Preparing for Classes

Our semester starts on Monday, and I have a four course load this term- three sections of one class/one section of another, about 450 students total, three fully online/one hybrid (no new course preps). Although I have taught these courses multiple times, I always like to keep the courses fresh and interesting, for my own sake as well as the student's. I also take extra care to prepare for the lectures, which I am planning on supplementing with guest speakers for most class meetings this term. As I work on this, I thought I'd share my thoughts about how I prep for a new semester and save myself time later on in the semester when every spare second reserved for grading is much needed.

1.  Start the semester when the semester starts. Aside from allowing some leniency depending on your institution's drop/add period, make sure you hit the ground running from day 1. I always send out an announcement the first morning of the first day of the semester for all my students, welcoming them to the class, making a few of the course policies clear, providing the syllabus and schedule, and then assigning some readings and a low stakes assignment that is due the very first week of class (an introductory discussion board, syllabus quiz, etc.). This has a few purposes. First, students see I'm ready for the semester, open to communication, and am serious about my class policies. Second, especially for online classes, it ensures that students who may be unfamiliar with the platform are forced to engage early on, so we can troubleshoot potential issues or I can direct them to tutorials or guides. Finally, students can immediately gauge whether or not this is a class they can or want to take, with me, at that particular time. If I make clear that this class has a lot of structured writing assignments, students with heavy course loads or work schedules may want to reconsider their commitment to the course before the semester has started and they are failing or feeling discouraged. If students start the term with the notion that you have lax or unofficial policies, don't assign very many readings or assessments, or otherwise are not engaged with the class, it will be very hard to shake that narrative moving forward. This doesn't mean you should load them with a policy-laden syllabus and 100 pages of reading the first week, but make sure they know what they are getting into with your class and that you are a professor who is engaged and paying attention.

2. Appearance, attitude, and tone matters. I remember taking one class where, the very first day, the professor walked in 20 minutes late, wearing what looked like hiking or climbing gear, spent the first few minutes shuffling through his notes and flash drive to find the first day's Powerpoint, and, by the time he had pulled it up, it was evident he has not altered in years (aside from old references and multiple obvious typos, the date on the first slide was from several semesters before). Now this is a pretty extreme example, but how seriously do you think many students took that class for the rest of the semester? I have found that, especially (sad but true) as a woman or minority, there is little room for error here before the student's perception of you is negatively changed. You need to be on time to lectures, dress and act professionally (especially for the first few weeks- you can also loosen up if the course dynamic allows, but it's very difficult to go the other way around), always make sure assignments are posted when and where you say, keep deadlines and policies consistent, always proofread instructions and announcements for any errors, and make it evident that you are proactively managing the class. Do as much as you can to set this in motion before the term even starts. You don't have to be perfect, and you certainly don't want to come across as robotic, but students need to see that you take teaching seriously, and that it's not an afterthought for you. It does not matter how brilliant you are if you do not earn your student's respect and keep them guessing. 

3. Don't be boring. Yes, there are a myriad of valid complaints we can make about some students and their attitudes and behaviors. But before we consider why oh why "students these days" just aren't like they used to be, take a few moments to be introspective. Are students constantly lost in their screens during your class? This is, of course, a legitimate issue. But are you spending an hour reading the same slides and giving the same examples you've given for two years? Are you missing opportunities for group work, multimedia, student presentations, class debates, guest speakers, and other interactive methods? It is not just your job to be a field expert- part of the job of teaching is making the material interesting and accessible to your students. You will never reach everybody, but you can certainly be sure you put forth as much effort as you can to reach as many as you can. Similarly, in online classes, are you getting wildly inconsistent assignments, boring class discussions, and an overall disconnected feeling? Again, it is your role to bring the structure and dynamism to the class. You can't force the students to engage, but you can give those that want to participate the opportunity to do so. Especially in online classes, it's important to remember that you're not merely a facilitator (read these chapters, take this self-grading quiz, repeat). You need to be extra creative in your approach to the material (read my post about teaching online) to reach your students.

4. Keep yourself on your toes. It can be very easy to recycle the same lectures, same assignments, even same quiz questions between semesters if you're teaching the same class. However, there are a few reasons to take opportunities to mix it up every semester. Aside from the obvious reasons (if you're using questions from a quiz bank, rest assured that undoubtedly, your students are Googling the questions and in most cases, finding the answers), you're missing an opportunity to keep your own work fresh and interesting. Challenge yourself every semester to supplement with new articles from diverse authors and outlets, and to try new assessment techniques to see what works. Keep up to date on the latest news and literature about your topic (for example, teaching US healthcare in Fall 2016, I was bombarded with new information constantly that I curated for students, which in turn kept me very plugged in). If you're tired of grading papers, experiment with a new rubric system. If class discussions are boring, incorporate some videos or podcasts to see what livens them up. If you're constantly having problems with late work, experiment with your late work policy (this is one of my goals for the semester). Figure out what didn't work about your class last semester and try new methods to see if you can make it better. Some experiments will work and others won't, and you should by no means do a complete class overhaul every semester, but you should be consistently thinking about what little change you could make here or there to make the semester go more smoothly.

5. Be realistic. Don't set yourself or your students up to fail. If you're teaching an undergraduate course with 100 students, you're not going to be able to assign four 10-page papers. If you incorporate discussion boards with a required response element (which I recommend), students need enough time to post their own thoughts and wait until there are enough posts from classmates that they can respond to- don't give them only three days to do it. Instructions for what you expect on papers should be at the level your students are at, not at the level you are at. This isn't about a short-cut or dumbing down of your course, but unless you want to be drowning in grading and posting grades weeks and months late, bombarded by student questions and requests, and overall overwhelmed by your teaching, you need to plan for how the semester is going to go and consider the students you have, the size and number of your classes, the type of class (introductory/advanced, online/hybrid/face-to-face, description/interpretation, etc.), and what else may be going on that semester (large conference you need to prepare for, teaching multiple new course preps, new book for the course, etc.). This is going to require a lot of front-end thought and consideration from you, but will save you valuable time throughout the entire semester. The more you teach a course, the more you can anticipate and plan for potential obstacles, modify or remove certain assignments, or make explicit certain policies and guidelines. Is spring break going to come the week right after you've assigned some crucial reading? Should you insert a module about APA format at the beginning of the semester to ease student formatting questions every time a paper is due? Would a reading about a subfield that students in past semesters found interesting be a good addition to your reading list? Think about this stuff in your course planning so you can focus on what the class is doing in the moment as the semester progresses.

Teaching at any level, when done well, is hard, and for good reason. It can be easy to coast on your prepared materials and canned anecdotes, when so many professors have about a million other things to juggle, especially if student engagement is not visible. Each new semester presents new challenges and class dynamics to tackle. However, we should apply the same curiosity we bring to our research interests and other projects to our teaching practice. Our students really do notice.