Advice for Teaching Undergrads

Advice for Teaching Undergrads January 17, 2013

Believe it or not, I’ve never taught undergrads before. Sure, I’ve given the occasional lecture in someone else’s class, and I’ve spoken at many a college chapel service, but I’ve never taught a semester-long course at the college level.

Until today.

This afternoon I begin teaching “Introduction to the Christian Scripture” at a state university.

I know that many of you, dear readers, have taught college courses, and I’m looking for advice. So far, I’ve been told to “own the room,” beginning with the first class. And that’s about it.

So, what advice do you have for me about teaching undergrads?

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  • Tony, it’s important to remember that while they will believe they know it all — especially on a topic such as this — they probably don’t know very much. So, be prepared to guide them to new insights, but do so in a way that is inviting. It requires discernment to know who is in the room.

    Enjoy it — though — because it should be very enlightening!

  • I had a prof in grad school, the man who taught me how to teach undergrads. Every day before class, just seconds before he stepped into the room, he’d countdown and say “Showtime” and then he was on. I’ve been doing this for nearly ten years. I guess this relates to “owning the room,” but it’s a practical way to get into that mindset. From there, I play a part…my in-class persona…something that keeps the students engaged. What I struggle with: being too lenient.

  • Scot Miller

    Some good advice given to me was that it’s easier to get easier as the semester progresses, but it’s harder to get harder. In other words, start out with high expectations and standards, which you can adjust as the semester progresses if necessary. You can’t really make more demands later in the semester without much protest.

    But it has always been my experience that students rise to the level of expectation set for them. If you don’t expect much, they won’t do much. But if you expect them to behave like college students, they may actually surprise you and rise to that expectation.

  • Carla

    Every day when I walk into my classroom, I try to remember what it felt like to be 18 (and 19 and 20)–when everything seemed possible, when everything felt important and life-changing, when every idea had the potential to unravel me. That pushes me to keep making my lectures relevant to their broader college experience, to focus on building skills and a way of thinking and learning that will carry them beyond my classroom. I try to tap into their curiosity and the incredible changes they are experiencing. For me, that mindset has shaped the way I teach more than any other methodology.

    It also helps to remember that when they look tuned out and sleepy, it’s probably not you.

  • Dale Friesen

    I’ve never taught a class before but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night…

    I think high expectations are great, but don’t make them feel dumb. I never liked it when a professor would be shocked that I had not read “this book” or heard of “that author” often the undergrad class was my first foray into a subject matter.

  • Getting to know your students is one key. This can be a little harder than you might expect if you’ve been used to older students.

    I am finding that it is important to learn as many names of my students as possible. The value of this is to ask them questions by name. This is particularly good to do at the start of the class to see what they remember from the last class and at the end to see what they learnt. It is also very useful when you notice them drifting off, playing with their phones and the like. Saying their name and asking a specific questions confirms that they are still with you.

    This and talking to them individually while they are doing an activity in class are good ways to get to know them. They actually appreciate this.

  • I speak as a youth minister and an ex-undergrad.

    Assume they know nothing about the Bible and you are staring at square one. My survey classes at a Christian university as a (what I thought I was) biblically literate freshman were eye-opening. Even more so at a state university.

    They’ll think Q is a James Bond character, think the Synoptics are a type of eyeglasses, won’t get your theological jokes and allusions, and will have learned everything about Moses and the Exodus from The Prince of Egypt.

    Use this great opportunity to open their eyes to the Bible, as it truly is, not just as they assumed it to be. You are great at challenging assumptions, so I expect the content of the class will be great.

    Besides the above mentioned suggestions, make grading expectations clear. People hate getting assignments back and wondering why they got the grade they did. Undergrads are more grade-sensitive. They haven’t figured out yet that they don’t matter much.


  • Curtis

    How do teachers manage laptops and mobile devices in the college classroom today? I’m sure they can help students organize their thoughts and dive deeper into the material during the lecture. But they can also be huge distractions. Any tips?

    • Curtis, my son is taking a Greek History course at the local community college. The teacher wants lots of involvement and so allows electronic devices only if the readings are to be found there. If the phone rings in class — it’s an F for the day.

      Fortunately, during my days teaching undergrads — 15 years ago — computers were still largely desk tops!!

  • Prepare yourself for the Bible Know It All in class.

    • revsharkie

      …and for the Fundamentalist who objects to any suggestion that anything is not God’s actual literal word.

      I took a class similar to this my second year of college. I had attended Sunday school and church my whole life and was still flummoxed at new information and ideas I’d never encountered before, even though my church was relatively liberal. A classmate from a more conservative tradition found that the content of the class threw her faith into crisis, and the teacher (also a pastor, as it turned out), was not helpful at all in bringing her through it. Maybe that wasn’t his job, but it might have been helpful for him at least to have acknowledged that this material was going to be troubling. Keeping in mind that you’re a teacher in that setting, you still can be pastoral in some ways.

