5 Considerations for University Teaching

First Day of Class

The first day of class is an important one for you, especially if you’re a new instructor, and for your students. This class is an opportunity for you to set the tone of the course, to explain to students your policies on communication regarding the course, inclusivity and accessibility, grading and any other policies you have set, as well as to begin engaging with course material.

On the first day of class, we recommend reviewing the course outline. While you’ll likely make available the outline for your students to access on their own time, the first day of class is an important opportunity for you to point out changes from prior years, required texts or other materials they need to be successful, and to break down the grading scheme and your course policies for due dates, accessibility, missed classes etc. Explicitly reviewing this with the class on the first day will help avoid confusion and misinterpretation that can lead to issues for students later in the course.

If you are using any technology in your teaching, from a computer with a projector to apps or other tech tools, it is critical that you have had the opportunity to practice in advance. While you may be familiar with the software on your own computer, the particularities of the classroom or the technology therein may introduce issues that can disrupt your teaching. Before the first day, visit your teaching space to test all of the tools you plan to use on your first day. Contact Campus Classroom Technologies for codes to the computer cabinets or login details of any computers that may already be available in the room.

For courses that will make use of Avenue to Learn, it can be helpful to walk through the course site to clarify where you will post learning materials and to demonstrate which tools you intend to use in the course. This is especially important for first year students as it is likely that they will have limited to no experience using a course website in their prior learning experiences.

On the first day, you may already have accommodation letters to have reviewed from some of your students. They have the responsibility to discuss accommodation requests with the instructor at the beginning of the term so you should be prepared to discuss specific accommodation requests with students who have registered with Student Accessibility Services.

Finally, the first day of class is an opportunity to introduce yourself. Students are often curious about their instructors as people, what their backgrounds of study are and institutions they have attended in the past. This is an ideal time to let them know that you are open and approachable as an instructor so they can feel comfortable asking questions and getting help from you when they need it. Depending on the size of the class, you may also want to get to know their names or even give them a few moments to introduce themselves to others in the class.

Constructive Alignment in Course Design

Regardless of whether you are teaching a course you have delivered before, inheriting a course from a colleague, or are planning an entirely new one, it is important to ensure that there is alignment between your course goals, your assessment methods, and your teaching and learning activities. This is often referred to as ‘constructive alignment,’ which combines the notion that learners construct meaning from learning activities and that effective curriculum emphasizes the definition and achievement of intended learning outcomes.

Course learning outcomes (sometimes called learning objectives): Establishing and communicating what knowledge or skills you want your students to have by the end of a learning experience is an essential component of a well-designed course. Often, course learning outcomes are phrased as “by the end of this course, you will be able to [verb] + [noun].” The best learning outcomes are specific, measurable, and concise, and are composed with the student perspective in mind. For more information on creating learning outcomes, see this guide from the University of Toronto or this short LinkedIn Learning course on creating learning objectives (you will need to log in to LinkedIn Learning with your MacID here first).

Assessment methods: Your assessment methods should allow you to accurately evaluate the extent to which students have achieved the course learning outcomes. Assessments can be graded or ungraded, but it should be clear to students how they can meet the criteria.

Teaching and learning activities: Once you have established your course learning outcomes and your methods of assessment you can start to think about what strategies you can use in the classroom to help students achieve the specified outcomes. This is often where students can engage in active learning to practice and reflect upon the lesson.

An example of constructive alignment in a Political Science course might look like this:

Course learning outcome: By the end of this course, you will be able to describe different types of authoritarian regimes.

Assessment: Students will complete a research essay that compares at least two of the following types of political regimes: single-party state, theocracy, military junta, or personalist dictatorship.

Teaching and learning activities: A two-part tutorial that asks students to collaboratively define the features of a particular country’s system of dictatorship.

Thinking about constructive alignment at the level of the course is an important consideration when planning your teaching. You might also think about how your course relates to the broader curriculum in the program itself, and how course-level considerations are reflected in individual classes. For further resources on course design in general or constructive alignment particularly, please feel free to contact the MacPherson Institute for a consultation.

Collecting Feedback on Teaching

Collecting feedback on your teaching is an important way to learn about students’ experiences in your courses, both in terms of what might be working well and where there might be room for instructional improvement. You are likely already familiar with the summative course evaluations that are distributed to students at the end of each course. These standardized evaluations have predetermined questions about the overall effectiveness of the instructor and other aspects of the course. These evaluations are usually used in the tenure and promotion process, for allocating courses to instructors and in contract negotiations, etc.

