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/

Smart Classroom User Training

man standing in front of a wall mounted screen with a small audience
The Division of Information Technology
is offering training on using the audiovisual equipment in Provost sponsored smart classrooms.

Both new and returning instructors should benefit from these brief tutorials. A complete demonstration with hands on practice could take a half-hour of your time.

 

TRAINING DATES

Thursday, January 12th

DuSable Hall 348, from 1-2 p.m

Friday, January 13th

DuSable Hall 348, from 1-2 p.m.

 

These seminars are open-ended and run continually so you won’t miss a thing – no matter when you drop by. Please contact Keith Bisplinghoff (753-0172) to arrange for an appointment or for other training opportunities.

Grading Rubrics

posted in: Newsletter, Teaching | 0

sample levels for a rubric, excellent, very good, good, average, poorA rubric is a tool that lists evaluation criteria for an assignment. Rubrics can help students organize their efforts to meet the requirements of an assignment and faculty can use rubrics to explain their evaluations to students.

Rubrics are made up of rows and columns. The rows correspond to the various criteria of an assignment and the columns correspond to the level of achievement expressed for each criterion. A description and point value for each cell in the rubric defines the evaluation and score of an assignment.

 

Simple Grading Rubric for a History Research Paper

Excellent Good Poor
3 2 1
Number of sources 10 – 12 5 – 9 1 – 4
Historical accuracy No apparent inaccuracies Few inaccuracies Lots of historical inaccuracies
Organization Can easily tell from which sources information was drawn Can tell with difficulty from where information came Cannot tell from which source information came
Bibliography All relevant bibliographic information is included Bibliography contains most relevant information Bibliography contains very little information

 

Basic Steps in Creating a Rubric

  1. Select a Performance/Assignment to be Assessed.
    Performances and assignments which may be difficult to grade and where you want to reduce subjectivity are great candidates for incorporating rubrics. Is the performance/assignment an authentic task related to learning goals and/or objectives? Are students replicating meaningful tasks found in the real world? Are you encouraging students to problem solve and apply knowledge? Answer these questions as you begin to develop the criteria for your rubric.Performance example: Writing a Research Paper on a Topic Related to Local History
  2. Identify the Criteria.
    Create a list of all traits, features or dimensions that you want to measure, and include a definition and example to clarify the meaning of each trait being assessed. Each assignment or performance will have its own unique traits to be scored. Then reduce the list by chunking similar criteria and eliminating others until you produce a range of appropriate criteria. Keep the list manageable and reasonable.Criteria examples for a term paper:
    Introduction
    Thesis statement
    Arguments/analyses
    Grammar and punctuation
    Spelling
    Internal citations
    Conclusion
    Reference page
  3. Set the Point Value.
    Point values make up the system of numbers or values used to rate each criterion and often are combined with levels of performance. Make sure the values make sense in terms of the total points possible: Is there a difference between getting 10 points versus 100 points versus 1,000 points? The best and worst performances are placed at the ends of the continuum and the other scores are placed appropriately in between. It is best to start with fewer levels and to distinguish between work that doesn’t meet the criteria.Point value examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 2, 4, 6, 8
  4. Write the Descriptions.
    Descriptions spell out each level (gradation) of performance for each criterion and describe what performance at a particular level looks like. Descriptions describe how well student’s work is distinguished from the work of their peers and will help you to distinguish the differences between students’ work.Description examples in italics:

    Criterion

    Excellent
    5

    Good
    4

    Fair
    2

    Poor
    1

    Spelling No spelling errors. One or two spelling errors, but not of the type to make meaning obscure, and not of basic or common words A few minor spelling errors (more than two) but not enough to harm your ethos seriously or impede a reader’s comprehension. Many misspelled important or common words, or a number of minor errors that interfere with easy reading or comprehension.

     

  5. Determine Levels of Performance.
    Select words or phrases (often as adjectives) that will explain what performance looks like at each level, making sure they are discrete enough to show real differences. Levels of performance should match the related criterion.Levels of performance examples:
    Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor
    Master, Apprentice, Beginner
    Exemplary, Accomplished, Developing, Beginning, Undeveloped
    Complete, Incomplete
    Yes, No
  6. Evaluate the Rubric.
    Evaluate the rubric each time it’s used to ensure it matches instructional goals and objectives. Be sure students understand each criterion and how they can use the rubric to their advantage. Review the rubric with a colleague, pilot test new rubrics if possible, and solicit students’ feedback for further refinements.

