Teaching a first semester required course

This is a post initially started in 2011!  But apparently not much has changed in the intervening 10 years…

Teaching a first semester required course is really hard!

The reason for that is that you’re not just managing expectations about the class itself, but about the major and about what it means to be a college student (or graduate student!).

It’s ok to tell them that they need to be taking notes.  They honest to goodness don’t know.  A lot of them went to high schools where they could just get by on their smarts.  In college, at least in a challenging major like ours, they are going to need some memory aids.  It’s ok to tell them to put their cell phones away and laptops down.  I tell mine that they need to be taking notes with pencil and paper and they can only use a tablet if they have a stylus.  Trying to draw diagrams using a laptop without a stylus is a huge waste of time and takes them out of the more important parts of actually understanding the lecture.

We also added to our core syllabi information on how college is different from high school– they’ll be expected to think and deal with ambiguity and ask questions, not just memorize lists.  We tell them they should expect to be stressed out sometime in the middle of the semester and they will feel dumb, but at the end of it they will feel a lot smarter.  That seems to help a lot.

A lot of books written by white-haired white dudes will tell you to treat students like adults.  My teaching evals got a lot better when I started treating them like toddlers (keeping in mind that I would be an excellent pre-school teacher).  Students understand the “teacher” persona and seem happiest when a female teacher fits into a box that they can understand.  They like guidelines and structure and clear expectations while still being expected to learn and grow.

For those of you that teach, do you have any tips and tricks for students just starting out?  For those of you who have been taught, what do you wish your first semester teachers had done, or what did they do well?

22 Responses to “Teaching a first semester required course”

  1. Miser Mom Says:

    One of the biggest things I do is actively encourage students to form homework groups — and to make friends. I do a combo of assigning homework groups (esp. at the beginning of the semester) and allowing them to choose their own. I leave time in class for people to talk about how/when they’re going to meet and to exchange contact info.

    When I have students failing out, it’s often because they feel completely isolated. Once, about 5 years ago when I was teaching a new class and had forgotten to structure this kind of group homework, I had several (failing) students come to me toward the end of the semester lamenting that it was hard to motivate themselves to catch up because they were so lonely that they were too depressed to do work. Lesson learned for me.

    I also talk a lot about campus resources, and in the spring I take my students on “Friday Field trips” to these places, to get them to cross the threshold. Accessibility Services, Career services, the campus art museum (in the very center of campus in the student center — and my students say “Oh, I always wondered what was in here!), study abroad office, Hillel House, etc.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh good point! I do that too! They have to exchange contact information with people. We also have lots of in class group work.

      I don’t do field trips though.

    • Steph Says:

      I teach courses that are almost entirely taken by juniors and seniors for a distribution requirement, but a few freshman usually trickle in too. I’m still figuring out how to help lonely freshman connect with students for homework – sometimes I can connect them to each other, this semester I’m trying to coach one student to ask the older boys who sit near him for help. Having labs is also useful, since I can do some social engineering via lab groups. I like the idea of assigning homework groups – maybe I’ll try that.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I like having people exchange contact information with the people sitting near them. Partly it’s that it tends to group people with similar work habits– the people who sit up front tend to start their work early, for example.

    • Debbie M Says:

      Yes, I didn’t learn about study groups until after I’d earned my degrees. I was in a lecture where a faculty member explained that you can’t pass his calculus class if you just read the book, do the homework, and pay attention in class. I thought, “what else is there?” And then he explained.

      So when I took Spanish at retirement, I always managed to get a study group together. My social skills are not the greatest, but by showing up early to class and talking to the people there, plus jumping on any initiative any of them would take, I did end up with one in all four classes. I ended up helping them more than they helped me, but of course helping them also helped me.

      I also had weird notions of cheating; the idea of study groups never entered my mind. At least I didn’t think that taking notes was cheating! But I never went to office hours unless I really couldn’t figure something out at all, which only happened three times, all of which went badly. And it never occurred to me that good students would get tutoring. And I had no clue that part of college was about making contacts, so my friends were all in different majors and from different parts of the country. I didn’t even get that for good grades, I should not only study the parts I thought were important and interesting, but also pay attention to what the instructor thought was important.

      I once heard of a student who didn’t realize you have to buy your own books. They kept waiting for the books to be passed out.

      As a first-generation college student myself, I at least read all my syllabi closely looking for hints. In my public schooling, I did get to think. And I’d heard that college would be harder, and part of me thought that if it’s harder than high school, I’ll never make it. But it turned out that spending a lot less time in class gave me the extra study time I needed.

      I do love how you describe that you will feel dumber at first, but then smarter later. I once had a theory that all grownups had their career and maybe one hobby that they were expert on, but they never wanted to try anything new because they’d feel dumb, and so if anything happened to their career and/or hobby, they would just get super depressed.

  2. Lisa Says:

    I teach only graduate students (largely doctoral health professional students) and only in team-taught courses where I am not the lead instructor. It’s a very different world, thanks for these reminders about helping new students find their rhythm! Despite these caveats, and despite the fact that our students had to pass a large multiple-choice exam to get into their health profession program, I often give a reminder before the first exam that I’m involved with about MC test taking tips (answers with “always” and “never” are almost never correct, don’t second guess yourself and change answers unless you’re absolutely sure, etc.).