      Be prepared also for the possibility that even some of your students who grew up in church will exhibit fairly staggering levels of Biblical illiteracy.

  • Jay Kelly

    Most undergrads don’t manage deadlines well. (As opposed to grad students who all obviously do a wonderful job.) I learned to space out projects so the semester isn’t back-end loaded. And I gave zero grace on deadlines toward the first of the semester. That ultimately makes their lives easier because they know toward the end of the semester that they can’t count on you to give extensions. So they know they have no choice but to turn your papers in on time.

    Also, your life will be MUCH easier if assignments in the first few weeks are as standardized as possible. If you have writing assignments early that require much judgment on your part to grade, you will kick yourself later. That’s because you’ll have some number of students who drop whose assignments were the hardest to slog through.

  • I teach an OT class at a university and the best advice I can give is to inspire your students. Put a lot of thought into not just the content, but the presentation. Think through not just what to say but how to say it. Critically analyze good discussion questions and give thought to transitions. Also, don’t be afraid to appeal to different learning styles. Not all students process information well if it’s all given through lecture. I love college students’ radical optimism and desire to change the world. Appeal to this.

    I picture all of my students wearing an invisible sign that reads, “Inspire me. Challenge me to be my best self. Remind me why this all matters. Appeal to my creative side. Show me in a way I’ve never seen before. Encourage me not to make my life about money or success, but about the kingdom.”

    And finally, lots of prayer. God can speak to your students in a way that you can’t.

    Deep breaths… You can do this! 🙂

    • Steve Black

      Very nice!

  • Humor, or at least some levity, is very useful. I’ve also found that a little self-deprecating humor is especially useful as it helps students relate to me. It also gives them more of a sense that I am there to guide them, rather than just to show off how much I know. That sense also tends to preempt some of the hostile confrontations over grades that some of my more “intense” colleagues experience towards the end of each semester.

  • Tony,

    Don’t be surprised by anything. The first course I taught I was blown away by the amount of paper deferrals, students not doing the readings, etc. I learned quick to work with those who were willing to step up. I tell students if they are unhappy with a mark they can resubmit with-in three days. The ones that actually care about marks will do this. I don’t screw around with marks – students who care about marks will come to see you and actually take your feedback. I had one gal who submitted a right fine turd for a paper. She was shocked at the failing grade and came to see me. I found out she actually thought what she gave me was what I would want. I told her how to go forward and she ended up taking other classes from me, and I wrote her a nice reference letter to get into a summer programme she wanted. I don’t waste time on students who don’t care.

    In terms of readings, I always make the readings the jumping off point for my lecture. If they don’t do the readings they will feel a bit lost in the discussion. I ease them into this, about by the third lecture I’m not reviewing the readings although I always start with their questions from the readings. I prefer conversations to lectures, but the bigger the class the more talking head you should expect to provide. First year courses are way harder to prep than 2nd and 3rd year courses, simply because you have something to build on after the first year.

    In terms of marking, make a rubric. When I construct a question for an essay (I almost always use short papers and essays even for exams) I break it down into the questions I want to evaluate. If you have too many things to evaluate then the marks will be lower than if you have just a few (say 5 criteria). So I list the questions I want them to answer and rate them on how well they answered those specific questions. I also give them a rating on combined formatting, spelling, task comprehension (did they read the question all the way). Then I make sure that the question I give them spells out exactly what I want, do I want them to define specific terms then I tell them that. This way I feel no qualms about giving them the mark they earned. (I just co-taught a course with two other profs and I had the joy of collating the marks at the end, I was by far the toughest marker).

    The other thing is that students will ask you for the moon. Many will ask me for my notes. I do make available the slides I use, but not the notes. I tell them to make arrangements with other students. Don’t feel bad about that. If they don’t want to work then their marks should reflect that. First year courses I end up doing a lot of coaching in terms of writing. I had one student who bragged about their ability to write papers (from high school). They did not know how to write what they were thinking. I spent about an hour going through one of their papers where it was evident they knew what they were talking about but not how to clearly articulate that on the page. So much for high school teaching them how to write. BTW that student improved greatly and I had them for multiple classes as well.

    Have fun Tony, there really is nothing else that brings me as much joy as teaching. I hope you experience that joy as well.

    Frank (not the Frank that attacks you)

  • Alan K

    As one who took Bible at a public university, just be aware that there will still be some students who will approach the class as if it is Bible school. Our professor had a great way of honoring the various faith commitments and non-commitments present in the room while keeping the class from slipping into and drowning amid a whirlpool of hermeneutics.

