Strategies for Starting the Semester Well

Whether you have been teaching for several years or are beginning to teach your very first traffic lightsemester, being prepared for the start of the semester will help make the transition successful for you and your students. The following is a list of strategies you can use the first day and into the first weeks of the semester that will help you create an engaging, motivating, and organized classroom environment.

The strategies below has been excerpted from the following resources (full citations are at the end of the post): 10 Ideas for Starting the Quarter, Center for Teaching Excellence, University of California, Santa Cruz and First Day of Class: What Can/Should we Do? Program for Instructional Innovation.

Make Positive First Impressions

Greet students as they arrive in the classroom on the first day. Be upbeat and have a positive attitude toward them and your course. This will show students that you are on time and interested in them. Post or project a message on the board as students walk in the classroom to get them thinking about the subject. For example, project a thought-provoking question related to the subject or reading assigned for the day or a thought-provoking image. Share something about yourself that will help students see you as a human being rather than an authority figure. For example, personal stories of your college years, content-related work, and travel experiences can help establish your credibility.

You can further establish your credibility by sharing your research and how it ties to course content; consider including your relevant published research articles and books as course resources. Students will appreciate knowing that you personally contribute to the knowledge base of your discipline.

Finally, dress appropriately. Younger new faculty might consider dressing in more formal attire that can help convey a sense of authority. Usually it’s easier to relax a more formal impression into a more relaxed one than the other way around. Keep in mind, though, that no matter how you dress, having a positive approach to teaching and your students can go a long way in making important and lasting first impressions.

A note of caution: What should you be careful not to say? Students don’t need to know everything about you. In particular, it is not helpful to say you’ve never taught the course before, or that it is your least favorite course to teach. Also, it is imperative that you never share irrelevant stories about your personal life or social media sites with your students. You don’t want your students to have any negative or questionable perceptions of you at any time in the semester.

Involve Students Quickly

Getting students engaged early on will help send the message that they should be prepared for class discussion, possible group work, and in-class activities. Here are a few examples that get students involved in course content the first week of the semester:

  • Ask students to introduce themselves, either in class or through an online discussion forum, where students respond to prompts such as, “What is your major?,” What are your career aspirations?,” and “What skills do you bring to this course that can help you or your classmates be successful?”
  • Have students think and write silently about why they have enrolled in the course; what skills and abilities they might be able to contribute to the course; and their expectations they have for the course.
  • Start an activity where students are the experts and cannot rely on you for information. For example, in a psychology course on myths about human behavior, begin by brainstorming myths about student behaviors in residence halls.
  • Give a low-stakes or zero points quiz on the course syllabus during which students can use their mobile devices to access a Blackboard quiz. Alternatively, begin an interactive poll that involves students using their classroom response device after which they can see their results. Follow the poll with a classroom discussion before having students retake the poll to improve on their initial answer.

Give Students a Reason to be in Your Course (identify the value and importance of what you plan to teach)

Not all students come to class with a clear idea of why this subject is important. You may need to help them understand the significance of the course. Do this early on so students will be ready to invest time and energy necessary for learning the subject matter. Here are two activities to stimulate students’ interest in the course:

  • Connect course content to current events. Have student bring in news items that relate to your course (using paper and e-newspapers and social media stories). Discuss selected stories and connect them to what you plan for that particular day. By connecting course content to current events, pop culture, or student interests, you demonstrate relevance, which can increase student motivation.
  • Common sense inventory. Nilson (2003) describes a “Common Sense Inventory” where students need to determine whether 15 statements related to the course content are true or false (e.g., in a social psychology course, “Suicide is more likely among women than men,” or “Over half of all marriages occur between persons who live within 20 blocks of each other”). After paired or small group discussions, you can reveal the right answer. This works particularly well in courses where students may have a number of misconceptions (e.g., Introductory Physics – “An object is hard to push because it is heavy”).

Clarify Learning Objectives and Course Expectations

Clearly state course learning objectives to help students understand what they are about to learn and what they will have to do to be successful in your class. For example, explain how course content aligns with course assessments and how these assessments will help students learn.

Course expectations include what you consider to be appropriate amounts of study time and homework for the class, the importance of turning assignments in on time, expectations about in-class behavior, how you want to relate to students, and how much you expect students to interact in class. The first day also offers an opportunity to find out what expectations the students have of you and the class. Begin a discussion by asking students to respond to questions such as

  • What have you heard about me as an instructor?
  • What have you heard about this course?
  • What do you expect to learn from this course?
  • What challenges do you anticipate to being successful in this course?