    Our program is set up to strongly encourage (and facilitate if needed) the formation of study groups, and even if the students enter with a lone wolf mentality, they end up very collaborative and a close knit group because they go through the entire program as a cohort. In my experience teaching both ways, accredited programs like ours tend to do a better job of supporting students than the big undergrad courses I taught previously, probably because we have to or we lose our accreditation. When teaching a huge freshman STEM class, there is (or at least was) no accountability if half of them drop out. Sometimes I’ve even seen that encouraged (i.e. weedout classes), which I didn’t like for so many reasons. This is a good reminder that maybe I don’t want to go back to a basic science department.

  3. EB Says:

    If you are only teaching to the 10% or so of HS grads who used to go to college, you can insist on treating them like adults. Things have changed. You can aspire to treating them like adults, but there might be a few steps on the staircase before it is realistic to do that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t think there’s any real benefit though. They prefer it. Perhaps the problem is that I should treat all adults the way I treat toddlers and not just my students.

      • Lisa Says:

        You know, I’ve had pretty good success with my research group during COVID with this general approach. We’ve had a lot of explicit conversations about things that I would usually assume people know, but this has really helped us all get on the same page with respect to safety measures, looking out for one another, noticing that our actions affect others besides us, etc. “All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten” type stuff.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Though to be fair, one of my colleagues treats me like she treats toddlers and she’s waaaay more condescending to toddlers than I am. (She also likes pointing out my minor bad behavior in a way that is much ruder than my original behavior, which is fun.)

  4. Sarah S. Says:

    I teach in a SLAC science department so we have a first semester course required for the major that is also required for most health professions. Half of my job teaching that class is getting the students to relax and calm down enough that they can even think. They are just so very nervous about college, the class, the lab, their lab notebooks, problem sets, etc. etc. etc. It helps that we have second year and a few third year students in the class from other science majors or for health professions prerequisites. I try to create at least some mixed groups, especially in lab when they have a bit of time to chat, so the older students can tell the younger students that professors are nice, they can go to office hours, and to generally calm down. Other than that, small, low stakes assignments early in the semester also help them sort out how they should be studying and that college is going to be ok.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s a great idea bout grouping experienced students with the first years.

      I also do a lot of telling people to go to office hours. In college I thought office hours were only for if you really were lost, but no, they’re for anybody! I also like having walk-in office hours… a lot of my profs in undergrad you’d have to make an appointment.

      I find that a lot of my job is getting rid of math phobia so they can learn. Because they all have the capacity, it’s just that it takes work and it’s hard to work if you’re completely shut off.

  5. nicoleandmaggie Says:

  6. Lisa Says:

    Off topic here, but I followed a couple of the “related” links the blog is pointing me toward from this thread and found them very interesting. “The shoe drop’t” led me to “What would make you quit a TT job mid-semester”. We’ve seen several examples of people quitting TT jobs mid-semester this year, so clearly “weak response to a global pandemic” should be on the list there (unsurprisingly, it didn’t even come up in that thread from 2014!). The “Research vs Teaching Chestnut” thread brought up a question that can also partially be solved by the pandemic sequelae – I have many fewer people just showing up at my office unannounced these days and can work from home to avoid them entirely if I want to. Sadly, that doesn’t mean that I’m doing a good job of blocking out protected writing/research time. But I found it very interesting to read those old posts from the current vantage point. It also reminded me that one of the N&M duo has direct experience quitting a tenured position and does not seem at all regretful about it. Which makes me think that even if the other (or any of us) is thinking of quitting/moving/changing something we might be a little bolder in the level of change we’re willing to make and might like the outcome more than we think we will. For example, if I think of moving to a new position, I generally consider an R1 to R1 type transition with the biggest change being a new state and/or a switch from public to private uni. But perhaps I’d love moving to a SLAC? Or a research institute with no teaching and soft money? Or a different country altogether? Oh, the parallel lives I lead in my imagination!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m definitely considering SLACs. It would be a pay and prestige cut most places but a potential increase for DH if this startup doesn’t take off. I definitely don’t want soft money!

  7. SP Says:

    I don’t teach, so am of no use here (but did vote NO! in the recall). But just wanted to note that I’ve found (some) techniques for dealing with toddlers to be highly effective in dealing with people generally. Not in a patronizing way, obviously!

  8. teresa Says:

    I only teach one on one anymore but as a very introverted very shy person who spent an absurd amount of time in school, I strongly support assigned groups for first semester classes. Or any class where people probably don’t know each other well already. Self-selecting groups is a nightmare level scenario and even if ordered to exchange contact information I would never USE that information unless forced to do so.

    As an undergrad I totally thought office hours were only for if you were failing.

    Also voted no, told my husband he needed to vote, handed him his ballot and a pen, and took both to the dropbox last week. Then nagged all the young people at my work about needing to vote (top response “Oh yeah a ballot came to my house”). Then spent most of today avoiding looking at any prelim results to prevent either false hope or unnecessary freakouts.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Wooo that’s activism!

    • Alison Sandman Says:

      I agree with you on the assigned groups; I teach a first-year gen ed class with a lot of simulations, and I poll them too on whether they want a small group or a larger group and use that in the assignments. Then I rearrange the groups mid-semester. I’ve also been creating a class slack, so they can contact each other without having to give out any actual contact info. It works very well for community building, even when we were online. And I’ve been finding that they are coming to office hours with “well our group talked about it and realized we were confused about x so I thought I’d ask you and report back.

      And I’m not sure that I treat them like toddlers, but I certainly use the skills I’ve picked up from parenting.

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