Tips for Those New to Teaching at Northern Illinois University

posted in: Teaching | 0

classroom desksTeaching for the first time at a new university can be enjoyable and daunting at the same time. Whether you are an experienced teacher or new to the profession, being prepared to teach at a new institution will help you transition and succeed in your new work environment. The following information on course policies, teaching procedures, and teaching-related resources should help you start your teaching career at Northern Illinois University (NIU) successfully! This blog post is a condensed version of a more comprehensive guide that will be available later this semester.

Course Syllabus

Each course is required to have a syllabus that outlines course policies, learning outcomes, grading scheme, expectations, and basic information about content. The syllabus must be distributed in class or posted electronically on Blackboard on or before the first scheduled day of the class, whether the course meets face-to-face or online.

Course Policies

  • Academic Integrity and Student Behavior. Discuss with your students about academic integrity and classroom behavior and the consequences for students who do not take responsibility for these important concepts.
  • Attendance and Missed Classes. Class attendance policies can be course-specific and is completely at the discretion of the faculty member. Be specific about your attendance policy to ensure students understand the consequences for missing any portion of your course.
  • Late Work and Make-up Work. Explain to your students why you have deadlines and stress your expectations and consequences of late work. If you accept make-up work, provide a meaningful and realistic late work policy for your course.
  • Cell Phone Use. Have a conversation with your students about your classroom cell phone policy and whether you allow students to use cell phones during class. You may want to point out that unauthorized cell phone use is disruptive to classroom instruction – not only to the instructor but to fellow classmates as well.
  • Teaching Procedures

    Teaching procedures differ from course policies in that they are specific to you and your teaching practice. The following selected resources are particular to NIU but are applicable to any teaching experience.

    • Faculty have different approaches to teaching and learning that can be expressed in a teaching philosophy. Develop your personalized teaching philosophy by reflecting on how you teach and how students learn effectively in your field. Share your philosophy with your students to familiarize them about your approach to teaching and your willingness to guide their learning.
    • Confidentiality of Student Records and Saving Instructional Records. Directory information pertaining to students of NIU is never knowingly provided to any requester for a commercial purpose. Graded materials such as exams and assignments not returned to students, syllabi with grading policy, and grade books or spreadsheets, should be retained for a period of not less than 13 months from completion of the course.
    • Grading System at NIU. The plus/minus grading system is the official grading system approved by the university for undergraduate and graduate students. The way you assign grades is your responsibility and should be outlined in your course syllabi. The plus/minus system provides more grade options, but how those options are utilized is the decision of the faculty member.
    • NIU’s Intellectual Property Policy. This policy states the relevant University policies, as well as the nature of the responsibilities, privileges, and options held by faculty, staff, and students pertaining to the creation of intellectual properties.
    • Statement of Professional Ethics for Faculty. This statement refers to faculty as teachers, colleagues, members of an academic institution, and members of their community and their personal and professional ethics.

    Teaching-related Resources

    NIU has many services and resources that support teaching and learning. Here are a few to help you improve both classroom and online teaching experiences.

    • Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center supports faculty, academic supportive professional staff, and graduate teaching assistants through a variety of programs, resources, and services.
    • Teaching with Blackboard support website that includes details about getting started, building your course, using Bb tools & its other resources. This site also includes top Blackboard FAQs where you can quickly find answers to many of your Bb questions.
    • Disability Resource Center (DRC) works with students who have documented disabilities to determine the appropriate accommodations for them. When a student presents you with an approved DRC accommodation request form, you must provide the accommodation as stated. Consult with the DRC for more information about meeting student accommodations.
    • Counseling and Consultation Services (CCS) provides comprehensive mental health support for currently enrolled students at NIU. CCS offers walk-in hours, appointments, and crisis services during office hours and after office hours. If you have concerns about a student, you can refer them to CCS.
    • NIU Writing Center is a support system for the entire NIU community. The Center provides one-on-one support for all students and faculty to brainstorm, draft, revise, and perfect their work.