While summative course evaluations provide the opportunity for students to comment on their experience in the course after its completion, collecting formative feedback midway through the course (or the first term, if it is a yearlong course) is an excellent way to gauge students’ opinions about the course while you still have time to implement suggested changes, as appropriate. There are a number of possible techniques you could use to collect this feedback:

On a slip of paper or in an online form, you can ask your students to anonymously list one thing they would like to stop happening in the course, one thing they would like to start happening, and one thing that they would like to see continue. This technique is often referred to as a ‘stop-start-continue’ exercise.

If you would like to collect feedback on a specific topic related to the student experience (e.g., an assignment), you can prompt your students to share their thoughts on a post-it note or slip of paper that you can collect as students leave the room.

Some McMaster Faculties support peer observation of teaching. If you are interested in having another instructor observe your teaching, please speak with your Director, Chair, or Associate Dean.

Request a course refinement from the MacPherson Institute. A course refinement is a process where one or two MacPherson staff come to your class to anonymously collect honest and timely student mid-term feedback which is consolidated and returned directly to the instructor, along with consultation and discussion regarding possible enhancements or suggestions. The call for course refinement applications typically happens in September or January, and the in-class sessions typically happen in the weeks before or after reading week. You can request a course refinement at https://mi.mcmaster.ca/request-support/.

Regardless of which technique you use to generate feedback, it is essential that you follow up with your students afterwards, indicating what you learned from the feedback, what you are able to change, what you are unable to change, and, if applicable, what you will not change. You do not need to share every piece of feedback but providing an overall summary of students’ comments reinforces that you can about their learning experience and allows you to explain or contextualize some of your instructional choices.

Classroom Assessment Techniques

In addition to formal assignments such as lab reports, midterms, and final exams, it is important to assess your students’ learning in the classroom environment. Classroom assessment techniques, or CATs, are typically non-graded methods of assessing student learning as it happens, such as during lectures, tutorials, or labs. The fundamental purpose of classroom assessment techniques is to improve the quality of student learning, not to formally evaluate or grade students. Determining what students are learning, and how well, allows you to revise your instructional plans to devote more or less time to particular topics or skills as needed.

Classroom assessment techniques can take many forms. Some common techniques include:

Think-pair-share: this is a classic exercise that involves presenting students with a question or problem, giving them a moment to think on their own, pair up with another person, and discuss their thoughts. A variation of this involves asking pairs to share what they discussed with the larger class. This technique is particularly useful for generating participation when individuals do not necessarily know each other well, but it can be applied in many different circumstances.

One-minute paper: with a few minutes to spare at the end of class, ask students to take a minute to anonymously answer a question like “what was the most important thing you learned today?” or “what would you like me to clarify next class?” Students’ responses will highlight their learning and, potentially, their gaps in knowledge.

3-2-1: in this exercise, you can ask students to respond to a series of prompts related to the subject matter or classroom environment. For example, you could ask them to write three things that they have learned so far, two things that surprised them, and one thing that they would like to know more about. This technique encourages students to reflect on their learning and organize their thoughts.

Muddiest point: a variation of the one-minute paper, you can take a moment to ask students to write down the most difficult or confusing part of the lecture, lesson, or reading was. You can use this information to learn what students might be struggling with and to determine how to ensure that they have the resources they need to learn the material.

There are many more classroom assessment techniques that you may find useful for a variety of different teaching and learning contexts. One resource is the book Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers by Angelo and Cross. Copies of this book can be found at various McMaster libraries, including at the MacPherson Institute in Mills Library.

Student Engagement and Motivation

Each student in your class has their own unique set of motivations and interests. Of course, there are commonalities across the individuals to which you can anchor your teaching. Motivation can be categorized as intrinsic, extrinsic or both and intrinsic motivators can be linked to extrinsic ones as well. Intrinsic motivators are factors that encourage engagement from within the student themself. These can include personal interest in a topic, high work ethic, systems of values or even competitiveness. Extrinsic motivators are factors that encourage engagement from other sources such as grades, praise and other systems of reward.

