Course & Syllabus Prep Tips

With the end of the summer comes a general atmosphere of frantic course-prepping and editing of prior syllabi, at least around our department. Over the years, I’ve prepped four courses, not including introductory psychology recitation, and revised them several times. Here are a few things I’ve learned that might be helpful to others in the midst of this confusing process.

1.) Time management is key. I advise you to start early when prepping a new course; it takes a while to select a textbook, plan out assignments, create rubrics, and prep lectures. You should also keep this in mind when choosing how to devote your class time and office hours during the semester. Estimate how much time it will take you to grade tests and other assignments, depending on your class size, and try to find a “happy medium” between devoting sufficient time to each student’s paper and being able to return assignments to the class in a reasonable time frame. By the way, when you’re teaching your class, I would suggest that you take notes about things you’d like to change next time you teach the course. It will be easier to look back at these notes than to try to remember in August what didn’t quite work in April.

2.) Gather student feedback. I don’t subscribe to the “students are consumers; you work for them” model, but I do think students appreciate being given agency in determining how classes are designed and run. One thing I like to do is give an informal opportunity for student feedback around midterms, while noting that giving feedback at this stage instead of just at the end of the semester may allow me to improve the course for the students currently taking it. In the past, I’ve done a short online survey or a simple anonymous paper-in-the-hat survey that asks students to name one thing they enjoy about the class and one way it could be improved. I credit previous students with helping me come up with creative assignment ideas, improve the structure of exams and quizzes, and see why assignments I thought would work… well… didn’t.

3.) Don’t overprep. I made the mistake the first time I taught as the instructor of record to prep my entire semester ahead of time. I’ve since learned that this is not necessary (there is time during the semester to create lectures, after all, particularly if one uses one’s office hours judiciously) and may even be a hindrance if the result is more inflexibility during the semester. I do try to prep 3-4 lectures before the semester begins just to give myself a head start, though, and I always make sure that my assignment rubrics are ready before the first day of class.

4.) Clarity is paramount. One of the major complaints I hear from students is that assignments aren’t always clear and they don’t understand why they earned a particular grade. This is something I have been working on (and continue to need improvement on) for a while. One thing that I have found to be helpful is to include an example (generated by me) that would meet criteria for full credit on the assignment. This takes a little extra work on my part, but it helps me see the potential snafus experienced by students and alter my rubric accordingly. Of course, for the rubric itself, it is helpful to be clear about what criteria are necessary to include and how many points each of these aspects is worth. Be careful, though, not to be so specific that there is no room for subjective evaluation on those assignments that merit it.

5.) Be a human being. Understand and remember that your students have their own struggles and that your class is only one component of their busy schedule. Hold high but not unreasonable or rigid standards. Humor and an attempt to relate to students goes a long way. I find that students tend to respect me, even as a graduate student, if I have earned their respect.

Hope you find these suggestions helpful, and feel free to add more in the comments.

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