Preparing To Teach
In this section
Before the Term Begins
Creating A Syllabus
The discussion in this section assumes that a full syllabus has been given to you when you were assigned your instructional responsibilities. If you were not given a syllabus, you should consult your departmental chairperson or try to talk with a faculty member who has taught the course in a previous year. Constructing an effective syllabus can be a difficult task that often requires the assistance of those more experienced in your field.
Even when you are given a syllabus, however, you may find that you want to augment it. At minimum a good syllabus should contain (1) a list of the readings for the course; (2) due dates for each of the readings and assignments; (3) a general discussion of the criteria that will be used to evaluate students' performance-that is, determine their grades-(4) a summary of the policies regarding attendance or late papers; and (5) your office hours and telephone number.
If you are in charge of the entire course, there are two additional kinds of information that you can included in a syllabus. First, you might give some thought to assigning topics for discussion to individual lectures or sets of lectures. The practice of assigning a topic is especially helpful when you superimpose the topics on the reading list; that is, you assign each topic to a set of readings. Second, you can give the students a set of study questions to consider while completing the readings. Study questions are a very effective way of helping students focus on the more relevant parts of the text and generally will also increase the amount of time students spend preparing for class.
The course history and demographics. If at all possible, you should try to talk with someone who held your position in a previous quarter. Talking with someone who has been through the experience is your best source of information for questions concerning class composition, common misconceptions, complaints, and expectations of the students who typically take the course. If you are armed with this information ahead of time, you are less likely to be disarmed by sudden and often disruptive discoveries about who your students are and what they know.
- Creating your Syllabus (University of Michigan)
- Constructing a Syllabus (Brown)
- Course Preparation (from Stanford's Teaching at Stanford Handbook) (PDF)
- Designing a Learning-Centered Syllabus (University of Delaware)
- Your Syllabus (University of Minnesota)
- Developing a Syllabus (North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
- Tips for an Effective Syllabus (Penn State)
Preparing Readings and Ordering Books
It is a good idea to know where the books for the course are being sold and roughly how much they cost. Check to be sure that what you assume to be true in this regard is in fact the case. You will need to know whether an order has been delayed, whether there are enough books, and whether any of these conditions will affect your ability to follow your plans. This advice also applies to books placed on reserve.
Many instructors use the Seminary Co-op Bookstore for ordering class texts. More detailed information regarding their policies may be found here.
The Room and Physical Equipment
Before the quarter begins, check on the classroom. Is it adequate? Does it have enough seats? Can you rearrange them to suit the teaching method you will be using most often (e.g., in a circle for discussion or facing the board for lecture)? Stand in the back and look at the board-is there any glare? Do you need to pull the blinds before you use the board? The students will expect you to provide a workable situation, and being in control of the physical environment will help you feel in control of the class. Assuring yourself that the physical structure of the classroom itself will not impede your teaching can have a calming effect.
An equipment checklist may be found in Stanford's Teaching at Stanford Handbook (PDF).
An Outline for a Typical First Class Session
Use the first day to act as the host for the course and to set the tone. Introduce yourself and your background; then get acquainted with the class. When you introduce yourself, be sure to provide the essential statistics-your phone number, office location, office hours, and mailbox. It is often useful to write this introductory information in the upper left-hand corner of the blackboard. Some of your students will probably be late to the first day of class, and some may have stumbled into your class by mistake, so a written announcement will prevent a certain amount of embarrassment for both groups. You would be surprised at how many students do not know their professor's name, even by mid-quarter, simply because it isn't on the syllabus and they missed, or came late to, the first day of class!
If the class is fairly small, it may also be a good idea to introduce the class to each other. One way to do this is to call roll and ask each student to provide some kind of background information. Alternatively, especially in large classes, this same information can be obtained by having students take a few minutes to fill out three-by-five cards with their names and whatever background information you think will be helpful. When you collect this information, you send a message to your students that who they are is important, a message that can go a long way toward creating a healthy classroom atmosphere.
Once these introductions are completed, you should plan to give your students at least a brief overview of the course and let them know the kind of work that will be involved and your general expectations. Many faculty find that it is most convenient to convey this information when they hand out the course syllabus. Talk about what you hope will be accomplished in each set of readings or assignments. Prepare a brief demonstration of the kinds of problems they will encounter during the course. In short, you will generally find it helpful to think about the first day as a demonstration of what the course will be about rather than trying to convey substantive course material. Finally, take a few minutes to hear from the students. You might ask them, for example, why they are taking the course, what they expect from it, what parts of its content are familiar to them, or any other question that seems appropriate. A productive first day of class sets the tone for the remainder of the quarter.
