Ideas for a Great Start to the Semester

Ideas for a Great Start to the Semester

The following list of ideas are offered in the spirit of getting the semester off to a great start. These suggestions have been gathered from books available in the CELT Library; from professors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Iowa State University, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, and other institutions; and from the CELT staff. They are offered to help you:

  • create a welcoming atmosphere for students;
  • set a positive tone for learning;
  • engage the students actively;
  • provide support for students, and show them where they can find support;
  • encourage students to keep up and do well; and
  • use your time efficiently and effectively.

Create a welcoming atmosphere

  • Come a few minutes early and engage students in conversation.
  • Greet students at the door when they enter the classroom.
  • Start your classes on time.
  • Provide supplemental study aids: on library use, study tips, supplemental readings and exercises. Or, post these on the course website in Blackboard.
  • Think about holding an "out of office" office hour in the Memorial Union or other student-friendly location.
  • Seek out a different student each day and get to know something about him or her.
  • Share your philosophy of teaching with your students.
  • Make an effort to learn at least a few of the students’ names each day
  • Find out about students’ jobs: if they are working, how many hours a week, and what kinds of jobs they hold.
  • Find out more about your students by having them provide information on an index card. (Where are they from? Do they have a second major or declared minor?)
  • Conduct a "living" demographic survey by having students move to different parts of the classroom: size of high school, rural vs. urban, consumer preferences.
  • Encourage your students to find a "buddy" with whom they can exchange e-mail addresses and keep in touch about assignments and coursework.
  • Form small groups for getting acquainted; mix and form new groups several times.
  • Encourage students to form study groups to operate outside the classroom.

Set a positive tone

  • Include content, not just syllabus and "housekeeping" details, from the very first day of class.
  • Take attendance via roll call, clipboard, sign-in sheet, seating chart.
  • Explain why this course is necessary, important, exciting; tell about your current research interests and how you got there.
  • Have students write out their own expectations for the course and goals for learning.
  • Put in writing a limited number of ground rules regarding absences, late work, testing procedures, grading, and expected behavior (for example, eating, drinking, cell phone disturbances) and maintain them.
  • Start laboratory experiments or other exercises the first time lab meets.
  • Call attention (written and oral) to what makes good lab practice: completing work to be done, procedures, equipment, clean up, maintenance, safety, conservation of supplies, full use of lab time.
  • Tell students how much time they will need to study for the course.
  • Explain how to study for the kind of assessments you give, and what the expectations are for grading.
  • Make sample test questions and answers available.

Encourage active learning

  • Move around the room to engage students and to discourage behavior such as chatting or newspaper-reading (use a lapel microphone if necessary).
  • Make eye contact with students. Choose a student, preferably by name, and alert him or her to be ready to answer the next question.
  • Start a lecture with a puzzle, question, paradox, picture, or cartoon on slide or transparency to focus on the day’s topic. Use multiple media during the class: overhead, video or audio clips, models, and/or sample material.
  • Stage a figurative "coffee break" about twenty minutes into the period: tell a story, invite students to put down pens and pencils, refer to a current event.
  • Use variety in methods of presentation every class meeting: lecture, small group discussion, debate.
  • Form a student panel to present alternative views of the same concept.
  • Stage a change-your-mind debate, with students moving to different parts of the classroom to signal change in opinion during the discussion.
  • If you show a video, think about doing it in a novel way. For example, prepare and distribute questions for students to think about while viewing; pause the video for discussion; anticipate the ending; hand out a critique sheet; play and replay parts; discuss or write answers to the questions handed out before the viewing.
  • Conduct a role-play to make a point or to present issues.
  • Give students an opportunity to voice opinions about the subject matter.
  • Give your students time to answer questions; count slowly (and silently) to 10 after you pose a question before you rephrase it.
  • Invite students to ask questions and wait for other students to respond.
  • Ask follow-up questions to student responses and comments.
  • Use clickers or some other way (i.e. different colored note cards) for students to vote on an issue.
  • Conduct idea-generating or brainstorming sessions to expand horizons.
  • Consider grading quizzes and exercises in class to promote learning.
  • Make collaborative assignments for several students to work on together.
  • Give students a take-home problem relating to the day’s lecture.
  • Have students apply the course subject matter to solve real problems.
  • Encourage students to bring current news items to class which relate to the subject and post these on a bulletin board.
  • Have students write questions on index cards to be collected and answered the next class period (if at all possible).
  • Have students keep three-week three-times-a-week journals in which they comment, ask questions, and answer questions about course topics.
  • Invite students to critique each other’s essays or short answers on tests for readability or content.
  • Place a suggestion box in the rear of the room and encourage students to place written comments there.

