Teaching FAQs

Teaching - Frequently Asked Questions

Each August the Stearns Center offers workshops for new faculty that are designed to provide familiarity with Mason’s students and culture and to help with teaching issues that might arise throughout the year. As a part of these workshops, we pass out notecards and ask participants to write down questions they have for us. The following FAQs represent the most common questions we receive, and we have developed answers that we hope will be of some help. If you are searching for information that we have not provided here, please let us know!

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How do I get students to understand and retain dense or abstract concepts?

This question is one that is fundamental for all teachers. One of the best techniques for accomplishing this tremendously big, but vital, the goal is active learning. Instead of simply explaining the concept, try allowing students to construct the concept themselves. Give them the pieces of the puzzle and let students put them together themselves. One colleague who teaches about evolution sets a number of skulls on her desk and allows students to ask any question they want as they begin to theorize the nature of the change they see. Ken Bain, in his book What the Best College Teachers Do (available to check out at the CTFE library), discusses a math professor who has his students essentially “invent” calculus by showing them a real-world problem and asking them to figure out what information they need to solve it (102-03). In short, when students are asked to actively figure out solutions, not only do they understand these concepts better, but they also retain what they have learned.

For more information about active learning, click here.

How do I construct effective assignments and exams?

As with syllabus design, the first question you will need to answer is “What do I want my students to ultimately learn in this class?” Assignments and exams should further these goals. Thus, authentic assignments that allow students to engage in the work of the discipline are often much more effective than exercises that encourage summary or more cursory kinds of analyses. By the same token, exams that allow students to synthesize concepts using critical thinking skills (essay/short response exams) often engender student learning more than exams that stress rote memorization. This is not to say that some memorization isn’t important for some of the work that happens in your classes, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus of your assignments and exams.

You may also want to share strategies with your students about how best to study and prepare for your exams. Although that may seem too basic, research shows that students have a lot of misconceptions about effective study skills, and that even a brief review of successful approaches, like the ones noted in this series of short videos, can significantly improve students' performance.
For more information about constructing effective assignments and exams, follow the links below:

How do I improve my lecturing style?

The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “improve.” If you mean improving on your basic presentation skills, then this takes a bit of practice. Please don’t expect to be perfect on your first try! You can also come to see us at the Stearns Center for tips on lecturing, and we would even be happy to come to observe your class and to offer confidential feedback. If, on the other hand, you are searching for ways to improve student learning through your lectures, then try to focus on engagement. Stopping frequently to ask questions that require critical thinking is one tried-and-true method for doing so. You can do this either by facilitating a class-wide discussion, or you can break up students into small groups and have them construct answers to your questions before reporting back to the class. Another technique to think about has to do with choosing what material you will cover in the lecture. Make it interesting, fun, engaging. For example, if you are talking about politics in post-revolutionary America, will you start with an outline of the arguments in the Federalist papers (certainly a possibility), or will you start with the deadly duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and then work your way into the political clashes (and personal proclivities) that led to this duel?

For more information on engaging students in discussion, click here.

I'm worried about classroom management. How do I handle difficult issues (sleeping in class, texting, behavioral issues, etc.) that come up during the semester?

Establishing clear expectations, guidelines, and consequences in your syllabus are the first and most important line of defense in classroom management. Clarity and consistency will help avoid many problems before they occur. One thing to keep in mind as you establish these guidelines is that it is always easier to set a strict policy and allow for leniency when it is warranted then it is to go the other way. Also, you will want to think about how your teaching persona affects the dynamics of the class. What will you have your students call you? What will you call them? How will you dress? These are just a few of the questions that all teachers must ask themselves as they make choices regarding their role as classroom facilitator.

For more information about dealing with difficult situations, click here.

How do I grade fairly and consistently?

It is important to note from the outset that grading and assessment should always be tied to student learning. But even if we espouse this philosophy, how do we grade in a consistent, fairway? This is a matter of setting expectations early (in the syllabus) and following through on these expectations each and every time you grade. Make sure your guidelines are clear and make sure your students understand how they will be assessed. Allow them to ask you questions about your grading criteria; help them to understand why you have established these expectations. Rubrics can really help with ensuring consistency with grading; we would be happy to discuss using or designing your own rubrics with you. Even if you don’t choose to use a rubric, you should think about your goals and establish evaluation criteria for each assignment before setting out to grade.
Such policies will also help to prevent students from complaining to you about their grades or trying to negotiate for a better grade. If this happens, you can point them to your guidelines and explain that you need to be fair to all of your students. If you are not the instructor of record, then you should consult with your faculty member about how he or she wants to handle such complaints.

For more information about evaluating and grading students, click here.

How do I teach controversial subjects in 1) a diverse classroom and 2) to undergraduates?

The answer to both of these questions is to do so carefully and with empathy. The great thing about teaching in college is that we have the academic freedom to discuss any number of issues that some might deem controversial. To have a productive conversation about these issues, though, you need to be aware that you will have students who feel passionately about all sides of the issue. The key is to maintain a scholarly tone. Have them bring in research to reinforce their ideas. Talk to them about the approaches different scholars in your field have taken to the issue. Use the subject as a teachable moment about professionalism and decorum for your field. Above all, it is important to maintain a respectful environment where all logically supported arguments are valued. There will be times, however, when a student might say something that is illogical, based on emotion, or simply incorrect. In order to retain the sense of scholarly professionalism, you have worked so hard to build throughout the conversation, try to remain objective but—at the same time—to hold students accountable for their views. Show them that unless they have concrete evidence to bolster their points, their ideas will not be taken as seriously as those that are well supported by other members of the field. This is tricky territory, but these kinds of conversations can make for some very productive and engaging classroom moments.