Establish Rapport

Almost any class will be more enjoyable for both you and your students if everyone knows something about each other. This exchange can be started with introductions and sharing some background information, which can be facilitated in class or through a Blackboard discussion forum. You can also use icebreakers that can raise students’ energy levels and help them to be more comfortable with the classroom environment. Read First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning for some simple yet effective ways that emphasize learning and student responsibility for creating a meaningful classroom environment.

Good communication can have a positive effect on enjoyable teaching and learning experiences. Conveying a positive attitude right from the start and showing students that you care about them as individuals and their success can have a positive effect on your students. Being open, honest, and caring are easy ways to connect with your students.

Consider a “Homework 0” voluntary-mandatory office hour. Have students make an appointment with you at a convenient time, find your office, and visit you there early in the semester. This gets students to your office, breaks the ice with a short one-on-one interaction, and encourages students to come back for help when they need it.

Justice (2006) states that even the way you walk into the classroom the first day can make an impression on your students. Read the following “scenarios” and decide for yourself which instructor you would rather have for a course:

Scenario A. The instructor rushes into the room a few minutes late while fidgeting with the messy stack of papers he is carrying, some of them falling to the floor. He keeps looking at his watch and begins the class by saying “I think we should begin with chapter one.”

Scenario B. The instructor confidently walks into the room, makes eye contact with and smiles at the students, and says “Good morning/afternoon/evening.” She places her book bag on the table and, walking toward the students, asks, “How is everyone today?”

Scenario C. The instructor briskly walks into the room, carrying several large books which she neatly places on the corner of the desk, opens her PowerPoint presentation and, standing behind the podium, begins to read from the slides.

Create an Inclusive Classroom Environment

Create an inclusive classroom that values all students, their perspectives, and contributions to the community of learners. There are several ways to create inclusive classrooms including using icebreakers, incorporating meaningful and worthy classroom policies, helping students contribute to the learning process, and using teaching strategies that engage students and motivate them to learn. Calling students by name helps to engage with them and shows them that they are important to the class. Use name cards if you have difficulty remembering names.

Establish a culture of feedback where you encourage students to share their classroom experiences. Explain that the feedback you give to students is as meaningful as the feedback they share with you about the course and that you will listen and consider all suggestions.

Whatever classroom environment you prefer (formal and intense, informal and relaxed, or something in between), set the tone early in the semester to help students gauge the rest of the semester.

Help Students Understand the Learning Process

Share with your students what you know about learning and how you can help them develop good study skills, test taking strategies, and communication skills necessary for success in your course. This is especially important for beginning college students as well as those who are returning to the classroom after many years. Provide self-help resources in Blackboard that students can access when needed. For example, create a “Learning Resources” folder that includes tutorials, links to campus resources, websites, and articles relevant in helping students take an active part in their own learning.

Provide Course Logistics

Carefully review the course syllabus that provides details about the course including information such as:

  • Office hours and location
  • Materials students will need
  • Assignments, homework, and exams schedule
  • Grading schema and feedback on assessed work
  • Course policies regarding class participation, attendance, punctuality, late work, make-up exams

Introduce the Subject Matter

Begin what you plan to teach with an overview of the subject by asking yourself these questions:

  • What is it that you are going to teach?
  • What are the major concepts, important ideas, significant details you plan to teach? In other words, what do you want students to learn?
  • How is course content connected to other courses, topics within the discipline, research topics?

Pre-class Warm-up

As you prepare for the beginning of the upcoming semester or any day of teaching or presenting, try some techniques which have been used by professionals in theatre, film, and television that may help improve your own teaching presentation. Try doing some vocal warm-ups such as yawning, humming and warming up the tongue and jaw through simple exercises by speaking to yourself, out loud that can help develop better voice intonation and performance in the classroom (Justice, 2006). Here are two simple techniques.

Out loud, pronounce the following words, emphasizing each vowel and consonant. Consider using your hands and arms for emphasis:    

hello, away, until
buhdah guhdah, puhtah cuhtah

Explicitly pronounce, out loud, this tongue twister:

A big black bug bit a big black bear, made a big black bear bleed blood

Summary

Careful course planning can help you prepare for the semester ahead. Whatever strategies you plan to use throughout the semester, include them during the first few weeks of the semester. If you want students to participate in whole-class discussions, work in small groups, write a reflection, or watch and evaluate a video, do these activities early on. Setting the tone at the beginning of the semester will help not only your students to do better but will help you as well!