  • Set some high expectations and also be friendly. As others have said, it is much easier to dial back your expectations later and give grace, etc., than to try to find another gear mid-term. Relax and enjoy yourself, but make sure you earnestly share your passion for the material.

    Congrats on the teaching gig! I think you will love it.

  • This is the best book I’ve encountered on the subject. I like it because it’s based on research.
    What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain

    As far as an anecdotal bit of advice from personal experience, my students seem to appreciate getting the message that I keep separate in my mind: their bad performance in the course from who they are as persons. Bombing tests, blowing off assignments, missing classes… all of my responses that have to be negative or deliver repercussions are always delivered very matter of factly, directly, and with no personal judgment of any kind. They’re the ones paying the money, after all, and who knows why they decide what they decide? It’s kind of not even much my business. I save personal judgments for how they treat each other (or me!) in class.

  • I’m doing a doctorate in philosophy on full stipend, which means I teach some of my school’s required courses – human nature (essentially the history of western philosophy) + philosophical ethics (the same, only with a special focus on theories of ethics). I regularly do a heavy dose on philosophy of religion in the first option, so I think I run into similar situations you’re apt to: a combination of students who are either hostile to religion or think there are no right or wrong answers here, along with religious students who believe they know more than you do.

    The best suggestion I Know for dealing with that problem is to make clear that while they may be experts in Sunday School 101, they have no particular expertise there. It helps to get that across if you make an analogy with experiences they already have. I usually use literature; most everyone gets the distinction between reading Pride and Prejudice for pleasure and reading it for English class.

    As for suggestions, that really depends on what kind of class you’re trying to run. Depending on the semester and the material, I’ve played with three models: the exposition class where I want my students to end up with a basic understanding of what Plato, Descartes, etc. says; the critical class where the student ends up with a sense of whether they think they’re right (or, to what extent the philosopher is right) and are able to defend their position; and the skills-based class where the focus is on developing several meta-skills (research, summarization, verbal presentations, collaboration, etc.) through philosophy. Of course each class has all these elements, but if I was focusing on one in particular, I’d want to emphasize that expectation to the students in a pretty formal way. For instance, if my main goal was exposition I’d maybe tell students that they should be prepared to summarize a reading or explain a certain bit in their own words.

    I’d also be careful not to assume too much. My students all want to avoid plagiarism, but they’re almost never sure what that is. They don’t understand what makes a good source and why Google is not an acceptable research method. They don’t necessary know how to read a text (I used historical texts so this may not be such an issue for you). They don’t always understand the difference between being right and having a well-defended opinion, and they are shy about critiquing arguments where they agree with the conclusion. Anything you can do to walk them through these things, preempt the misunderstanding and address it, would be really good.

    My teaching mentor gave me two advice: count to five (slowly, and I usually allow ten) between question and answer, because undergrads are slow to be the first to step up; and make your policies strict at the beginning because it’s always easier to loosen them up and tighten them down the road. I always was fairly legalistic about my policies because I thought that avoided disagreements and misunderstandings down the road, but of course you can over-do that. And as for laptop, I was always cautious about allowing them because it seemed to kill participation. I tended to only allow ebook readers, but my roommate allows laptops as readers (meaning no typing on them during class). Neither of us allows students to have phones out during the class. This is more of an issue than I ever thought it would be!

    Hope that helps. Do feel free to email me – mlaytonATfordhamDOTedu if you ever want to touch shop. I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I’ve got maybe ten semesters of entry-level undergraduate courses in a related discipline under my belt.

    Best of luck! And may the odds be ever in your favor. 🙂

  • Welcome to the world of adjuncting! I’ve taught philosophy and religion at a couple MN state universities (and several other MN colleges and universities) for the past 6 years, including New Testament at St.CloudState for Rabbi Joseph E. That particular class was one of the more rewarding ones I’ve been a part of. If you’re still in MN and want to discuss further (and/or are interested in interfaith/interreligious learning), let me know.
    Warm regards,

  • With my students I try to minimize the span of my talking. While I may do most of the talking in class, it’s conversational.

    Also, one of my favorite strategies is playing dumb, giving students a chance to explain things to me.

  • Michael D. Bobo

    I’m a Humanities Adjunct at a Community College and I often get warm remarks from students who enjoy the material. My strategy is to get them in the materials in group work 1/2 of the time if possible and minimize my role as harbinger of knowledge. I begin with a brief lecture to set a proper historical, philosophical, and discussion background. Once they have to ruminate on it together and present it to the whole group, I find they own the material and improve upon it. I like what Doug Pagitt has suggested about hosting an event in the Sunday church meeting. I see the same with teaching in a college environment. Hopefully each student feels they have experienced the material by seeing it, hearing it, speaking it in order to absorb it more fully in their individual worldviews.