments and then write a response back to me ensures me that they have engaged with my feedback and are also thinking deeply about their writing process. This type of feedback can be done for any assignment type).


Build in Specific Questions when Asking for Feedback

In the past, I have asked students to just reflect on the course in general. Though that method was sometimes useful to gather my students’ thoughts, I found it more helpful to provide specific questions, especially if there was something in particular that I wanted them to address. The questions can still be open-ended but should have a focus. 2-3 questions should be fine.


Possible Feedback Methods

Eliciting feedback is sometimes a large demand on the professor’s time. For example, if you have over 100 students a semester, it will be extremely difficult to read an evaluation from each student, especially if you collect evaluations from students frequently. Below are ways that you can consolidate student feedback to make it more manageable (you can also combine methods if you wish):

  • Individual Feedback- Ask each student to provide feedback and collect responses from each of them (time-intensive, only do this if you have the time to genuinely read them all).
  • Group Feedback- Place students in small groups and have them discuss their opinions together. Then, instruct one of the students to write down what was discussed and collect one sheet from each group.
  • Oral Feedback- Have the students write down information either individually or in groups and share their responses with you orally. This method will likely take more time. I suggest having students write down their responses first so that they have time to formulate their answers first and don’t feel put on the spot.
  • Poll Everywhere- Simply go to polleverywhere.com, create an account and set up a poll. You can input specific questions and students can text answers to a designated number. Their responses will show up anonymously on the computer screen immediately after they text their answers. This method will also likely take more time than the written methods.
  • Google Forms- A good online tool for gathering feedback if you don’t feel that you have time in class for it. Asking students to rate the usefulness of specific behaviors or assignments can be a good way to quickly get digestible information.


What to Do with the Feedback?

Feedback can provide you with a valuable picture of the learning progress and learning styles of individual students as well as a group of students. Yet it is also critical that you follow up with your students during class. The most important thing for you to communicate to them is that you are reading their responses and that the feedback is not just busy work. Students hate busy work. The following are methods I have tried or seen other teachers do:

  • Hand back their feedback to them with a check on top, demonstrating to them that you have read and valued their responses. You should also follow one of the below options in addition to handing the feedback back to them.
  • Integrate comments into your next lesson and point out any changes you may have made due to student feedback. This verbalization of student feedback and the effects it has on your teaching methods shows students that their voices truly matter and that they are at the center of your pedagogy.
  • Post a single online that responds to some of the most important issues raised in the feedback.


Kaneb Center Resources

The Kaneb Center has resources and examples for those interested in an early-semester evaluation. You can access these resources by e-mailing the Kaneb Center at kaneb@nd.edu.


Further Reading:

  • From ELA Today: https://ateqjournal.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/structures-and-practices-for-eliciting-student-feedback-2/ This document includes helpful methods and resources for eliciting student feedback geared at the secondary school level. High school teaching methods can often be invaluable in college classrooms.
  • Information on eliciting student feedback from Brown University’s Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning: https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/sheridan-center/teaching-learning/feedback-teaching/getting-timely-feedback

Research has shown that 99% of college students take notes during lectures, but university instructors rarely address note-taking as a skill.  Instructors often assume students have learned to take notes during high school and their competence will improve with time.  Given that university students typically capture only 30-40% of important lecture points in their notes, the topic deserves attention in the college classroom.


Why should students take notes?

With over a million terabytes of information at the click of a search button, students no longer have to rely on lecture notes as a primary source of factual information.  However, note-taking improves academic performance and learning in a variety of ways:

  • Students are significantly more likely to recall information in their notes than points not in their notes.
  • Taking notes can also assist in general recall of non-recorded points.
  • Reviewing notes effectively substantially improves recall.
  • Higher exam scores are correlated with the level of detail of student notes.
  • Personal notes allow students to synthesize information and relate incoming information to prior knowledge, promoting better performance on critical thinking tasks.


What are the challenges of note-taking?

  • Note-taking requires students to listen and process content nearly simultaneously. Students often record information verbatim, failing to reach higher levels of processing that reflect synthetic thinking.
  • Note-taking puts students under severe time-pressure: average rates of speech are 2-3 words per second, but average handwriting is only 0.2-0.3 words per second.
  • For students with lower information-processing abilities, taking-notes while listening to a lecture may hinder comprehension. However, if these students are able to review instructor notes after class, they have been shown to perform comparably with their peers.
  • Students report confusion about the variability of instructors’ policies regarding the availability of instructor-provided notes or slides.


What strategies can the instructor employ?

