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Stay Calm and Carry On: Best Practices and Advice for Teaching Undergraduate Courses

20 Sep 2019 8:16 PM | Anonymous

By Jennifer Grewe, Ph.D., Utah State University

It can be difficult for a graduate student instructor to walk into a classroom filled with undergraduate students for many reasons. It may have only been a summer or less since you were an undergraduate student yourself. Suddenly finding yourself teaching a group of people that you would have recently considered your peers can be a strange experience. It also might be intimidating doing something, like teaching, that you have never done before or have limited experience with. In this piece, I want to give you some of my best advice that, hopefully, you can use as you move into the role of instructor to perhaps make the transition easier and smoother.

Practice, practice, practice.

Even if you are the expert on a topic, it can be challenging teaching others about that same topic (particularly when you are new to teaching). I found that when I started teaching it was very helpful to have detailed notes on what I wanted to cover and a cliff-notes version that I could glance at as I went through the class. This way, I could make sure I was covering all the details and staying on track with my planned activities and material. I would practice talking about the topic by myself and made sure that I had examples ready to go for every concept that I planned on introducing. It is also a good idea to use presentation slides or some other method to keep yourself focused and to avoid getting sidetracked. It is really easy to get on a tangent that you didn’t intend if you don’t have something to keep you on track.

Establish good, healthy professional relationships and boundaries, but be approachable.

It is true that you were most likely in their position not too long ago (unless you are returning to school after taking a break). It is still good to maintain a professional relationship with your students. This can help them model good professional behavior in all of their future interactions, which their future instructors/professors will thank you for! They will look to you to see what to do, such as how to approach an instructor or how to write an email to an instructor. They will end up modeling your behavior so it is important for you to set a good example. At the same time, it is good to be approachable so that your students are comfortable asking questions and getting help from you. Being more approachable can include holding extra office hours, being available at times that students need, or having time before or after class for quick interactions with students.

Clear expectations.

Work on establishing clear expectations in every aspect of your class, from syllabus development to grading procedures. For example, provide students with grading rubrics before you grade their assignments, be clear on your policies within the syllabus, and remain consistent with students. Sometimes lack of clear expectations and transparency may just be because of a lack of teaching experience, and not lack of desire to be clear. There are many wonderful examples of syllabi (http://teachpsych.org/otrp/syllabi/index.php) and teaching resources (http://teachpsych.org/page-1603066) available for free on the Society of Teaching Psychology (STP) website that can help improve not only the quality of a course, but help you to maintain clear expectations. Most of the teaching resources are evidence-based, which means you can be more confident that they will be successful in your classroom.  Use these resources—they were developed by the best in the field! It can take some time to develop a class that is truly transparent, but the more transparent you are with your processes and expectations, the more you will eliminate a lot of students’ frustrations.

Students want answers on the spot. Wait and give it some thought.

One rule of thumb that has always worked well for me is not immediately saying “okay” to requests from students. I ask them to send me an email or I ask them to “let me consider that and I will get back to you very soon.” This allows me the amount of time I need to give them a thoughtful answer. You also won’t end up saying “yes” to requests that you may later regret.

Know your audience.

Graduate students are not all the same and neither are your undergraduate students. It is good to know the population that you are working with. It may even help you to anticipate challenges and address issues that many of your students are facing. For example, many of my online students are non-traditional students. It is good for me to know that information, as there are many challenges to non-traditional students staying engaged with their academic studies (they might be taking care of a family and/or have a full-time job). By knowing that sort of information, I can adjust certain aspects of the course or how I respond to situations. For example, my due dates in my online courses always fall after a weekend because I know that many of my non-traditional students will have a hard time finishing work by the end of a week and may need the weekend to work on their academic work.

Remember to be kind to yourself—not every lecture is going to go as planned or be totally amazing. You have to have patience and be persistent with improving your teaching skills. Keep with it and you will get better. I wish you the best of luck within your classrooms and with your teaching! 

Dr. Jennifer Grewe is currently a Professional Practice Assistant Professor with the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. Dr. Grewe received her PhD from Utah State University in 2011. Since then, Dr. Grewe has taught thousands of undergraduate students via the many psychology courses for the undergraduate psychology program including Introduction to Psychology, Undergraduate Apprenticeship, Health Psychology, and Scientific Thinking and Methods in Psychology. Dr. Grewe teaches both on campus and online courses. Dr. Grewe is the advisor for the local chapter of Psi Chi (International Psychology Honors Society). She is an active member of the Society of Teaching Psychology (APA, Div.2) and is the Co-Program Director for the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. Dr. Grewe enjoys working with undergraduate students in all levels of their career and loves being a USU Aggie!


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