Faculty Matter Tips #13-15

Welcome to Spring Semester, 2017! As Winter Break comes to a close, we assume you are busy planning your courses and getting ready to greet your students. We appreciate the positive feedback many of you provided on the “Faculty Matter” Teaching Tips series, and so we will do our best to keep them coming! Our goal is to provide proven concrete suggestions of relatively easy-to-implement activities that will help you engage your students and support their success. Feel free to adopt these as is, or to modify them to better suit your needs or context. These tips will be archived on the Provost’s Academic Spotlight blog under the category “Faculty Matter”. We invite you to use the comment tool on the blog posts to share your own suggestions and tips.

You may recognize this first set from last semester, with a few tweaks.

Faculty Matter Tip #13 – Reach out to your students BEFORE the first day of class.

  • Send your students a brief email introducing yourself, conveying your enthusiasm about the course and about meeting them. You can send your message through your class roster on MySJSU or through Canvas.
  • Consider giving them a very simple assignment – a question to think about, an artifact to bring to class, something related to the course content that will “prime the pump” for whatever topic(s) you want to discuss at the first class meeting.  Remember to follow up on what you asked them to do: have them share their answers/what they brought.  If the class is large, students can share in small groups, with a few volunteers reporting out to the entire class.

Faculty Matter Tips #14 – Read through the syllabus you have prepared.

Make sure that if you were a student in your class, you could answer the following questions in the affirmative. After reading this syllabus,

  • Would you be able to put together a clear picture of what the class was about?
  • Would you have a sense of what your instructor expected you to learn?
  • Would it be clear to you what, specifically, you were going to be asked to do or produce, and when?
  • Would you be able to figure out how your grade would be determined?
  • Would you be able to figure out where you could turn if you encountered any difficulties along the way?

Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #15 – Make Good Use of the First Day of Class.

You will likely need to devote time to various administrative tasks on the first day. You may also want to dive right in and begin covering course content. But don’t miss this important opportunity to begin to create community and to engage students.

  • Greet students as they walk in.  Arrive at your classroom early, stand at the door, and welcome students as they enter.
  • Have students interview each other, in pairs or small groups of 3-4. Sample questions: Name, major, where they are from, something that would surprise you about them, something they are looking forward to this year, something they are apprehensive about.
  • Devote a few minutes to “ice-breaker” activities. While some of the students may already know several of their classmates, others may feel quite alone and intimidated as they look around and see so many people who appear to already have friends in the class. If your ice-breaker activities help uncover student experiences or expertise that are relevant to the course, all the better.
  • Create a list of class rules and expectations.  Start by listing your “must haves” – expectations about cell phones and computers in class, tardiness, civility, how you want to be addressed, how students should approach you if they have concerns, etc.. Invite students to talk in pairs or small groups, and suggest other items for the list.  You may be surprised by how many students have strong feelings about the importance of maintaining a respectful learning environment!  Devote a few minutes to a whole group conversation.  This way, if problems arise later, you can refer students to the rules everyone agreed upon.
  • Help students plan how they will study for your class. Have them examine the assignments and due-dates. Help them anticipate how much time you expect them to need to devote to the class. More on this soon…we will devote an up-coming Teaching Tip to helping students to be more intentional and self-aware about their studies.
  • Identify students’ starting points.  Have students complete a no-points quiz, where they indicate their level of familiarity with a dozen or so foundational concepts for the class (such as “I’ve never heard of it”, “It sounds familiar, but I don’t quite remember what it is”, “I sort of know”, “I know it well and could explain it to someone else”). This will allow you to get a sense of where students have a firm grasp of material and where they will need refreshers.  To get a better sense of the range of their interests, consider adding two additional questions: What is one of the most interesting things you remember from a prior course you took in your major?  What is one of the most interesting things you remember from a prior course you took outside of your major?
  • Have students fill out a personal profile.  In addition to basic information (name, preferred way to be addressed, best way to contact, major/minor), you may want to ask them about other commitments this semester (academic load, work, family responsibilities, community responsibilities, etc..), learning styles or needs, and anything else they would like to share with you, to help you help them be successful. You may want to have students email this to you, so that they can attach a photograph of themselves.
  • Share something about yourself. Convey your enthusiasm for teaching and for the subject matter.  Consider telling students a bit about your professional background. Don’t feel compelled to share details about your personal life.

Faculty Matter Tip #12: Wrapping Up the Semester

With the exams and Winter Break looming, this is a time when faculty can feel particularly pressed for time. In the spirit of the “A stitch in time saves nine” adage, we offer this last Faculty Matter Teaching Tip for the semester.

Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #12:  Before you wrap up for the semester, leave a trail of breadcrumbs to help you reconstruct how you’d like to modify your courses before you teach them next.

Many of us tend to shove all of our teaching materials aside as soon as we are done submitting students’ grades. The essence of this final Faculty Matter Tip for the semester is that it might be productive to take some time to review the courses we have just wrapped up, and make some notes before moving on to other commitments and activities. Next time you teach the class, what might you want to add, what might you want to delete, what might you want to tweak a little bit, what might you want to change significantly, and what might you want to leave exactly as is because it went really, really well.

As you review your course materials, consider the following:

  • Were there topics that didn’t grab students’ attention as much as you had hoped or expected?
  • Were there concepts that students struggled with more that you had envisioned they might?
  • Were there activities or techniques that required more of your time than warranted, given the student gains you can attribute to them?
  • Did you come across resources that you didn’t have time to draw upon this semester?
  • Have you gotten ideas about things to try next time you teach the class?
  • Were there topics or activities or teaching techniques that really engaged your students or helped them master the material?

We encourage you to make some notes while these observations are still fresh in your mind.  Without this “trail of breadcrumbs” to jog your memory, as you sit down weeks or months from now to “refresh” the course, you may find it frustrating to try to reconstruct what changes you had thought might be fruitful. We also invite you to participate in any of the CFD sessions or workshops starting in January, or to sit down one-on-one with CFD staff, to flesh out your ideas about the changes you would like to make to your courses. In the meantime, please add your own strategies using the comment link below.

Faculty Matter Tip #11: Encouraging Students to Engage in Each Others’ Presentations

In many courses, considerable portions of class sessions during the final weeks of the semester are devoted to student presentations. These assignments – and the preparation that goes into them – provide valuable opportunities for students to delve into topics of particular interest, to develop important public speaking skills as they plan and execute a formal presentation, and to collaborate with fellow students when they need to work as a team. Most students become fairly enthusiastic about the material they get to explore so deeply. One of the challenges for faculty, however, is to ensure that students be as engaged in (and reap benefits from) their classmates’ presentations.

A common strategy is to simply hold students accountable for the information contained in the presentations on the final exam. Below, are a few additional suggestions that are designed to prompt students to more intentionally make connections between the content of the presentations and ideas that have been of interest to them throughout the course.

BEFORE the presentations

Have each student create and share a brief summary of their upcoming presentation (one paragraph in length or so). Have students then formulate one or two questions about several other students’ topics, based on the summaries. This can be done online (using the discussion features of Canvas) or in class (as a gallery walk where each student prints out their summary and the class then circulates, reads the summaries, and writes their questions on sticky notes which are placed adjacent to the summaries). If it is feasible, presenters can address some of these questions in their actual presentations.

If time permits, facilitate opportunities for students to work in groups of three to four to rehearse their presentations with each other. Once students serve as “audiences” for each other have them probe linkages among their topics, or between topics and issues raised in the course more generally.

THE DAY OF the presentations

Allow time after each presentation for brief question and answer session to clarify any points of confusion. Encourage students to note how what they have just heard aligns with something they have discovered, as a result of the research they did for their own presentation.

Allocate a few minutes near the end of class periods for small-group discussion of the day’s presentations. Have one student in each group record the essence of the conversation. Provide prompts, as you deem useful (what was interesting/surprising; link to their own topics or to course themes; etc…)

Have students create worksheets or quizzes for other students to complete during their presentation. Students can compare and discuss answers after the presentation.

AFTER the presentations

Have students post comments about several of their classmates’ presentations (using the discussion features of Canvas). Provide prompts as you deem useful (what was interesting/surprising; link to their own topics or to course themes; etc…)

If students will be submitting a paper based on their presentation, have them include a section where they explicitly address a connection between what they have studied in depth and one or more of their classmates’ presentations.

Please add your own strategies using the comment link below.

Faculty Matter Tip #10: This one is for you – the importance of self-care

By Amy Strage, assistant vice president, Faculty Development

Our lives – as well as those of our students – are complex, and the final weeks of the semester always seem to bring a large number (and great variety) of unexpected and challenging complications and disruptions.  It can be very difficult to keep our many spinning plates  “strategically counterpoised”, a phrase I borrow from our colleague Cindy Baer, Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature. As research on stress and coping suggests, it is much easier to marshal the energy and patience and compassion to arrive at good solutions when we don’t already feel exhausted and tapped out.

