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Teaching Tips for Faculty (including Syllabus Design)

Your syllabus is your first and most important written communication with your students. It lays out goals, expectations, procedures, and sets the tone for the class. Here are some tips for designing your syllabus.

The classroom environment can be a large factor in student engagement and achievement in your class. It is the responsibility of the faculty member to create an environment of respect, and trust, shared exploration, and excitement about learning. While enthusiasm alone will not produce a good outcome, lack of enthusiasm on the part of the instructor will almost certainly guarantee a poor result. Students, particularly first-year students, take their cues from their instructors. Model the behavior you want your students to adopt, be transparent about what you are doing and what you expect, explain your reasons, and reward them when they do as you hope.

Nothing is more discouraging than to give a first exam at the 5 or 7 week point of a term and discover that your students have not understood most of the course material. To avoid this situation, and to improve your teaching, student learning, and satisfaction with your course, you need to build mechanisms for providing ongoing feedback on student learning, for both you and your students, into your class.

One of the most difficult tasks of an instructor is effectively assessing student learning. Exams are the most common form of assessment for grading, but projects, papers, portfolios, presentations, and web productions are also used regularly. Effective assessment measures all aspects of desired student outcomes, including memorization of information, ability to synthesize information, ability to apply knowledge to new situations, mastery of other skills, and attitudes about the subject. Assessment will be most valid when it parallels the teaching approaches, and the desired masteries and proficiencies are transparent to the students.

Managing a class, particularly a large class, can be daunting. But organization, preparation, self-confidence, and true respect for the students goes a long way toward success in this area. Have a clear idea of what you expect, communicate this clearly to the students, both in the syllabus and in class. But be open to legitimate suggestions from the class – there may be issues you hadn’t considered. Calling aside disruptive students to ask for their cooperation, and to make plain that certain behaviors are unacceptable, can be effective. Don’t hesitate to ask others for advice!

George Mason University has a wealth of resources for instructors. The Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence can help, or direct you to help, for most educational issues. The Copyright Center can help you prepare course packets. The Division of Instructional Technology (DoIT) can also assist with integrating technology into your teaching and learning practice.

All faculty want more time, to manage the many areas in which they are expected to operate. Good planning and structure can help control the amount of time spent on any single area. Clearly ordering your priorities can help. And keeping some portion of your week for yourself, disconnected from work, is invaluable. If you are not rested, calm, and focused, you will be less effective in all your activities.

Facilitating Student Learning

Students have many different strategies for learning and succeeding in a course. Many faculty members learn well in a lecture format and thus expect this of students, but it may not always be the best strategy for promoting your learning objectives. Research has also shown that many people cannot listen effectively for the length of a class. The following points will assist you in planning and teaching your course to maximize students’ learning.

  • Remember that students learn in different ways; work to respect diverse talents and ways of learning.
  • Make your expectations clear regarding a variety of issues ranging from classroom behavior, to style of writing, to what you think is most important that students learn.
  • Adopt an “outcomes” approach for your classes. Learning is more effective and efficient when learners have explicit, realistic goals that fit well with your course goals and objectives.
  • Identify strategies to help students connect new information with prior knowledge; this will help students better remember new ideas and concepts.
  • Know that students’ previous knowledge or experiences might interfere with learning new ideas or information. Be mindful of your role in guiding students through the challenge of learning new ideas.
  • Work to make your course ideas relevant to students.
  • Incorporate, where possible, active learning strategies.
  • Remember that the average time a person can focus is 10-15 minutes. Plan to break up lectures with short (3-5 minute) “interruptions.” This gives students a chance to be active while engaging with the course material.
  • Provide prompt feedback, as early and often as possible.
  • Help your to learn how to self-assess. This is an important step to developing independent, lifelong learners.
  • Encourage students to work with their peers, both formally and informally.
  • Be certain that your assessment reflects your goals as the ways in which learners are assessed and evaluated powerfully affect the ways they study and learn. If an assignment or activity is important, be sure you have some point value awarded to it.
  • Seek regular feedback from students on what they understand and what they are confused about. This allows you to focus on areas of concern and makes the most of precious class time.
  • Communicate high expectations and provide appropriate support to encourage high achievement.
  • Model the behaviors you want your students to exhibit, including ways of thinking and talking about the subject, style of writing about the subject, and even how you interact with others in the class.
  • Encourage student-faculty interaction; the communication between professors and learners is a powerful factor in promoting learning.
Identifying Course Goals and Learning Objectives

As faculty members, we all have broad goals that we set out to accomplish in our courses. Often, these capture important domains within our fields and disciplines. Learning objectives are concrete actions of what a student should be able to do upon successful completion of the course. These can include changes in knowledge and competency areas, as well as attitudes and values.

1. Tips for Writing Learning Objectives:

  • Be as specific as possible
  • Be sure the outcomes are stated in terms of what the students will “know” or be able to do – this makes measuring them much easier to both understand and assess
  • Work for clarity in language – remember that your audience are your students

2. Example Language for Learning Objectives:

  • Students will demonstrate knowledge of basic information about …
  • Students will know the major ideas of …, and be able to discuss their interrelationships.
  • Students will be able to analyze information, and make judgments about the validity of that information.
  • Students will understand the approaches and underlying values of …
  • Students will be able to communicate their knowledge about this subject orally and in writing, to a variety of audiences.
  • Students will be able to apply the course information and skills to real world situations.
  • Students will have a greater appreciation for and interest in …

Click here for additional information on setting learning objectives (or download Bloom’s Taxonomy).