Equipped with these terms, think about how you engaged with your courses in your undergraduate studies. What teaching practices tapped into your intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and kept you engaged with your courses? Often, students are motivated when they have autonomy to explore what interests them the most. Offering assessments with open or guided topics can give just enough self-direction to keep most students engaged. Also, you might want to think about giving some choice to the weighting of assignments. This can allow students to take off some pressure if they feel anxious about certain types of assessments, like writing or tests to keep fear and anxiety from eroding their motivation.

Large Classes

Large classes offer instructors a particular set of challenges for teaching. Instructors are compensated for the increased workload for classes with 75 or more students. The details can be found in Schedule “C” of the CUPE 3906, Unit 2 Collective Bargaining Agreement. There is a wide variety of spaces you could find yourself teaching in at McMaster. There are smaller seminar rooms to large lecture halls. You may even find yourself in one of the active learning classrooms on campus which are larger classrooms equipped with moveable tables and/or chairs and strategically-located technology (screens, video connectors, microphones, etc.) around the room to help better engage students. The newest and largest of these spaces is Room M21 in the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning which has a capacity of 405 students. See activelearning.mcmaster.ca for more information on our active learning spaces, and see the section below on McMaster’s Active Learning Classrooms.

Lecture halls work well for delivering content using didactic methods. As a result, attention and motivation can decline quickly. We recommend utilizing active learning techniques periodically to increase engagement. While some active learning strategies work for smaller groups or can be very time and resources intensive, there are many strategies that can be employed in larger classroom settings. A simple Think, Pair, Share (See Classroom Assessment Techniques) can be used frequently to get students talking with each other and generating new ideas about what they are learning in class. Tools like iClicker (supported by Campus Classroom Technologies) can facilitate participation through quizzing. Using a variety of delivery methods, such as in-class video clips, readings and active problem solving go a long way to keep students’ minds on task and engaged with your material. See the guidebook Effective Teaching in Large Classes for more ideas on how to motivate and engage students.

Of course, as much as we would like to design the perfect course, students ultimately hold the responsibility to attend classes, manage their time and work as much or as little as they choose. It’s important to keep this in mind when thinking about engagement in your courses. Even the best designed teaching experience will still be subject to the individual interests, abilities and circumstances of each student.

Classroom Management

If students are feeling disengaged, you may find that they are quick to indulge distractions on their computers or phones or begin talking over you while you’re teaching. If this happens, you can pause the lecture to ask for their attention. If this doesn’t work, it can be helpful to move around the room while you’re teaching, speaking to groups of students directly to keep them engaged and offer a more dynamic learning environment if this is possible for you. It can also be helpful to pause to ask questions or get the class to work through a problem to refocus their attention. Finally, if you’re teaching a multi-hour class, it may be that students require a break to get up and leave the room in order to come back ready to be focused on the class. We recommend scheduling breaks in any lecture longer than two hours.

Technology-Enhanced Teaching

There is a huge variety of technologies that can be included in your teaching and all of them require careful consideration before they can be used effectively. The MacPherson Institute offers consultation for technology-enhanced learning so please contact us if you are considering using a new teaching tool in your courses.

Courses can be classified as fully online, blended/hybrid or face-to-face, depending on how much teaching and learning happens online. Many courses at McMaster use Avenue to Learn as a communication tool, for sharing course resources and for assessments. If students are engaged in a substantial amount of learning activities or assessments online then the course is considered to be a blended or hybrid course. What constitutes a substantial amount of online activities is debated given that most students and instructors access much of their learning resources online–even in a traditional face-to-face course.

Often, courses are blended through the use of online lecture videos or modules. This can allow students to reinforce what they have learned in class or extend learning to other topics following the content of that week. Online modules can also facilitate a Flipped Classroom design in which content is delivered through videos, readings and online discussions in the student’s own time and class time is used to engage them in problem solving activities, group discussions, debates, etc. There are many pros and cons to such an approach so if you are considering this kind of design for your course, we encourage you to contact us for a consultation.

If you are planning to teach lectures or tutorials synchronously, McMaster provides access to Zoom for everyone on campus to use for meetings or classes.  To learn more about Zoom, take a look at the UTS Zoom guide. A single instructor can likely manage up to 20 students in a class assuming students will ask questions using the chat tool or their own microphone. For groups larger than this, you may need to have a session moderator join you to help manage questions. If this is not possible, the session is best run as a broadcast with little to no interaction but it is important to consider what might be lost in terms of student experience by going forward with low levels of student engagement.

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The New Instructor Handbook by The MacPherson Institute is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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