Before the Semester
Look over your class list
Look over y our class list to understand a bit more about your students: What are their majors? In what year of study are they?
The Teaching + Learning Lab suggests that you circulate a pre-course survey to further learn about individual students’ past academic experiences, goals, concerns, or other information that would be useful for you to know. . You can use the Canvas Quiz function or a Google or Qualtrics form. See Open Learning’s Canvas Resources for Instructors for info on creating quizzes in Canvas. In your pre-course survey, you can ask whatever questions you feel will help you get to know the needs of your students as learners: previous courses taken, their major, their motivation for taking the course, their preferred modes of engagement in class, etc.
Here are three examples of pre-course surveys (in Google Forms) – feel free to adapt them as needed for your teaching goals. (You will be prompted to make copies of these docs, which you can then modify to fit your specific needs.)
- Teach the Students in the Room – and Teach Them Beginning on the First Day
- Student Background Interest Survey
- Who’s in Class form (a more in-depth option), adapted from Lafayette College
As you learn more about students’ past academic experiences, relevant lived experiences, learning needs, or diverse backgrounds, you can adapt your teaching and/or sharing of support resources to better meet students’ needs. Moreover, you can highlight the value of students’ different identities, experiences, strengths, and needs as assets in the learning environment.
Plan your session
Visit your classroom in advance to see how it is arranged. As you plan presentations and class activities, you want to know what will work well with the layout of your room. In particular, consider:
- How many chalkboards or whiteboards are there?
- What do you need to connect to the projector?
- Does the projector screen cover up any of the boards?
- Are the desks and tables for students fixed in place, or can they be moved to facilitate discussion and collaborative work? If the latter, are you planning to alter the setup?
If you are feeling nervous about presenting in class, practice presenting in your assigned classroom. Increased familiarity with the room and your presentation will help you feel more confident and comfortable.
Although visiting the room in person is preferred, the MIT Registrar’s Classrooms@MIT site provides information on features and technology in all MIT classrooms (searchable by room number).
Taking steps before the semester begins to get to know your students and their learning backgrounds, and taking the time on the first day to introduce your students to your class, are great ways to set you and your students up for a successful semester.
What are you going to do while students are coming into the classroom?
“MIT Time” enables you to enter your classroom 5 minutes prior to the hour but students do not expect instruction to begin until 5 minutes after the hour. This gives you 10 minutes to set up for class.
You might use this time to:
- Connect your computer to the projection system.
- Pre-write announcements and intended learning outcomes for the class session on the board.
- Make small talk with students as they come into class.
What to say and why
To reduce the distance between you and your students, spend a couple of minutes on the first day of class introducing yourself.
In addition to your name—which you should write on the board, too—you might consider including:
- Your pronouns
- How you wish students to address you
- Your research interests and how they relate to the subject
- Your office location and office hours
- The best way for students to reach you
Have students introduce themselves
Spending a few minutes on class introductions can help students get to know each other, help you get to know students’ names, and can increase feelings of belonging in the classroom.
In a smaller class, consider asking students to share their motivations for taking the subject or topics from the subject that they are particularly interested in. This will help you understand students’ needs and interests: information that can be used throughout the semester to make the class more engaging for your students.
In larger classes, it may not be practical to have all students introduce themselves to each other. Instead, consider having them introduce themselves to their immediate “neighbors.” These peer-to-peer interactions can aid study group formation and prepare students for future collaborative work.
Another option is to prepare a pre-semester survey to distribute before the first day, allowing you to have a better understanding of who is in your class and their interests before the semester beings. You can further build a sense of connection and community in your class by sharing what you have learned from the survey with your students.
You can find a Google Form template here that you can modify and use to collect information about your students.
In this video, demonstrating best practices for the first day of class, [00:00:00 – 00:01:25], the
TA begins to build a positive class environment by the way he thoughtfully and honestly introduces himself to the students and by providing students with the opportunity to introduce themselves to others in the class.1
Introduce the subject and goals for student learning
While a well-designed syllabus should contain all important course policies and can be read by students outside of class, it is useful to discuss some aspects of the syllabus in person:
- Give a brief overview of the subject and the skills and knowledge students can expect to learn by the end of the term. This can help students see the big picture of how the individual class sessions will fit together.
- Describe resources available for students to help them succeed:
- Be sure to encourage students to come to your office hours. Not all students understand the purpose of office hours, so be sure to explain to the class the types of conversations they can have with you: questions about the subject content, homework, research opportunities, career advice, etc.
- Explain what prerequisite skills are required and how students can determine if they have met them.
In the below clip from 6.01 Intro to EECS, Professor Denny Freeman describes support available for students with little or no programming experience in Python. (The clip of interest ends at 30:30)
Guiding question: What structures and resources are in place to help students get up to speed with Python?
In the below clip from 8.581J Systems Biology, Professor Gore addresses class prerequisites and how the various backgrounds of the students shape the course. (The clip of interest ends at 11:13)
Guiding question: For a student that isn’t sure if they have the mathematical and computational skills for this subject, what does Professor Gore do here that would help this student feel welcome and supported?
Students in your classroom are coming to you with a diverse set of experiences that will shape their expectations of how they should or should not engage in the class. To get everyone on the same page, it is important to communicate the norms of your classroom explicitly.
State your expectations for classroom participation and what desirable participation looks like.
State your goal of creating an inclusive classroom environment and what students can do if they think this goal could be better met.
Describe the teaching methods you will use in class and why you have chosen to use them. This helps students understand what is expected of them and will motivate them to participate.
In the video below, demonstrating best practices for the first day of class – the TA describes the purpose of the recitation section, and uses a set of questions to learn more about students’ experiences with active and collaborative learning. Building on their responses he: normalizes struggle, expresses confidence that all students can succeed in the subject, and collaboratively construct a set of classroom norms for the semester.2
In the below clip from 8.581J Systems Biology, Professor Jeff Gore introduces and motivates the flipped classroom approach to the students in his class. Through this introduction, he encourages students to participate in and engage with different components of the flipped classroom, such as the assigned pre-class reading questions.
Guiding question: What does Professor Gore say to get students on board with the flipped classroom approach?
In the below clip from 6.01 Intro to EECS, Professor Denny Freeman explains his course’s “practice-theory-practice” approach. (The clip of interest ends at 8:42)
Guiding question: What examples or arguments does Professor Freeman provide to convince students that “practice theory practice” is beneficial for their learning?
Discuss homework and exam policies. Students are attentive to this information because they are concerned about grades. Leverage this opportunity to discuss how homework and exams can and should be used by students to aid their learning.
In the below clip from 6.006 Introduction to Algorithms, Professor Srini Devadas introduces the challenging problem sets as a learning opportunity.(The section of interest ends at 8:28)
In the below clip from 8.581J Systems Biology, Professor Jeff Gore introduces the problem set deadlines and the policy for late submissions, both of which are intended to help students balance their coursework and commitments outside of class. (The clip of interest ends at 13:40)
1This video is part of a series of example videos that examine the implementation of teaching practices within the context of recitation. The videos were made in collaboration with MIT’s Math Department and supported by J-WEL Higher Education.