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Issues to consider before you start teaching

Are you a graduate student who is teaching your own course this semester or next? This may be the first course of your own, or may be an experienced instructor already. Either way, we hope that this website and our consultation service will provide you with the resources you need to enhance your teaching.

You may also find helpful the section of our website that provides faculty with information about teaching:

Below are some ideas to support teaching practices tailored specifically for you as a graduate student instructor:

Just as it is a good idea to have a research mentor, it is also helpful to have a teaching mentor. We are happy to provide some of that mentorship, but it would also be smart for you to seek out someone in your department for this role. To that end, attend some undergraduate lectures of colleagues in the department whose teaching you admire—note how they break the ice with the students as well as what teaching methods they employ throughout the class. Their teaching expertise is an excellent resource for you. Think about how (or if) you could do something similar in the classes that you teach. Remember: all instructors have their own style, so do not try to be an exact carbon copy; rather, focus on developing a style with which you are comfortable and which encourages students to adopt a deep(er) approach to their learning.

As a graduate student, you may be teaching a course that was designed by someone else. This has both positive and negative aspects; on the one hand, much of the heavy lifting in organizing the course has already been completed for you. On the other hand, it can be a challenge to fit your teaching style to someone else's plan. Find out from your course director, advisor or chair about the department's expectations for this course, so you know how—or if—you can make changes in the syllabi etc.

You need to be absolutely certain that you have a firm grasp of the course content and the role of the course in the departmental curriculum so that when you teach it, you can do so comfortably and credibly. As part of this process, you should stay in communication with the course developer as much as possible. That way, if any hitches occur, you can look to him or her for help in finding a solution. If the course developer is no longer available, you have a wonderful opportunity to use your own creativity to find a solution to the problem.

Before you start teaching, invest time going through the course material, even if this is a course that you took not long ago yourself. You may have mastered this material as a student but looking at the same material as an instructor requires a different viewpoint.

As with any course that you teach, it is important to find out more about who your students are (freshmen, sophomores, etc), how many students are registered, as well as what the prerequisites for the course are (if there are any). This kind of information will guide your thinking about how to approach your teaching.

As an instructor, you might be quite close in age to many of your students. For some graduate students, this does not present a problem because they have a naturally assertive and commanding personality. Others, however, might feel more self-conscious about this narrow age gap, fearing that their students might not take them seriously because of it. The good news is that students tend to respect good instruction, regardless of the age of the instructor. In addition, being of a similar age to your students can sometimes work to your advantage because you may have a lot in common with them. However, this does NOT mean that you either can or should 'friend' them on Facebook or any other social networking site—there needs to be a clear boundary drawn.

As you prepare for your classes, you need to know what the objectives (also sometimes known as outcomes) of the course are. In other words, what do you want your students to both know and be able to do by the end of the semester? These objectives need to be prepared and articulated well in advance of your first class so that you can plan your teaching and assessment around them. If you want to learn how to write course objectives, go to

Technology—when used appropriately—can significantly support your teaching. To this end, you should make a point of visiting Classroom Technology to see what is available to you.

The teaching itself

Begin each lecture with a brief summary of what was covered in the previous lecture; then, list the key objectives that will be covered in that day's lecture. At the end of the class, provide an overview of what was discussed and explicitly link this up to the list of objectives that you gave the students at the beginning of the class. By doing this, you are both encapsulating the day's work in a neat package, and you are drawing the connections between the different sections of work covered in each class. This serves to emphasize the fact that each lecture is inextricably linked to those that came before as well as those that will follow.

Make use of media such as PowerPoint to support your teaching, but try not to over-rely on them. Just present slides with a 'skeleton' of the points that you are making—the students need to fill in the 'flesh'.

Try to make your classes as interactive as possible—encourage your students to ask you questions as they arise (and see if their peers can be persuaded to attempt an answer before you weigh in), and give them problems to solve once or twice a lecture in order to keep them actively engaged.

After each class, carve out some quiet time to reflect on what worked and what did not during the lecture. You may wish to capture these reflections in a journal. This kind of thinking lays the foundation for your future teaching because you are consciously articulating not only what you did in class, but also why you did it that way. You may also wish to share your journal (or excerpts from it) with a mentor or a colleague in order to start a conversation about good practice in teaching and learning.

In terms of course assessment, you may end up having to grade assignments that were set by someone else. While this is not an ideal state of affairs, there are ways of ensuring that the process runs smoothly for both you and your students. First, familiarize yourself with the assignment task(s)—try and articulate in your own words what it requires the students to do. If you do not understand it, chances are that your students won't either. Then, develop a set of assessment criteria against which the assignments will be graded. Give your students a copy of this (or post a copy online) and talk the class through each of the criteria. In other words, never assume that the intention of each criterion is obvious to everyone—rather, make sure that it is. For instance, if one of your criteria states that students need to 'support their arguments with relevant, detailed and convincing evidence', you need to be explicit about what constitutes relevance, how much detail is required and the difference between convincing and superficial evidence.

Have fun—enjoy the process of teaching your students, and be open to learning as much from your students as you teach them!