Course Materials

Textbooks and Supplies

Why do college bookstores require course material so far ahead of the new semester?
It can take a great deal of time to locate enough of the texts that you want for your students. This process can include locating used books from wholesalers, buying them back from students at the end of the semester, finding instructional materials from the publisher that might be out of stock or processing individual course packet requests.

How do bookstores decide how many of each course text to order?
Several criteria affecting this ordering involve:

  • Whether or not the book or course material is required, recommended, or optional
  • How long a book has been used on your campus
  • Student enrollment numbers
  • Course level
  • Local or online bookstore competition

What can I do to improve student satisfaction with the selected course materials even though they are expensive?
Textbooks are costly. Wherever possible, keep cost in mind as you select your course materials. Request and distinguish only those course materials (required, recommended, or optional) that you are actually going to use for your class and be careful about ordering your books and materials in bundles from the publisher. You will want to check the contents of these bundles first and compare the cost of the materials individually verses combined. Some may be a good cost deal for students while others will make students pay a bigger price for included materials that you may not use or want them to buy.

Unfortunately, research is showing that many students are not buying course materials that faculty select for their courses. Here are a few ways that you can encourage the use of selected class materials:

  • Support your required book or course materials by using or referencing them frequently in class. The students will have an increased perception of their worth if you test from the text material or refer to its content on a regular basis.
  • Know what price your students will have to pay for your course materials (ask your bookstore before your class begins) and let students know how each fits into your course goals and objectives.
  • Submit your book and course material information on time to your bookstore. If you are able to decide on these materials early, the students will be paid more money for their used books at buyback time and the number of used copies will increase for the next class group to buy.
  • Consider using low-cost or free Open Educational Resources (OERs). GMU Libraries can support you in locating or even creating your own OERs.
  • Consider using the online course reserve system Leganto, supported by GMU Libraries, to provide materials integrated as part of your LMS.

How can I find and contact the individual publisher(s) I need?
Our bookstore staff members can provide you with publisher information (e.g., email, fax, and phone number) and contact information for the local sales representative. This representative can inform you of new products or help you with ordering. Alternatively, you can choose to do an online search for your individual publisher.

What is a desk copy and how can I get one?
This is a book that is sent to the faculty member by the publisher for free. First, check with your department to see if they already have an extra copy for you to use. If there is no extra copy, contact the publisher for one. Some of the major publishers allow you to log onto their website and submit your request directly online. If the publisher is unable to send your required book(s) within 30 days, contact your bookstore. Note that these books are not meant for resale.

What are complimentary copies?
A complimentary book copy is one that you are examining to possibly use and order for your course. These copies can be requested only by faculty and ordered through the sales representative or by the publisher. These books are not meant for resale. If you decide that you do not want the book for your course you can send it back to the publisher, save it for a reference book, give it to a fellow faculty member, or donate it.

**Source: Above information adapted from the Instructional Resources for Faculty (IRFF), 2008, National Association of College Stores Inc.

Succeeding the First Week of Class

The first week will set the tone for the term – be intentional about what kind of learning environment you want to create. Communicating and modeling your expectations this first week engages students in your course and can lead to future success.

Be intentional with your self-presentation and approach – consider what characteristics you appreciated as a student. You will want to be authentic, prepared, and approachable.

Provide your expectations, in writing and orally – about student behavior, time that typically needs to spent outside class, types of achievement you will look for, the ways in which you will ask them to demonstrate their learning, any pet peeves.

Present information about what can students expect of you, in writing and orally – your goals, educational philosophy, when you will be available and best ways to communicate with you, what sorts of things you will not provide assistance with, how they should give you feedback, how they should approach you if they have questions about their grade, etc.

Give an overview of the class – what the course is about, why is it important to them and to others, what teaching approaches will you be using, what you expect they will learn from the class, what types of assignments and tests you prefer and why, etc.

Probe students’ backgrounds – are they where you anticipated they should be in terms of knowledge, skills, and other areas? What else might you want or need to know about them to increase your effectiveness as a teacher?

Ask about students’ expectations – what they have heard about the class, what they want to get out of the class, what concerns they might have about the class or the semester, etc.

Create a sense of community – to engage students with the course. It is useful to help them get to know at least one or two other people in the class, to encourage study groups, and to make them aware of their role in fostering a productive learning environment.

Finishing Your Course on a High Note

Let students know before the final assessment (e.g., exam, paper, etc.) where they stand and what they need to do to achieve a higher grade.

Communicate your appreciation for what students have learned and accomplished. Point out the ways in which the course facilitated that learning.

Thank students for the opportunity to work with them; tell students how their feedback will be used to modify your teaching next semester.

Keep any thank you cards and emails from students in a file; these will be useful evidence later for your teaching portfolio.

Congratulate yourself on your successes in the classroom and reflect on what you have learned from things that did not go quite the way you expected. Use this learning to adjust your approach and inspire you for next semester.

Be patient with yourselfIt can take a while to explore and cultivate your teaching persona; it is important to find the balance among confidence, authenticity, and creativity.