Congratulations on receiving your first college teaching assignment. The transition you are about to make from student to professor will be exciting, challenging, and scary. You are up to the task.
If you are like most graduate students and new professors, it’s likely you have received little instruction on how to teach a college class. This article is designed to help get you started. If you have time to do additional research before you plan your class, please refer to the “more resources” list at the bottom of the page. There are some good books available to help you become an outstanding college professor.
It’s important to establish good habits from the start because those habits are likely to define your professional teaching career. That means you will need to be intentional with this first course and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t.
Your first course will not be perfect, so expect difficulties. If you plan for mistakes, you’ll be less likely to allow mistakes to define you as a professor. That will be important as you become more experienced.
Steps for a Successful Course
- Gather Syllabi: When taking on a new course, begin by reviewing syllabi from past versions of the course. When possible, get syllabi from more than one professor. Even if you are required to use a standardized syllabus for your course, it’s worth the time to look at the ways other professors present similar content.
- Set Goals: Before sitting down to construct your own course, think through your goals. What do you want your students to learn? What do you want to learn? How much time can you devote to your class (including grading)? Again, even if you are working with a standardized course, it’s important to know what your own personal goals are for your particular class.
- Choose a Text: You may not have the option to choose your own textbook, but if you do, there are important things such as cost and accessibility to keep in mind.
- Establish Rules: Professors who have a classroom management plan are more successful. Don’t assume that your “likability” or demeanor will lead to a well-behaved class. Think through the way you want your students to behave and plan to communicate your expectations clearly.
- Plan your Schedule: Know your college’s schedule and your own. Ensure that you are not planning class meetings on college holidays, and plan your final exam according to the college’s exam schedule. If you are a graduate student, try to anticipate when your own workload will be heaviest, and avoid having your students’ submit work to you at that time.
- Create Assignments and Assessments: Know the difference between formative assignments/assessments and summative ones. You will want many more formative activities than summative ones. Most students learn by doing and then interacting with your feedback. Provide them with ample opportunities to experience that learning. Ensure these activities are challenging and plan to provide clear and honest feedback.
- Remember Accessibility: Whether you teach a face-to-face, online, or hybrid class, you will have accessibility considerations. Planning for accessibility using a universal design for learning perspective allows you to improve your class for all your students. Here is information on making your face-to-face classroom delivery accessible. For some specific technical guidance on digital accessibility issues, consult part 1 and part 2 of Wichita State’s accessibility training.
- Plan a Grading Strategy: Grading assignments can be surprising. What seemed like a clear instruction to you might not have been clear to your students. What you thought was a quick, easy assignment might end up taking your class hours. The secrets to keeping grading manageable in the face of uncertainty are to plan ahead of time exactly what you are looking for and to keep your expectations for each assignment limited. You don’t have to point out every error in your students’ work. Instead, plan to focus on developing one or two skills or assessing a few content items per assignment. Create a grading rubric if you find them helpful, and plan to make personalized comments on all assignments if possible.
- Scope out Your Space: Before you meet your class for the first time, find your room and look around. What kind of board does it have? Will you need an adapter for your laptop to connect to the projector? Do you need to bring your own markers or chalk? Take a moment to imagine yourself at the front of the room; can you see yourself in the “professor role”? By taking this one step, not only will you be more technically prepared to teach your class, you will be mentally prepared as well.
- Don’t be Afraid to Love Your Content: You have pursued an education in a field that interests and engages you, but your first opportunity to teach in that field is very likely to be a general education course filled with students who don’t necessarily value the course content as much as you do. That’s okay. But it means that for much or all of the term, you will be the person in the room who loves the class the most. Harness that passion as you teach and let your students see it. The best way to build enthusiasm is to show it.
Finally, if I have one piece of real advice to give you, it’s this: nurture a sense of personal respect for your students and for the job you do. Higher education can have a lot of contempt floating around. Don’t join in on that destructive path. From the first moment you step in front of a group of students as the professor, look for ways to respect them. Many of your students have sacrificed to be in your classroom. Some of your students are on a wrong path and need guidance. A few of your students will challenge you and make you question the path you are on. That’s the job you signed on for. Instead of letting all the challenges get to you, decide to let them inspire you. Try hard every time. Get better every semester. You belong here, and you picked a great job.