10 tips for teaching your first college class

Teaching your first college class can be exhilarating, but also intimidating. Like most faculty, I didn’t receive much training in graduate school in how to teach or design effective college courses. Over the years, I learned how to get better and also took advantage of the great resources that are available to help college instructors. No matter how well you know the content you’re teaching, teaching your first class can be tough for anyone. In today’s post, I will share 10 tips for teaching your first college class.

Teaching your first college class

Graduate school does a wonderful job developing disciplinary content knowledge, but a lousy job preparing you to teach your first college class.

Each class and institution is a little bit different, but there are some common strategies that I believe will help anyone teaching a college class for the first time.

1.  Talk to your colleagues

One of the best sources of information to help you prepare is talking to other faculty in your department. If you’re an adjunct, talk to the department chair or program director that hired you. Many novice instructors fail to match the norms of the program, department, and institution where they are teaching. Ask colleagues about the students that typically enroll in the course including demographics, academic ability, motivation, expectations, and prior content experience. You should also ask about common problems that faculty run into with the class (or similar classes) as well as generally ask advice. The more information that you can gather at the beginning of thinking about the class the better able you will be to anticipate problems and proactively design your course.

2.  Ask for copies of old syllabi.

When you’re talking with colleagues, ask for copies of syllabi from previous versions of the course as well as an example from other courses. Before I teach any class, I always do a quick internet search for syllabi from other institutions. Old syllabi help you see examples of how other instructors approached the course content, assignments, and course policies.  One word of caution, however, is to not feel constrained by other syllabi. You want to use them as a guide and if you’re dramatically changing you may want to think through why your course is different, but overall you are the instructor and should decide what is the best way to teach the class.  Finally, for faculty teaching as part of a sequential curriculum, you want to make sure that you’re covering content that students will need in future courses. It can also be helpful in those cases to get a copy of syllabi from later courses as well.

3.  Let your course goals drive your content.

As you begin thinking through your class, you want to develop course goals. These goals will then drive the content that gets included in your course. The readings, class sessions, and assignments should all be geared toward achieving the goals you establish for your course.

4.  Less is more.

The biggest mistake that I see when teaching a college class for the first time is trying to include too much material. I believe this probably occurs for a couple of reasons. First, everyone is nervous about running out of material in any given class session. Second, we love our content and our passion can override our ideas for what is reasonable to include in a course. The reality is that under the best of circumstances students will only remember a few things from each course that they take. Personally, I identify three big ideas that I want students to remember long after they leave my class. I hit these big ideas multiple times throughout the class. I will cover more material, of course, but by focusing and reinforcing my three big ideas I am able to give students content that will last much longer than my course. As I often tell new faculty, we can teach as much content as we like, but if students aren’t able to learn and absorb it— what’s the point?

5.  Design assignments that are rigorous, but reasonable.

I believe in pushing students and sometimes pushing them beyond what they think they can accomplish. This can be a messy process for me and my students, but it ultimately makes them better. I encourage you to design assignments that are rigorous and push your students. However, you also have to put yourself in the role of your students and decide if what you are asking of them is reasonable. For example, I probably can’t require them to complete a research paper if our library doesn’t have sufficient academic journals available. I also shouldn’t assign three assignments all due on the same day. It is also appropriate to consider the life circumstances of your students. If most students work full-time, I should think about an assignment that must be completed during business hours. I may still assign the work and ask them to take a day off, but I should give this some thought and attention before assigning it.

6.  Think ahead about grading and providing student feedback.

Part of designing rigorous, but reasonable assignments is making sure that you can provide good student feedback. Obviously, not all assignments and activities require the same level of feedback. However, you should provide students with feedback on their work as this is a fundamental part of the learning process. For your own sanity, estimate how much time it will take to grade student work. Then double your estimate because it always takes longer than we expect. Look ahead on your calendar to your other obligations and consider this when creating deadlines. For example, I might have originally selected November 1 as the due date for a paper, but I’m going to be at a conference from November 1-3. In this case, I will often decide to give students an extra few days to complete their work. For faculty teaching more than one class, you should also compare due dates across classes so you balance out grading between courses to the extent possible. Finally, look ahead to when final grades are due and make sure that you give yourself enough time to get everything graded in order to submit final grades on time. Taking the time to think about scheduling grading on the front end of the semester will save your nights and weekends later in the term.

7.  Create course policies.

It is always better to have relevant course policies in place at the beginning of the semester before an issue arises. Looking at the other syllabi you gathered can help you identify the types of policies you likely want to put into place. First, look for the list of required policies that your institution requires (or suggests) be included on all syllabi. These policies likely include items such as a disability policy or a religious observances policy. In addition to some of the more legalistic policies, you will want to consider your policies on attendance and late student work as these (unfortunately) come into play in almost every class.

8.  Consult your teaching center.

I’m admittedly biased here since I direct one, but teaching centers can be enormously helpful for teaching your first college class. If your institution has a teaching center, you should consult their website, talk with their staff, and attend their workshops. Just as you have content expertise, these centers have expertise in how to teach and can prove enormously helpful to you.

9.  Prepare for the first day.

As I’ve written about before, preparing for the first day of class can set you up for a great semester. Too many faculty just use the first day to read the syllabus, cover the assignments, and answer any questions. Instead, follow the tips I outlined in my previous post to establish norms and expectations for the semester. This requires a little planning, but will help your class go so much better for the rest of the term.

10.  Organize, organize, organize.

Especially if you are teaching your first college class in a new faculty role, you should take the extra time to organize. Save your lecture notes, keep good copies of originals, and document lesson plans. Assuming that you will be teaching the class again, it is worth it to take the time to keep your class materials organized for easy retrieval in future semesters. The hours it takes to find a good copy of an article to make copies or design materials needed for a class activity can be saved each time you teach the class again. It does take longer to make sure that you’re storing materials and saving notes. However, you will find this investment is tiny compared to the savings in future semesters. If you do nothing else, you must do this!

Good Luck

Teaching your first college class is a fantastic opportunity and I wish you luck. These tips will help you get started and make your semester go well. And just remember, if all else fails, just stand on the desk!