References

Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation (2015). Make the Most of the First Day of Class. http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/firstday.html

Justice, G. (2006). The art of teaching: Using performance techniques in the teaching/learning process. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Theatre Arts, Virginia Tech. This document is available in the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, Northern Illinois University.

Nilson, L. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing. [Available at NIU library, call number: LB2331 .N55 2003]

University of California, Santa Cruz, Center for Teaching Excellence (2005). Teaching tips from CTE: 10 ideas for starting the quarter. https://users.soe.ucsc.edu/~elkaim/Documents/FF_F05.pdf

Further Resources for Starting the Semester Well

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Office of Graduate Studies (2016). 101 things you can do in the first three weeks of class. http://www.unl.edu/gradstudies/current/teaching/first-3-weeks

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching (2016). First day of class. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/first-day-of-class/

Weimer, M. (2015). The first day of class: A once-a-semester opportunity. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/the-first-day-of-class-a-once-a-semester-opportunity/

Weimer, M. (2013). First day of class activities that create a climate for learning. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/first-day-of-class-activities-that-create-a-climate-for-learning/

End of Semester Reminders in Blackboard

closeup of woman's hands using a laptopAs the semester draws to a close, there are some final tasks you can take care of in Blackboard, to make your courses end successfully and prepare yourself for the next semester.

    • Calculate final grades: If you have been recording grades in the Blackboard Grade Center, you can use it to calculate the final grades for your students. Remember to check that you have entered zeroes for any missing assignments or tests, so that the calculations are accurate. If you are using a Weighted Total, make sure that your categories are assigned correctly – you can do so quickly by going to Manage > Column Organization. Consider attending the Calculating Final Grades in Blackboard Open Lab on Thursday, December 8, 2016, from 11:00 – 1:00 pm in Adams Hall Room 323.

 

    • Automatically assign letter grades in Blackboard: The Blackboard Grade Center uses a default grading schema to assign letters grades, with pluses and minuses. You can verify that the schema matches yours, and modify it if necessary, by going to Manage > Grading Schemas. To automatically assign letter grades, edit the Total or Weighted Total column (or create a new Calculated Column), and set Letter as the Primary Display option. You can use a Score or Percentage as a secondary display, which you will be able to see in the same column of the Grade Center.

 

    • Submit grades automatically from Blackboard to MyNIU: The Grade Submission tool can automatically submit your grades from Blackboard to MyNIU, so that you don’t need to enter grades in MyNIU with the drop down menus. This is particularly useful for large classes or when you have used a Master Course to combine sections. In Blackboard, you need a column of letter grades (either assigned automatically, or typed into a column with Text as the Primary Display). That column should be set as the External Grade column (there will be a green checkmark next to the column name). Use the Grade Submission tool in the Control Panel, under Course Tools, to send the grades to MyNIU. Once the submission is complete, you can log in to MyNIU to enter last attendance dates (for any F’s, U’s, or I’s), approve grades, and post them. The Grade Submission tool is available until the night before grades are due; after that you may only enter grades manually in MyNIU. Review the Quick Guide on submitting grades for more information.

 

    • Export the grades for safekeeping: While Blackboard is backed up regularly, it is a good idea to download your Grade Center as an Excel file for you to keep on your office computer. To do so, go to the Grade Center and click Work Offline > Download. Watch this video on How to Download Grades from the Grade Center to see how to do it.

 

  • Request your course(s) for next semester: Get a head start on developing your spring semester Blackboard courses now! You can request your spring semester courses now, so that you can develop them over the break. You can review how to do it in these tutorials: Request a Course or Request a Master Course (for combining two or more sections).

As always, you can contact the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center using our Ask a Question form for individualized assistance.

Tips for New Graduate Teaching Assistants from Your Experienced Peers

head with light bulb IdeaEach fall, the Teaching Assistant Orientation is offered to new and returning teaching assistants to learn more about their role as a TA and the support services at Northern Illinois University. The Teaching Across the Disciplines panel of experienced teaching assistants is always one of the most popular sessions at the orientation. This year, we asked the panel members, who are experienced TAs, to share some best practices and practical tips of being a graduate teaching assistant.