    For more information about teaching at NIU, contact Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.

    Share your thoughts! What questions do you have about teaching at NIU? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments area below.

    Establish Social Presence with a Welcome Message Video

    One great way to begin a new year/semester is to prepare and share a welcome message video for students enrolled in your course(s). Whether the course format is face-to-face or online, posting a welcome message online can facilitate the establishment of social presence, and thus begin the process of creating a sense of community. This initial effort to connect with students can provide opportunities to orient students to a course, where an instructor discusses course expectations/organization and encourages students to obtain course materials and assigned textbooks early. In addition, students may have an opportunity to observe an instructor’s passion for their field. The welcome message can also work to set a student’s mind at ease, as they perceive their instructor as a real person.

    While providing a welcome message video can be especially important for students of online courses, it is also relevant for face-to-face courses. Instructors can send a welcome message in advance of the start of the semester, and provide an introduction to the course before the first day of class regardless of the course format.

    Faculty can create videos with their smart phone or tablet, or with a webcam on a desktop workstation or from a laptop. A welcome message video can be added to a Blackboard course through MEDIAL or YouTube.

    Considerations for Creating Your Own Welcome Message Video

    When planning the creation a welcome message video, here are a number of considerations that faculty and instructors should keep in mind:

    • Although the expression of a welcome message can be heart-felt and spontaneous, consider using a script or outline. Captions derived from a script can be added to the video to enhance accessibility, benefiting students with a range of abilities and disabilities.
    • Think about the setting where you would want to record the video. Lighting and sound quality can enhance or compromise the quality of the recording.
    • What image do you want to project to your students? Formal or informal. Will you be recording inside your office, or outside in front of an iconic landmark or well-known university building.  Or perhaps inside you automobile.
    • How long should the video be? It is recommended that welcome messages be brief and to the point, rather than extended descriptions of each aspect of the course. Remember, you are establishing social presence in advance of the first class session, not just giving a shorter version of your initial lecture.

    For more information or tips on creating your own welcome videos for your students, please contact Dan Cabrera, Multimedia Coordinator ( or 815-753-0613).

    Spring 2017 Teaching Effectiveness Institute Featured Tips for Energizing the College Classroom

    posted in: Newsletter, Teaching | 0
    Sarah Cavanagh
    Sarah Cavanagh, Assumption College

    Energy was high for the NIU faculty and staff who participated in the Spring 2017 Teaching Effectiveness Institute, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotions. The event featured Sarah Cavanagh from the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science at Assumption College, and author of the recent book The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Dr. Cavanagh explained her research in Cognitive Psychology as well as connections between emotions and learning. She also explained techniques for stimulating curiosity, strategies for low-stakes assessments, and methods for incorporating choice of assignments in the syllabus. Sarah guided participants through a variety of engaged learning activities that provided opportunities to apply Cognitive Psychology concepts to teaching and learning in the college classroom. Workshop participants actively engaged throughout the day-long event while carefully considering the impact of emotions on the teaching and learning processes.

    NIU faculty and instructors from 23 colleges and departments across campus attended the engaging, day-long event. Participants were excited to learn techniques that could be applied immediately in their courses.

    Plans are underway for the Fall 2017 Teaching Effectiveness Institute scheduled for Friday, August 18th. The event will feature David Matthes of the University of Minnesota and will focus on team-based learning.

    To share ideas for new Institute topics or if you would be interested in presenting at one of our Institutes, please contact Yvonne Johnson, Multimodal Teaching Coordinator at, 815-753-2690 or Janet Giesen, Instructional Design Coordinator at, 815-753-1085. We look forward to hearing from you!

    Strategies for Starting the Semester Well

    traffic lightWhether you have been teaching for several years or are beginning to teach your very first semester, 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


    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!


    Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation (2015). Make the Most of the First Day of Class.

    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.

    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.

    Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching (2016). First day of class.

    Weimer, M. (2015). The first day of class: A once-a-semester opportunity.

    Weimer, M. (2013). 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.



    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.

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