Bending the Curve on Teaching

At this week's New Faculty Orientation, a panel of experienced Dartmouth faculty shared their hard-won teaching wisdom with their newly-minted peers. The panel included Research Assistant Professor and Language Program Director in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Roberto Rey Agudo, John Wesley Young Research Instructor in the Department of Mathematics Bjoern Muitzel, Assistant Professor of Sociology Kimberly Rogers, and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Zaneta Thayer. "These are the things we wish we had known when we began teaching at Dartmouth," said Muitzel. "I hope you can learn from the missteps I made and not have to make the same errors!" he added. Included below are highlights from the tips and insights they shared.

Developing Your Teaching Practice

  • Remember that there is a difference between knowing something and knowing how to communicate it effectively. There is a learning curve to becoming a good teacher.
  • Talk to colleagues about your teaching, and share materials.
  • Consider that what makes a good comedian also makes a good teacher: you have to observe a lot of other classes and other teachers to learn what works.
  • Attend DCAL sessions and get to know other centers like the Institute for Writing & Rhetoric and the Academic Skills Center.
  • Seek out feedback on your teaching from DCAL and your colleagues.
  • DCAL can be a clearinghouse for whatever resource you need. If you’re not sure where to go or who to ask, start with DCAL.
  • Work with RWIT, the instructional designers, and your librarians to design assignments and research projects for your students. These people have done it before and know where students tend to struggle.

Uniquely Dartmouth

  • The 10-week term moves very quickly, and it won't work to try and fit a semester's worth of content into it. Cut more than you think you should if adapting a semester-long course.
  • Student assignments will also be accelerated in a 10-week term. 'Trim the fat' from assignments to retain only what is essential.
  • Campus culture can be a pressure-cooker for students. Students often want to appear that they have it all together, but many will need support. Our campus is also not immune to larger societal issues. The Student Wellness Center, Undergraduate Deans, Dick's House, and Student Affairs division, among others, are resources available to support your students.
  • "Course shopping" can be disruptive in the first two weeks of term; plan around this.
  • X-hours can be confusing. There is one on the schedule for every class each week, and use of the x-hour varies. The x-hour is often used as a make-up period, exam review, lab, fourth hour of class, extra help, or group office hours. Talk to your department about how it is used in your discipline. Most importantly, make your plans for how you will use (or not use) the x-hour clear to students at the beginning of term, and be consistent. If you plan to use it regularly, you may consider connecting it to you attendance policy. If you don't use it consistently, know that students will schedule other things during that time. 
  • Plan around big campus events like Homecoming, Winter Carnival, and Green Key. Adjust to avoid scheduling big student deadlines for Monday after these weekends.

Working With Students

  • Students’ energy and attention can wane in the last few weeks of term, so build in flexibility to accommodate for that in your course.
  • Students are often hesitant to speak up in open discussions. Providing structure like small groups or think-pair-share can help.
  • Many students think they are good at multi-tasking in class. Address this early by sharing your expectations and following through on them.
  • Students tend to be overcommitted and will triage by doing only the things that are absolutely necessary. Be sure to communicate to them what you expect them to do, and follow through.
  • Encourage students to use the resources that are available to them, like office hours, tutors, and Student Accessibility Services. Free tutoring is available to all students.
  • Get to know students personally. Using group work in class allows you to talk with everyone individually during a class period.
  • Build in accountability for having done the reading by using student-led discussions in class.
  • Guide students' reading with focus questions, and be sure you make it worthwhile for them to have done the reading. If they learn they don’t have to do it, they won’t.
  • Provide structure for long assignments, like research papers. Have one component due each week, and start right away at the beginning of term. Try supplying a bank of research questions to expedite the process. Have students turn in early drafts and use peer review.
  • Decide what works for you in terms of electronic devices in your course. Walking around the room can prevent students from surfing the web or texting during class. Be clear and up front about when and how devices are appropriate. Enforce these expectations.
  • Set appropriate student expectations about grading in your class by communicating up front tabout how you approach it. Giving a low stakes assignment early in the term can help demonstrate your grading approach. Expect that students will challenge grades. Providing examples of high quality work can help diffuse student complaints. Talk to your department about grading, because norms vary by discipline. Use the college grading standards and descriptions. Help students put their grades in perspective.