- Great Beginnings: Things to do early in your class (Stanford)
- "The First Class of the quarter" and "Your First Experience Teaching (from Stanford's Teaching at Stanford Handbook) (PDF)
Planning a Class Session
How prepared must I be before entering the classroom?
Nearly all beginning teachers ask this question at one time or another. If you are seriously underprepared, the consequence is sheer terror, or the contempt of your students. If you are mildly underprepared, the consequence is rigidity because you must remain within the narrow area that you are prepared to address, thereby defeating the flexibility you need to negotiate between what your students know and the goals you have set for them. Conversely, you can in a sense be overprepared when you succumb to the urge to squeeze all the things you've learned into the time constraints of your course. When you try to cover too much material in too great detail, it becomes exceedingly difficult to respond to your students because you become more concerned with covering the material than with whether they have absorbed it or whether they can ever do so.
Ferguson is quite right when he notes that "teaching is work." But, how do you know how much work is enough? You are prepared enough if you are able to pay more attention to what the class knows than to what you yourself do or do not know. If you are able to improvise and respond to the class's true state while making clear progress toward defined goals, then you are prepared enough. Many beginning teachers, however, underestimate the number of hours of preparation that are required for each hour of presentation. When experienced teachers are asked how much time is required to teach a course for the first time from scratch, estimates in the social sciences and the humanities often are as high as from ten to twenty hours for every hour spent in the classroom. Estimates in the physical sciences and mathematics tend to be considerably lower-by about half-because those hours of preparation will constitute, to a greater extent than is typically true in the humanities and social sciences, a review of previously mastered information and concepts. What is significant in all fields, however, is the number of hidden hours that must be devoted to all kinds of preparatory activities-which leads to another frequently asked question.
What should I do when preparing for class?
What you should do during those hours of preparation depends largely on what you hope to accomplish and, to a lesser extent, on the methods of instruction you plan to employ. To say that you must know what it is that you want to accomplish may sound simple and straightforward, but looks can be deceiving. Recently, in fact, during a CTP forum, a group of beginning teachers who would soon be assuming full responsibility for a course were asked to specify the goals they had in mind for the students they were about to teach. Answers to this seemingly straightforward question were entirely limited to statements such as "help them understand Western civilization," "get them interested in the subject of biology," and "teach them to write an effective argument."
Although objectives such as these can help to get you started, they give little focus to what you or your students will actually be doing in the course. How, for example, will you know whether a student is interested, and what should you do to engender that interest? Similarly, how will you judge the effectiveness of their arguments? More importantly, if they are not effective, what will you do?
Even if the first objective you think of is similar to these examples, before completing further preparations for the class, and certainly before entering the classroom, you will generally find it helpful to restate your objectives in more precise terms. One way of doing this is to think about what data you will use to determine whether those objectives have been reached. For example, if you want your students to write an effective argument, you should give some thought to what is involved in effective argumentation, which pieces are most critical to that effectiveness, what kind of skill or concepts are prerequisite to achieving it. It is often helpful to work backwards by first imagining what form an effective argument of the sort you are looking for would take and by then asking yourself what information is necessary along the way.
When you begin clarifying and refining your objectives, you should keep two things in mind. First, a well-considered objective clearly specifies what the student should be able to do as a result of being in your course. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it should provide unambiguous information about what data will be used to determine the degree of their success. Once you have decided on your objectives in these terms, you can then begin thinking about which kinds of classroom activities will best foster them. As the following section suggests, the methods of instruction and the kinds of additional preparation you will need to do are also determined by the goals you have set for your course.
The Role of the Teaching Assistant
Although the specific terminology varies from department to department, teaching assistants are those individuals who conduct sessions that meet in addition to lecture presentations by faculty members. These sessions most commonly serve as an aid to large lecture classes, and the primary purpose of the sessions is to amplify and clarify the concepts covered in the lectures-often through problem solving and discussion. Teaching assistants are in a unique position because they often deal with only a subset of the members in a class and, in some senses, must function not only in an instructional role but also as a mediator between the undergraduates and the professor.
