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 #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.

Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #4: Reading Support


By now, you and your students are most likely settling in to the routine of the new semester. This week’s tip includes two quick and fairly easy-to-implement activities that can make an enormous difference for you and for your students:

Faculty Matter Teaching Tip #4 – Reading Support

One of the greatest challenges for faculty is that students often come to class not having completed assigned readings. This makes it difficult for them to participate in discussion, and it may also make it difficult for them to follow the material you have planned for the day. Here are two things you can do to greatly increase the likelihood that your students will complete – and understand the essence of – the readings you assign:

  • Spend 5 minutes at the end of class going over key points in the readings you are asking students to do for the next class period, and, as appropriate, how the readings relate to what you have done or plan to do in class. This type of advance organizer will enable them to place what they read in a more meaningful and comprehensible context.
  • Spend 5-10 minutes at the beginning of class having students discuss (in pairs or in small groups) two or three quick questions about the readings. Students can assist one another in clarifying the readings, or bring their collective confusion, if any, to you. You may want to have students turn in notes from their discussions, or something similar, as evidence that they had something to contribute to the conversation.
Feel free to use the comment tool on the blog posts to share your own suggestions and tips.