Faculty Matter Tip #10 – This one is for you – the importance of self-care

The gist of this week’s tip is fairly simple. Most of us are familiar with the instructions on the laminated card found in airplane seat-back pockets: Put your own oxygen mask on first, and then help others around you with theirs.  As we approach the Thanksgiving Break and then the final push of the semester, we encourage you to tend to your own needs – for sleep, for exercise, for nutritious food, for calm, for uplifting and affirming human contact, for spiritual renewal, for opportunities to connect with what matters most to you, for time to catch your breath.

SJSU has an institutional membership to the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.  This entitles all faculty to free access to a number of resources focused on self-care and work-life balance. Our own Center for Faculty Development also offers sessions on these and related topics. Coming up later this month: Self-care and time-management strategies for the end of the semester and beyond, Monday, Nov. 28, from noon to 1 p.m., and Tuesday, Nov. 29, from 3 to 4 p.m., in IRC 210.

Note:  Below, please find pasted a section of an earlier Faculty Matter post, to remind you of the many resources our students can draw upon as they gear up for the next few weeks:

Peer Connections provides one on one appointments for peer mentoring and tutoring. They also offer several workshops a month on academic success skills. The Writing Center offers one on one tutoring for writing, online resources, and workshops. The Communications Center has drop-in and one on one appointments for oral and written communication. There are also numerous tutoring centers in the departments and colleges listed on the Tutoring Hub.

Educational Counseling provides one on one appointments, workshops, and online resources for academic success. The library has technology workshops. In addition, the library offers resources to support students in research, including details online to help the student define the type of resources and help they need and how to connect with a librarian. The library also has laptop and I-pad rentals, meeting rooms that can be reserved for teamwork or collaboration, and online resources on referencing and literature reviews and tutorials on plagiarism. The Spartan Success Portal has a range of online, academic success modules.

Share your comments

Faculty Matter Tip #8: What to do when students do poorly on your midterm

At this point in the semester, your students have probably taken midterms designed to gauge their mastery of course contents thus far. For some of you, the results may be somewhat surprising, and even disconcerting.  In our last FacultyMatter Tip, we pointed out a number of resources on campus that your students (and you) might turn to for additional academic support. In this week’s missive, we take a slightly different tack:

Faculty Matter Tip #8 – What to do when students do poorly on your midterm

What if the problem is that, despite your best intentions, YOU misestimated the difficulty of the exam, and a very large proportion of your students did poorly?  How can you keep students from becoming discouraged, from giving up, and from disengaging?  How can you help them get back on track?

Research linking students’ motivation, the effort they are willing to put into studying, and their success points to the importance of their sense of efficacy – that is their sense of control over their academic fate.

  • When students feel that they know what it would take to do well, they are far more willing to try hard than when they feel it is all a mystery and a matter of luck.  
  • When they can’t figure out a “formula for success’, they are much more likely to get discouraged and disengage.  Then they – and you – can get caught in a vicious circle.

Assuming your students did not do as well as they (or you) had hoped or expected, what can YOU do to help them (re)gain a sense of control in your class?

Begin by trying to figure out what went wrong:

  1. Might you have missed cues prior to the test that students were not “getting it”, that their command of the material was too weak and ephemeral, and that they needed more time learning the material before they could effectively prepare to be tested on it?
  2. Was your guidance about what and how to study clear and accurate?
  3. Did you underestimate how much time it would take a reasonably well-prepared student to complete the test?

Pros and cons of different solutions:

If you think the answer to (1) above might be “yes”, consider revising your course timeline a bit, and spending some time re-teaching the materials they seem to have not “gotten.”  If students’ ability to succeed with up-coming material depends on their mastery of material from earlier in the course, it is important to allow time to help students understand and learn what they clearly hadn’t fully grasped by the time of the test they took.  It may be worth “sacrificing a day” to make sure students have a firmer grasp of the material and to make sure you are not going to expect them to build upon a shaky foundation.

If you think the answer to (2) or (3) above might be “no”, consider spending some class time clarifying expectations and then offering some version of a “re-do” of the midterm. This will give students the chance to show you – as well as themselves – what they are capable of learning and producing when they are truly prepared.

Many common “solutions” (such as simply adjusting the test grading scale, or providing opportunities for extra credit unrelated to the material students were tested on, or permitting students to throw out their lowest test grade) may provide some relief (in the form of more points and better grades), but they do not provide opportunities for students to revisit and ultimately master the material in question, and so they do not result in students developing a sense of efficacy in the class.

We are happy to organize conversations around this topic – please let us know if this sounds like something that would be of interest to you.

Please add your own strategies using the comment link below.