As noted earlier many of the ideas outlined under discussion leading are appropriate to the teaching assistant. Because teaching assistants are often just beginning their graduate training, especially in the physical sciences, they are often more uncertain about how much they can offer their students. One of the keys t o making this position work is to realize its unique and full potential. The teaching assistant role is an excellent one for demonstrating how to approach the material at hand in a more effective manner. Many students, especially freshmen, may begin by assuming that your role is an information-giving one. Make it clear from the start that the information you provide is meant to supplement, not replace, the information presented in the main lectures.
Let your students know from the outset that your sessions with them will be used to help show them, largely through demonstration, how to arrive at more appropriate questions, how to avoid the conceptual pitfalls, and how to approach the material in a more efficient and systematic fashion. Unlike the pure self-contained discussion group, the agendas for your sessions with students will be entirely determined by the questions and problems that your students encounter with the material.
The secret here is to learn how to be organized yet spontaneous and to show students through your behavior that you are there to help them. Be careful about using sarcasm or humor in responding to questions because an excessive use of either can inhibit students from expressing themselves freely. Also, before you begin, you should make a point of talking with the professor about the rationale and goals of the course and your section. You should also plan to attend most of, if not all, the lectures. In view of the overall agenda for the course, you can then begin to define your objectives as clearly as possible.
As you are reviewing the material or attending the lectures, try to remember the kinds of obstacles that you encountered in learning the material. Keep a list of these obstacles and raise them as initial questions when you begin a session. Find out whether your students experienced similar kinds of difficulties and confusion with the concepts, lectures, or problem sets.
Often it will help for you to encourage your students to attempt to articulate what they do not understand. In other words, generally students will merely indicate that they are confused by a concept or a section of their text, but they cannot articulate which aspects of that section or concept confuse them. Before you begin to address a topic, problem, or concept try to get your students to specify explicitly what is and is not clear. By keeping the issues and topics narrowed to very specific questions, you will be less likely to accidentally lapse into unplanned lectures, and the students themselves will be more likely to stay on track.
Once you have addressed one specific question on a topic, before going on to a new topic, you might then ask for related questions from the other students. Often these remaining questions can be clustered, and it will usually be more efficient to deal with clusters of similar questions rather than take them one at a time. When a question is raised that is too detailed or threatens to take the discussion on a tangent, you can avoid counterproductive digressions by responding briefly to the question but by then inviting the student who has raised it to meet with you later-either after the session or during your office hours. It is permissible to stop a discussion short but only after giving a brief explanation for why you are doing so and what the conditions are for getting the question answered.
In short, the sessions you conduct should remain as task focused as possible. Also, you should always strive to stay in touch with your students. Although all teachers must continually assess what their students can and cannot do, teaching assistants must be especially cognizant of any difficulties their students may be having. Yours is an excellent position for personalizing the subject matter for the students and also for providing concrete feedback to the professor of the course about those aspects of the lectures that have been the most and the least accessible to the students-information that is only rarely available to faculty when they teach large lecture classes.
- Stanford's Teaching Handbook (PDF)
- Organizing Large Courses: Information for Head Teaching Fellows (Harvard)
- Section Preparation (Harvard)
- Some tips for running effecient teaching fellow meetings
- For International TAs
Using Chalk and Other Technologies in the Classroom
Academic and Scholarly Technology Services offers a wide range of technological support for utilizing technology as part of the academic experiences at the University of Chicago. For more information about these technologies and services, go to https://academictech.uchicago.edu/.
Chalk: The Campus Learning Management System
Each day of the academic year an average of 4800 visitors view 143,000 pages and download over 14 GB of content from Chalk. Chalk, as it is known on campus, is a learning management tool that uses the Blackboard Academic Suite™ of software to provide a common easy-to-use framework for faculty to develop and disseminate course materials to students.
Any person with a valid CNetID and CNet password can log in to chalk.uchicago.edu and explore the various course offerings and tools on the system that are open to guests. Students enrolled in Chalk-hosted courses can access course materials and assignments or take online tests and surveys, faculty can maintain and post grades using the Grade Book feature and encourage communication and participation through the Discussion Board, and prospective students may browse the Course Catalog to review the syllabi of courses that interest them.
- Online tutorials and documentation for Chalk are available at http://answers.uchicago.edu/search.php?q=chalk&cat=0
- View Chalk training schedule at https://academictech.uchicago.edu/events