Excellence in the Classroom I: The First and Last Day

Dear UNT Faculty Member,

This is the time of year, just before the start of the Fall semester, when many of you are preparing syllabi for your courses.  Some of you are dusting off a well proven product, some are doing a major rework, and some of you are preparing a syllabus for a course you are teaching for the very first time.  As you prepare each syllabus, please keep in mind trying to further enhance the student learning experience at every turn.  In this memo, I want to emphasize the “bookends” of the course – the first and last day in the classroom, as well as comment on the importance of early assessment in the course. 

First Day: While most of you walk into the class on the first day and immediately start teaching, a few faculty still hand out the syllabus and say “See you next session”.   I’ve talked to many students about their first day experience.  They WANT to be taught, they WANT to learn, and they WANT to be challenged.  Even if you as an instructor depend heavily upon readings in your course, I bet you can draw upon the student’s experiences, or your own experiences, to make that first day of instruction meaningful and with real content.  Set the expectations in that first lecture.  Our students will, I believe, rise to your challenge.

On the topic of the first classroom experience, a few instructors still take the 20th century pedagogical view of “I don’t care if you attend or not – it’s up to you.  You are an adult, now!  At one level I get that sentiment (and now, to my shame, I realize I used to say just that in my own first lectures).  However, someone recently said to me…. “My professor said I don’t have to show up - she really doesn’t care.   If SHE doesn’t care, and doesn’t think it matters to attend her lecture, why should I bother?  There must be no point to the lectures, so why is SHE even showing up?”   Rather, the research indicates that attendance is important – vitally so!!!  Let me encourage you to emphasize “Attendance is really important.  You will learn things from my lectures and the class discussion that aren’t in the book, and it helps you get the most out of the course”.  In fact, we are currently looking at technology that will allow instructors to very easily take attendance, and to then reward that attendance, if they wish.

First Month:  OK, so you’ve settled in with a strong start to your class.  We are encouraging that our faculty ensure that every student knows where they stand in the class – ideally with a formal grade – by the end of the first month.   The latest analyses from higher education pedagogy suggest that a single mid-term 6-8 weeks into the course is really far too late to help struggling students get back on track.  Amazingly, I still get complaints from students well into November because they have no idea of their progress in the course – either because they have still not been tested or, even worse, the instructor hasn’t graded the test yet! 

Last Day: On the other end of the semester, please consider your LAST lecture in the course to be the culmination, the capstone, a “Ted talk” if you will, that summarizes the whole experience of the semester.  All too often (again, I speak from my own experience) the last lecture is that hurried lecture in which we try to cram 3 sessions of material into the last 50 minutes of the course!  I challenge you to make it your very best lecture – one you’ve been leading up to all semester!

So, as you put together your course syllabi, I would appreciate it (and more importantly the students will appreciate), if you make sure the “bookends” are as robust as possible.

Thanks for considering, and I’ll see you around campus soon!