  • Discuss with students the purpose of note-taking in your specific course and explain your rationale for providing or withholding notes. Do notes primarily serve as the basis for reviewing information? Or is note-taking an exercise of synthesis and transformation of knowledge?
  • Give students a partial framework with blanks, such as a matrix or an outline. These frameworks can guide students to separate major points from details and can help them make connections between ideas.
  • Provide students with a complete set of instructor notes. Students who review instructor notes have been shown to score significantly better on factual questions than those who study from personal notes.
  • Distribute visual aids (e.g. powerpoint slides, graphs, etc.) to free up class time for active learning. Research has shown that the least successful students benefit the most from visual aids.
  • Teach students alternative styles for note-taking. Non-linear note-taking has been shown to increase comprehension by 20%.  Taking non-linear notes forces students to encode their ideas more effectively, and the need to visually connect points prompts synthetic thinking.
  • Insert brief pauses during lectures for students to catch up and clarify points discussed by the instructor. This strategy has been shown to increase recall, especially for students with learning disabilities.
  • Flip the classroom to help students process information at their own pace


Sources and further reading:

For resources to share with students, see Dartmouth Academic Skills Center, “Classes:  Notetaking, Listening, Participation.”

Academic Skills Center, Cal Poly Student Academic Services, “Note Taking Systems.”

Tamas Makany, Jonathan Kemp, and Itiel E. Dror, “Optimising the use of note-taking as an external cognitive aid for increasing learning,” in British Journal of Educational Technology, 40 (4), 2009, pp. 619-635.

Jacques van der Meer, “Students’ note-taking challenges in the twenty-first century: considerations for teachers and academic staff developers,” in Teaching in Higher Education, 17 (1), 2012, pp. 13-23.

Robert Williams and Alan Eggert, “Notetaking in College Classes: Student Patterns and Instructional Strategies,” in The Journal of General Education, 51 (3), 2002, pp. 173-199.

When teachers open their classroom to discussion, all kinds of good things can happen: students may think about a topic on a deeper level, be exposed to a variety of perspectives, and even learn to respect those with whom they disagree.  Yet, discussions can also go badly, very badly.  Perhaps you may recall a time as a teacher or student when a discussion was derailed by one or two loudmouths, or when a discussion turned ugly, or when (from lack of participation) a planned discussion never got off the ground.  Today we look at strategies for reaping the potential benefits of class discussion.

First, there are many things that a teacher can do before the day of a discussion to help ensure the discussion will succeed:

  • At the beginning of the semester explain the role that discussions will play in the course as a whole (i.e. how they contribute to the course’s learning goals), and spell out your expectations for student participation in the syllabus:
    • What are the ground rules? (Will you call on students or should they just speak out? How often should students speak?)
    • What is the purpose of class discussions? (e.g., you might say something like, “A discussion is not a debate to be won but a conversation intended to open up new perspectives and to teach active listening.”)
    • Emphasize the importance of respectful disagreement and the humility to learn to understand another’s view point
  • During the preceding class remind students to prepare for the discussion:
    • Have students prepare questions for discussion in advance
    • Assign students positions to research and represent
    • Explain to the students how their homework will help them prepare for the coming discussion

Second, a teacher can help foster a stimulating discussion on the day of the discussion through a variety of tactics:

  • At the beginning of the class, before the discussion, begin with a writing prompt or other creative activity to whet students’ imagination.
    • This is also a moment when students could be asked to prepare questions
    • Begin with a sentence-completion exercise such as:
      • “The most interesting idea from the reading is____, because…”
      • “The most confusing idea from the reading is…”
      • “The idea I disagree with the most is…”
    • Students could first share their questions/answers with a partner and/or in a small group of 3 or 4 to give students practice at articulating their thoughts in a less threatening context
    • Consider leading a brainstorming session, in which all ideas are put on the board to be catalogued and evaluated later
  • Before launching into the discussion, remind students about the ground rules and the purpose of class discussions
    • Invite students to become “sociologists” who are excited to figure out why exactly people (their classmates) believe the things that they do
  • During the discussion, the teacher must play many different roles and keep the discussion going
    • As Davis (2009; adapted from Forsyth, 2003) writes: the teacher “will need to serve as a gatekeeper (‘Makayla, you’ve been quiet. Do you have something to add?’), a mirror (‘The group seems to be focusing on…’), an observer (‘Why do we drift into tangents whenever…comes up?’), a validator (‘Great point!’), a negotiator (‘Can we come to consensus on this?’), and a reality tester (‘Do you realize how our comments can be interpreted?’).”
    • Take notes: identify places of confusion or misunderstanding that should be addressed; write down main points that should be summarized at the end
    • Move the conversation deeper: ask “Why would someone hold to this idea?” “What is at stake in this disagreement?” “How are these two ideas related?”
  • After the discussion, wrap thing up and prepare for next time
    • Summarize the main points of the discussion for the class
    • Close with a writing prompt:
      • Ask students to summarize the discussion in 2-3 sentences
      • Or, ask the following: What idea discussed today has left the strongest impression on your mind? If you could say one more thing about today’s discussion, what would it be? What did you learn about a different perspective today?
    • Learn for next time by asking yourself: At what points did the discussion really take off? At what points did the discussion lag? How would you do things differently next time?