Q: How do you balance your school work with your teaching assistantship?

Kelsey Williams, English, GTA for 8 semesters: “I know of two common approaches to this.The first is to handle your work as a student and your work as a teaching assistant separately. That could mean designating Friday as your day to get your own homework done, Saturday as your day to get your teaching duties taken care of, and Sunday as your day of rest because, hey, you’ve earned it. The benefit of this approach is that you can set your brain in “student mode” one day and “teacher mode” the next, rather than doing mental gymnastics by switching between the two. It can also allow you to cross whole items off your to-do list. This is my preferred strategy and it has served me well, even unto the third year of my Ph.D.

The second strategy is to do a little bit of student work, then switch to a little bit of TA work, then switch back to student work, and so on into infinity. The benefit of this approach is that you can slowly make progress on your to-do list without feeling overwhelmed or having to force yourself to focus on a single task for too long. You need to take care of yourself as a person as well. The best way to balance student work and TA work is to balance all of that equally with having a life outside of being a student and a TA.”

Q: How do you prepare for class?

Jeanine Clark Bremer, Literacy and Elementary Education, GTA for 6 semesters: “I’m old school – I bought into the notion to read the top five scholars on each topic you will cover, for every topic you will cover all semester long. In a perfect setting, where you know what you will be teaching well in advance, this works. In a minimally perfect situation, you have probably already read a lot of the scholars due to your graduate level work. Looking at this from the daily perspective of prepping for class, two things come to mind. First, read along with your students. You will be surprised at how many more mistakes you will catch that they are making during a discussion, if you have reread the material for the day it was assigned. Concurrently reading with them also helps you better ascertain who is reading ahead and who is falling behind. Second, it may sound silly, but take a few minutes and really try to think through possible questions you might receive on a day’s topic. You may not come up with everything, because their schema is different than your own, but mentally working through options will make you more agile when they throw questions at you that you were not expecting.”

Q: What is the one thing you learned about being a teaching assistant during your first semester that you didn’t know before?

Amanda Schlink, Family, Consumer, and Nutrition Sciences, GTA for 4 semesters: “The one thing that I learned about being a teaching assistant was how much the students can rely on you. In my first semester, I was the TA instructor for a food preparation lab, where the lab was a separate course from the lecture. Therefore, I was responsible for the instruction, including lecturing, preparation of ingredients, grading, exams and everything in between. Going into the first semester, I had never had a course like this during my undergrad and didn’t know that a TA could essentially teach a separate lab, where the grade is completely independent from the lecture course. However, I found that I gained respect from my students early on by acting as the authority figure in the lab, speaking from experience when discussing course topics and showing care about their academic success in my course. This reliance carried on throughout the semester and eventually led to trust that if something didn’t work out, everything was going to be okay.”

 

Tips for Grading Student Work

Amanda Schlink:

  • Be consistent from start to finish, especially with essays, projects or any assignments that do not have a concrete rubric.
  • Avoid grading late at night, as you are more likely to miss errors. I recommend giving all graded assignments a second look over to ensure the grades given are indeed correct.
  • Use the rubrics for assignments if possible. In addition, always be able to justify the grades that are given.
  • For any exams that require a Scantron, double check that the answer key is correct before the Scantrons are submitted for grading.

Tips for Handling Difficult Situations

Amanda Schlink:

  • Always stay professional, especially through email and conversations that occur in person.
  • If possible, discuss difficult situations in private, away from other students.
  • Be observant of your tone and body language, as students can sometimes misinterpret signals.
  • Always remain neutral and do not take sides.
  • Never be afraid to go to your supervisor or faculty supervisor for advice if a situation requires additional assistance.

Jeanine Clark Bremer:

  • Breathe – no matter what, you are in charge and the student will respond to your action/reaction.
  • Listen with an open mind. Really listen to what they are saying so you understand the many facets of the situation.
  • Ask questions in a manner that is not accusatory and is fact-seeking.
  • Be straightforward and honest. Be honest about the actions you have to take (if any).

Tips for Preparing for Class/Lab/Clinical

Amanda Schlink:

  • Always come prepared (unless circumstances arise that are out of your control)
  • Students notice when you are not prepared and will comment on it, even if you think they won’t.
  • Allow more time to prepare than what you think. As the semester progresses, you will likely become more efficient and therefore will spend less time preparing.

