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Tricks of the trade for first-time faculty teachers

01/18/17 - BOSTON, MA. Professor Carlene Hempel teaches on Jan. 18, 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The beginning of a new semester infuses the campus with renewed excitement and anticipation for what the next dozen weeks will hold. There are textbooks to be purchased, schedules to be organized, and new classrooms with which to become familiarized—and that’s not always just for students.

This semester, as the ranks of Northeastern faculty swell with new faces, we asked veteran instructors to offer some tips for their new counterparts. Some of their advice? Have fun, relate the class to the “real world,” take frequent stock of what’s working and what’s not, and get to know your students.

Here’s what else they had to say.

Thomas Webster, the Art Zafiropoulo Chair in Engineering and professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering

Have fun

If you have fun in the classroom teaching, your students will be more engaged and more active learning will occur. Experiments, in-class debates, and games can make even the most seemingly boring subject exciting. If you have fun, your students will have fun and will learn more.

Teach with enthusiasm

If you are enthusiastic about what you are teaching, it will be contagious to your students and they will be more excited about what you are teaching, which will improve their learning.

Be organized

Nothing is worse for learning than an instructor who is disorganized in their thoughts and teaching. Think about your lecture before you give it and consider how you can make it better.

Get feedback

No matter how new or experienced you are to teaching, you can always use feedback. Conduct mid-semester course evaluations. Ask a colleague to sit in on your class and critique you. Attend any of the great workshops held by the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research to get feedback and improve your teaching.

Mix it up

The best learning occurs when your lectures are broken up with interactive activities. Studies show our attention span is about 20 minutes. So, break up your lectures into smaller segments with activities to enforce the course content.

Carlene Hempel, teaching professor in the School of Journalism; 2016 recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award

Spend the first class getting to know students

Ask questions about their hometown, their extracurricular activities, their personal interests, and their experience related to the subject of your class. To know them is to begin to understand them, to make connections among them, and ultimately, to be able to vouch for them in circumstances such as internships, co-ops, and job references.

Be accessible

Students are used to reaching out at all hours. If possible, be available (by email) late at night or early in the morning, when they are likely finishing assignments and need to ask questions or check on something. To let them know that you are there, without judgment for last-minute questions, will ease their anxiety on deadline days.

Set clear expectations for assignments

This is especially important if those expectations are very high. Students should be fully aware of what they’re in for—of what’s expected of them—and in turn they should be able to make a decision if this is really the class they want to take.

Make it clear that personal technology use is not acceptable in class

Students who are someplace else intellectually are not invested and therefore not with you. It disconnects them to the material and to you as their teacher.

John Engen, professor of bioanalytical chemistry in the College of Science

Be more interesting than Facebook and Instagram

This way it won’t be hard to hold student attention during class, and teach them something in the process.

Relate to the “real world”

Try to relate as much as possible to what is going on “out in the world.” If the students see that what you are teaching is relevant to their careers, future jobs, or upcoming co-ops, it will stick better in their minds.

Impart knowledge and the skills to find it elsewhere

Teach your students what they need to know, but also teach them skills for finding and knowing what content is worth knowing. This is particularly relevant in the sciences. It goes along with: if you don’t have an answer, do an experiment and get your own answer.

Nader Jalili, professor and associate chair for graduate studies and research in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering; 2015 recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award

Map your course

Before you go into the details of your course, show course objectives in a short interactive demonstration so students know why, how, and what they’ll be learning.

Break up your lectures

Try to break up lectures in parts, then break each part into weeks and try to cover one topic in a week. Based on this, have a “lecture at-a-glance” one-page note that goes over one week of lectures with motivational facts, important elements, formulas to remember, etc., for your own benefit.

Use mixed teaching methods

Try to engage students in your lecture as much as possible with different methods, such as writing on the board, switching to PowerPoint slides, showing them application and motivational videos or animations, bringing your latest research results (if related to the course) to the classroom, and going over in-class activities.

Be enthusiastic

Your students will pay attention if they see that you are extremely enthusiastic about the subject and observe that you really love the subject. This has huge impact on their learning.

Stay organized

Your course should be extremely organized for your students to pay attention and really learn.  This includes weekly notes, homework assignments, on-time grading of assignments, and midterm tests, and timely dissemination of their grade reports and their progress.

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