Bibliography and Further Reading:

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching, Second edition. San Francisco: Jossey­­‑Bass, 2009.

Forsyth, D. R. The Professor’s Guide to Teaching: Psychological Principles and Practices. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003.

“How to Lead a Discussion.” Stanford University Teaching Commonshttps://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/resources/teaching/small-groups-and-discussions/how-lead-discussion

“Discussions.”  Vanderbilt University, Center for Teachinghttps://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/discussions/

“Leading Scintillating, Stimulating, Substantive Class Discussions.” Colombia University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Teaching Centerhttp://www.columbia.edu/cu/tat/pdfs/discussions.pdf



With the start of a new semester, how can instructors and teaching assistants be sure they are creating a positive learning environment for their students? Beyond devoting time to preparation, creating effective classroom materials and assignments, and getting to know the class, one of the most important things you can do to start the semester off right is to clearly communicate your expectations to the students and understand their expectations of you as an instructor. Research shows that when expectations are well-reasoned and clearly laid out, student learning, motivation, and engagement all increase. Clearly communicating expectations for the course can also reduce conflict and confusion later in the semester by establishing policies upfront. Oftentimes, the best way to communicate your expectations is to put them in writing in a syllabus or policy sheet and to discuss them with students during the first class sessions. Here are five common areas of mutual expectations to consider discussing with your students early in the semester:

  1. How should students communicate with you?

At a very basic level, consider telling your students how you prefer to be addressed (Dr., Prof., your first name?). Students should also know how to get in contact with you: what are your office hours, will you respond by phone or email, and how long will you take to respond? You may also let students know how to give you feedback, such as whether you will collect mid-semester evaluations.

  1. What are the expectations regarding assignments and grading?

Lack of clarity in the grading process can be a source of anxiety for both students and instructors. Early in the semester, let students know what assignments they are expected to complete and when they are due. Consider establishing a policy for if/how you will re-grade assignments, and let students know about your late policy, the honor code, and what grade scale you use. Later in the semester you may also address whether you will read drafts of assignments and when you expect to return graded work.

  1. What are your expectations for the classroom?

How should a student come prepared for each class, and what will a typical class section look like? Do you have policies for engaging in discussion or ensuring safety in a science lab? You might also communicate with students about whether you have policies for using laptops, cell phones, or other technology in the classroom.

  1. Do you have policies for emergencies or special exceptions?

Over the course of the semester, it is likely that at least one student will miss class for an excused (or unexcused) reason. What should that student do to get caught up with the missed work? What if a student is absent for a test, quiz, or for turning in a homework assignment? Do you grant extra credit or test retakes, and if so, in what cases?

  1. How can students succeed in the course?

One technique for promoting success is to have students from previous classes give advice for how to succeed in the course and to distribute it to students early in the semester. The start of the semester is also a great time to let students know about other resources that will help them do well in your class – such as where they can get assistance with writing, tutoring, disabilities, mental health, or skills related to your course. While it may seem obvious, being clear at the start of the class about what makes a successful student sets the tone that you have high expectations and that students have lots of opportunities to meet them.

You may have other expectations for students in the context of your course; be sure to take some time early in the semester to think about your expectations and communicate them clearly with your students. Then, turn the tables around and ask students what they expect from you. Once you have established reasonable mutual expectations, keep the communication going throughout the semester to ensure everyone is on the same page and ready to learn.

Want to know more about mutual expectations?

Turn it into a first-day activity. Write down what you expect of your students and what you think students expect of you. Then have students work together to list what they expect of you and what they think you expect of them. Compare lists and see whether your expectations match up!

Additional Resources

“Narrowing the Gap between Students and Instructors: A Study of Expectations” – Zimmerman et al.

Successful Beginnings for College Teaching: Engaging Your Students from the First Day – Provitera-McGlynn

7 Tips for the First Day

From all of us at the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning, we wish you and yours a happy holiday.




Happy Holidays

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