Thank you to the experienced teaching assistants that provided these valuable suggestions on how to develop in the role of teaching assistant at NIU.

Using Lynda.com Playlists to Supplement Course Materials

Lynda.comLynda.com, one of the most popular and successful video learning service offered, has been available to NIU faculty, students, and staff since Fall 2015. Since its release, users have relied on its extensive video library of engaging, top-quality courses taught by recognized industry experts for personal development. NIU faculty can now incorporate these high-quality materials to enhance and supplement their own course content.

Videos and courses from lynda.com can easily be added to Blackboard courses using Web Links, or embedded using html. If you have identified a series of videos you want students to watch, a playlist is even better. A playlist is a collection of web content arranged around a particular theme or subject area. Playlists are commonly used to collect and organize songs from musical artists or video content from YouTube. Similarly, you can create playlists of lynda.com videos by curating a collection of tutorials on a particular topic. For example, the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center created a playlist on Online Teaching.

When you find a video you want to include on a playlist, click the + Add to Playlist button. On smaller screens, this may display below the video title, or be shortened to a simple +.

add to playlist

lynda.com profile drop down menu You can then create a new playlist, or add the video to an existing playlist.

To view your playlists, click your name in the upper right, and select Playlists from the drop down menu. You can manage your playlists here, including reordering or removing videos, adding a description, and making the playlist public. This is also where you can Share your playlist by copying the direct link for the playlist.

In Blackboard, you can add your playlist to your course as a Web Link. Students will be prompted to log into lynda.com when they click the link. They use their z-id and password to log in.

Creating playlist can be a convenient yet powerful strategy to supplement course content, offer an alternative perspective to the instructor’s, and provide support to students to develop skills that may not be directly taught by the instructor. This might include teaching a technology for presenting a report more effectively, basic to advanced training of video editing for an assignment that offers the option for submitting the finished product as a video rather than in a word processing format, etc.

For more information on lynda.com, you are invited to view a recording of the online lynda.com workshop conducted on December 4, 2015. Faculty Development will also be offering a face-to-face lynda.com workshop during the fall semester.

Blackboard-related Reminders for the Beginning of the Semester

posted in: Best Practices, News | 0

closeup of woman's hands using a laptopAs many new faculty, teaching staff, and TAs are requesting course space on Blackboard this week and get ready to begin the semester teaching their courses using Blackboard, here are a few useful links as reminders for some of the “beginning of the semester” frequently asked questions:

1. Requesting a new course on Blackboard – After logging into http://webcourses.niu.edu click the “Services” tab at the top of the page and then “Blackboard Faculty Tools”. Click “My Courses” and then follow the links on the displayed window. Instructions and step-by-step tutorials can be found at: http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/manage/request.shtml. In order to request a Blackboard course, individuals must be the “instructor of record” for the course in the MyNIU system.

Course space requests take 1 working day to be processed by the automated process in DoIT. It takes an additional day for someone newly assigned as instructor of record in MyNIU to have permission to request the course in Blackboard.

2. Combining course sections – Those teaching dual level courses (e.g. 400 and 500 or cross-listed courses) or multiple sections may want to combine their sections into one master course. Information about doing that can also be found at http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/manage/multiplesections.shtml.

“Course combine requests” also take 1 working day to be processed. Individuals requesting master courses must be instructor of record in both sections to be combined.

3. Making courses “available” to students – After creating and posting documents on a Blackboard courses, faculty should make those courses “available” to students. Otherwise, students will not be able to see the courses. The instructions for making courses “available” to students can be found at http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/manage/availability.shtml.

4. Blackboard workshops – Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center regularly schedules workshops on using Blackboard for teaching purposes, and the monthly program schedules can be found at http://www.niu.edu/facdev.

For those who are not able to attend a workshop, there is also now a Self-Paced Introduction to Blackboard online workshop consisting of short video demonstrations, available at http://facdev.niu.edu/selfpacedbb1.

Answers to other Frequently Asked Blackboard-related questions can be found at http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/faq and Blackboard-related help information can be found at http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/atoz.

For login and password-related questions, please refer faculty to the DoIT service desk at 815-753-8100 or servicedesk@niu.edu and for other teaching-related Blackboard questions, faculty can submit the questions at https://ssl.niu.edu/blackboard/ask/index.asp.

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