Types of Rubrics

Determining which type of rubric to use depends on what and how you plan to evaluate. There are several types of rubrics including holistic, analytical, general, and task-specific.

Holistic — all criteria are assessed as a single score which can be used for evaluating overall performance on a task. Because only one score is given, holistic rubrics tend to be easier to score. However, holistic rubrics do not provide detailed information on student performance for each criterion; the levels of performance are treated as a whole.

Analytical — each criterion is assessed separately, using different descriptive ratings, and thus, receive a separate score. Analytical rubrics take more time to score but provide more detailed feedback.

General — these rubrics can be used for similar performances such as a rubric for all final presentations, a rubric for all dance performances, or a rubric for all research proposals. Criteria are assessed separately, as in an analytical rubric.

Task-specific — are designed to assess a specific task in which each criteria is assessed separately. It may not be possible, however, to account for each and every criteria involved in a particular task which could overlook a student’s unique solution (Arter & McTighe, 2001).

Using Rubrics in Blackboard

You can build interactive rubrics in Blackboard to simplify the process of grading student work and returning rubric results to students. Interactive rubrics can be used with nearly every assessment method in Blackboard, including Assignments (including with SafeAssign enabled), short answer Test questions, and any Blogs, Journals, Wikis, or Discussion Board threads and forums that have grading enabled. Visit the Teaching with Blackboard website for instructions on using Blackboard’s Interactive Rubrics as well as tutorials, archives of online rubric workshops, and Quick Guides on using Rubrics in your teaching: http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/assess/rubrics.shtml

Summary

Grading rubrics are effective and efficient tools which allow for objective and consistent assessment of a range of performances, assignments, and activities. Rubrics clarify your expectations and will show students how to meet them, making them accountable for their performance in an easy-to-follow format. The feedback that students receive through a grading rubric can help them improve their performance on revised or subsequent work. Rubrics can also help to rationalize grades when students ask about your method of assessment. Rubrics also allow for consistency in grading for instructors who team-teach the same course, for TAs assigned to the task of grading, and can serve as good documentation for accreditation purposes. Finally, rubrics can reduce grading time, increase objectivity and reduce subjectivity, convey timely feedback to students, and improve students’ ability to include required elements of an assignment.

Free Rubric Builders and Generators.

Consider using any of free existing rubrics available online. Many rubrics can be used “as is” or can be modified to meet your specific needs. Creating a rubric from scratch will take time but may be necessary for a particular assignment. The following are school-based but are highly applicable to higher education.

Build a Rubric by Annenberg Learner
http://www.learner.org/workshops/hswriting/interactives/rubric/index.html

General Rubric Generator by teAchnology
http://www.teach-nology.com/web_tools/rubrics/general/

Create a Rubric by RubiStar
http://rubistar.4teachers.org/index.php

References and Resources

Arter, J., & McTighe, J. (2001). Scoring rubrics in the classroom: Using performance criteria for assessing and improving student performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

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.

Beyond the Teaching Assistant Orientation

posted in: Newsletter, Teaching | 0

photo of participants attending the NIU Teaching Assistant Orientation

Over 220 Graduate Teaching Assistants, presenters, and staff attended the 2016 Teaching Assistant Orientation on August 16, 2016 in the Holmes Student Center. The Teaching Assistant Orientation is offered to new and returning teaching assistants each year to learn more about their role as a TA and the support services at Northern Illinois University. However, this isn’t the only opportunity for TAs to develop their teaching skills. Teaching assistants can also attend other Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center programs throughout the year. In 2015-2016, teaching assistants accounted for 40% of program attendance, which equates to almost 600 registrations.

To find out more about TA workshops, look for our monthly calendar of programs. All TAs receive the schedule via their NIU student email.

The TA Orientation is offered each year through the collaborative efforts of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, the Graduate School, and other departments and support units. The annual event helps graduate teaching assistants develop their teaching skills and introduces them to university resources that will support their work. The TA Orientation is always well attended and attendees consistently agree that this event will benefit their students. Although the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center does not require new TAs to attend the orientation, 29 unique academic departments required their TAs to attend. Over 85% of the participants agreed that their objectives for attending the orientation were met.

If you were unable to attend this year’s TA Orientation, you can review the presentations and handouts online.

Finally, the Teaching Across the Disciplines panel of experienced teaching assistants is always popular. We asked our recognized experienced TAs to share more about their role as a teaching assistant with some strategies and tips. For more advice go to: Tips for New Graduate Teaching Assistants from Your Experienced Peers

 

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