How do I create a group feeling in large classes of different student populations (across levels of ability and interest) and teach to them all?

Large classes definitely present a challenge in terms of student engagement, yet we know that student engagement is necessary for the learning process to take place. One thing that could help is to frequently divide the class into small groups (and to switch groups throughout the semester) and ask them to work on solving a problem or to construct an argument to help explain an issue, etc. Also, ask for frequent feedback from the class to gauge the success of your techniques. This feedback could take the form of one-minute papers (completed at the end of a class period as a way to comment on the day’s activities), informal midterm evaluations, or a combination of the two.

See Teaching Large Classes for additional information.

What do I do about students who tend to dominate class discussions?

Learn to deflect non-relevant questions or discussions that threaten to derail your content; for example, “That’s an interesting point, but not what I was getting at/trying to get the group to discuss/central to our goal today.” Talk to dominators outside of class – e.g., you value their input, but you need help in hearing the views of others. If they really don’t understand classroom etiquette, set up a cue to let them know when to talk. If they are much more experienced or prepared than other students, give them an advanced role – help lead discussions, etc.

What do I do about students who are doing very well on written assignments but who never participate in class discussions?

Ask them to bring a list of questions they had about a reading assignment to class to use as prompts. Use active reading (what they liked, didn’t like, had questions about, made them think or connect). Start students with a discussion question in small groups, then report and discuss their answers using spokesperson. Move students into a circle or a bunch (this is especially effective if you are teaching in a large room where students will spread out if given the choice). Have students, partner, to answer a question, solve a problem, or analyze an argument, then share with the larger group. Have students brainstorm a list of answers to a prompt on paper, then add to a growing list on the board. Ask students to solve an issue, and leave the room and give them a short period of time to present a solution or solutions to you when you return. This is particularly effective if the students tend to focus on impressing you instead of conversing with each other. You can also set the expectation for participation in the first week of class by having students work in groups, introduce themselves to the class, and including language on your syllabus.

For more information about assessing students’ in-class participation, click here.

What do I do if I catch a student cheating or plagiarizing?

Sadly, academic dishonesty is a factor in classrooms all across the country. If you are the instructor of record, you should have clear policies regarding academic dishonesty in your syllabus. Respond accordingly and then submit the case to the Honor Committee, which is affiliated with the Office for Academic Integrity. If you are a TA for someone, consult the faculty member immediately with your concern and your evidence.

For more information about the Honor Code, click here.

What do I do if students ask questions I don't know the answer to?

First and foremost, it is okay to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question. No one can be expected to know everything; it is impossible. Instead, if this happens, try to see such a moment as an opportunity to model critical thinking skills for your students. Theorize possible answers, ask students what information they might need to answer the question effectively, research the answer before the next class meeting, and cite your sources for your students. Some faculty members ask the students to bring in answers to each others’ questions for participation points. For more suggestions, stop by the CTFE library and check out Therese Huston’s great book Teaching What You Don’t Know.

I'm worried about my level of self-confidence. How do I gain the respect of my students?

By virtue of the fact that you are teaching a class at a university like Mason, you will already have a baseline of respect from students when you enter the classroom. They implicitly understand that you are teaching the course because you are qualified to do so—and, make no mistake, not only are you qualified, but you know much more about your field than they do. They want to learn from you. The key now is to maintain this level of respect. To do so, you must keep them engaged, you must have clear expectations and the students must see that you are invested in helping them learn. Generally speaking, if you show them the respect they show you respect in turn.

How do I handle students in my current classes who were challenging last semester?

First, what kind of challenge did they present? Academic? Behavioral? Remember that this is a new semester, and perhaps things will be different simply because it is a new class with new people, etc. Maybe time has resolved the issues the students were having last time. Admittedly, this is an idealistic answer. If there is any indication that the students are acting similarly, then something needs to be done very early in the semester to prevent repeating the challenges of the previous semester. Perhaps you could set up individual meetings with each student during your office hours to discuss the behaviors/academic issues. Ask them what their goals are for the course, but—at the same time—be very clear about your expectations for professionalism in the classroom.

For more information about dealing with difficult situations, click here.

How do I balance my teaching or TA responsibilities with the demands of my graduate work?

The easy, and overly pat, the answer is that having outstanding time management skills is absolutely crucial. But you already knew that. The more nuanced answer is that this is something with which you will be wrestling throughout your academic career. This is one of the biggest struggles for faculty members as well (with the element of service activities added to the mix). Remember the mantra: you are graduate students first. Never give your teaching or your research short shrift, because both are essential parts of your professional development, but try also to avoid getting bogged down in “busy work.” Ask yourself whether your students actually need a 20-page study guide for the exam or whether an in-class review session that will help develop both their study and note-taking skills will be sufficient. Along the same lines, do you really need to produce a lengthy outline for all the books you are consulting for your dissertation, or will paragraph-length annotations be acceptable? Prioritizing is perhaps the most important skill to develop as you navigate the choppy waters of graduate school.

I am very close in age to my students. How do I establish boundaries?

Professionalism, professionalism, professionalism. You are either the instructor of record for or involved in instructing a class in a university. In other words, it is your job to be their teacher, not their friend. Make this very clear in every facet of your classroom interactions with your students. Strive for professionalism in your dress, behavior, preparedness, etc. This is in no way to suggest that you need to be aloof or mean in the classroom (doing so would definitely NOT facilitate student learning), but friendships will have to wait until the student is no longer in a classroom with which you are affiliated. This is both a practical and a legal concern. On a related note, although we live in the age of social media, it is highly recommended that you not become “virtual” friends (via Facebook, etc.) with students who are currently in your classes.