Encourage students to keep up and to do well

  • Set high expectations and be explicit about what they are.
  • Explain the difference between legitimate collaboration and academic dishonesty; be clear when collaboration is appropriate and when it is forbidden.
  • Begin a class session with a quick summary about "last time"; end each class with a quick forecast of "next time" the class meets.
  • Elicit student questions and concerns at the beginning of the class and list these on the board to be answered during class.
  • Have students write down what they think the important issues or key points on the day’s lecture will be.
  • Have students write down at the end of class three "big ideas" from that day’s material.
  • Give a pre-test (ungraded or self-graded) on the day’s topic.
  • Try to incorporate student reading, writing, listening, and speaking in each class period.
  • Encourage your students to assume the role of a professional in the discipline: philosopher, literary critic, biologist, agronomist, political scientist, or engineer.
  • Distribute a list of the unsolved problems, dilemmas, or great questions in your discipline and invite students to claim one as their own to investigate.
  • Make learning goals explicit for each assignment; explain clearly what students are to do and how it fits into the course as a whole.
  • Give students two passages of material containing alternative views to compare and contrast.
  • Put students into pairs or to quiz each other over material for the day.
  • Take a few minutes to allow students to explain the day’s reading to one another.
  • Assign written paraphrases and summaries of difficult reading.
  • Offer a chance to make "survival cards": written notes on an assigned reading on 3×5 index cards. Collect these and return them for use on an exam.
  • Make a "memory matrix," an incomplete table with row and column headings, for students to complete in pairs in class, or outside class in study groups.
  • Give students plenty of opportunity for practice before a major test.
  • Consider giving group quizzes, perhaps as preparation for an exam.
  • Give a test early in the semester and return it graded by the next class meeting if at all possible.

Provide support for students

  • If possible, be aware of students who are frequently absent. Call the student or contact the student’s advisor. You can learn who the student’s advisor is on AccessPlus by clicking the "More" button next to the student’s name on your class list.
  • In addition to placing on your syllabus information about access for students with disabilities, announce or read the statement at the beginning of class and let students know that you are available to discuss any learning difficulties they may face. Check out the Disability Resources Office. Learn who your departmental liaison for Disability Resources is by contacting your department office.
  • Direct students to the Academic Success Center for help on study skills.
  • If Supplemental Instruction is available for your course, encourage students to use it.
  • Diagnose the students’ pre-requisite learning by a questionnaire or pre-test and give them the feedback as soon as possible.
  • Hand out study questions or study guides for each major section of the course.
  • Repeat yourself. Students should hear, read, or see key material at least three times.
  • Allow students to demonstrate progress in learning: summary quiz over the day’s work, a written reaction to the day’s material.
  • Reward the behavior you want with a word of praise or a personal note.
  • Use a light touch: smile, tell a good joke, and break test anxiety with a sympathetic comment.
  • Provide structure for visually-oriented students by posting the day’s "menu" on board, overhead, or screen.
  • Use multiple examples to illustrate key points and important concepts.
  • Encourage students to print out important course dates on a card that can be taped to a mirror.
  • Be available to students before or after class and join their conversation about course topics.

Be efficient and effective with your time

  • Use community resources in your teaching: plays, concerts, the State Fair, government agencies, businesses, professional contacts, or the outdoors.
  • Check the University Lectures schedule for presentations that might pertain to course content.
  • Use AccessPlus to download class lists and check on drops and adds.
  • Use the photos of students on AccessPlus to work on learning names.
  • Solicit suggestions from students for outside resources and guest speakers on course topics.
  • Tell students when you will check email (two or three times per day, perhaps less?) and your time frame for returning student messages.
  • Keep a course diary – brief notes on a calendar or a copy of the course syllabus about what worked well on a particular day, so you can plan to do the same thing next time.

Adapted from "101 Things" by Joyce T. Povlacs, Teaching and Learning Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
by Susan Yager, Associate Director, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Iowa State University
January 2004