Teaching Your Own Class

By Andrew S. Obus

Many graduate students will have the opportunity during graduate school to teach their own classes.  Usually this comes after some number of semesters of TAing.  Being wholly responsible for a class brings up many issues that do not arise for TAs, and I want to discuss and give advice about some of them in this post.

ISSUE 1:  YOU are responsible for the syllabus and schedule for the class.

Maybe you are teaching a standard calculus course where the syllabus is already decided for you, but in any case, you will be setting the schedule of lecture topics.  The most important thing about this is to DO IT.  In advance.  Make a schedule before the course begins saying what topics or book chapters you will cover on each day.  Rarely will you stick exactly to this schedule—you will occasionally misjudge how long it takes to cover something, your class will sometimes go off on tangents, or you may decide in the middle of the class that you want to talk about something you had not planned on originally.  This is fine.  The point is that having your schedule will allow you to determine what you need to do when one of these situations arises.  If you start falling behind, you will know immediately and you can decide whether you want to move quickly to catch up, or perhaps skip a topic on your syllabus.  You do not want to realize a week before the class ends that you have three weeks of material left.  Some of your students will have realized this already, and unless you have a good plan, they will hold it against you.

ISSUE 2: YOU are responsible for writing the exams.

Writing exams is difficult, and I do not claim to be an expert.  Indeed, I have made many mistakes while writing exams, and I want to share what I have learned.

First, you have to have an idea of how hard you want to make the exam.  I generally write them so that I will be pleased if the class average is a 75 or an 80.  In particular, I want there to be enough difficult questions so that the top students can distingush themselves somewhat consistently. If the exam is easy enough so that the class average (for a class with standard ability) is a 90, then random careless mistakes will play a much greater role in distinguishing the top students.  People may be used to scoring higher on exams in high school, especially if you teach at a selective college or university—be prepared for this.  It is a good idea to mention this before the first exam so that no one has a heart attack because he or she just got the first 75 of his or her life.  On the other hand, if the exam is so hard that the class average is a 40, your students will usually become discouraged no matter what.

Second, your exam does not need to cover every topic that you want your students to know.  You only have to make your students think that it might cover any topic that you want them to know.  If I think a topic is important, I will tell my students it is “fair game,” even if I have no intention of putting it on the exam.  I made the mistake of trying to cover too much on an exam, and the exam was way too long—the people who did the best were the people who had memorized lots of shortcuts and could do arithmetic quickly.  This may not be what you want to select for on an exam.  I have found that a good rule of thumb is that an exam will take the average student about 4-5 times as long as it takes you to write out the solutions.

Third, make sure that your exam has easy, medium, and hard questions.  I made the mistake of giving an exam with all medium difficulty questions. The mean was a 65, but almost everyone had a score below 50 or above 80. This can be good for a diagnostic, so you can see who is keeping up, but I wouldn’t recommend it for grading.

ISSUE 3: YOU are responsible for all of the issues you can hand off to your professor when you are a TA.

Grade Changes.  Exam make-ups.  Academic dishonesty.  These headaches will be yours if you are teaching your own class.  The best medicine here is preventative.  Make your policies crystal-clear at the beginning of the course and stick to them.  I do not allow grade changes under any circumstances, unless I have made a mistake.  You will get students who claim that they “need” a certain grade (for athletic eligibility, a scholarship, etc.), and ask you to make a change.  Reject these requests categorically, and don’t feel bad about it.  The student does not really expect you to change his or her grade, he or she just has nothing to lose. I like to drop the lowest exam.  That way, if someone misses an exam for a legitimate reason (death in the family, sickness, etc.), that exam can be dropped and you do not have to administer a make-up exam.  Rarely will someone miss two exams with legitimate excuses. Academic dishonesty cannot be completely prevented, but you can minimize cheating on exams simply by paying attention.  If two people look like they might be copying off of each other, you can always move them apart. If you are going to dispense a serious penalty for academic dishonesty, I would recommend discussing the matter first with a professor whom you trust—these issues can become very complicated, depending on your school.

Of course, you want to make class interesting and informative.  But you have been a TA, so you already know how to do that, right?  Good luck with your class!

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2 Responses to Teaching Your Own Class

  1. fmorgan says:

    From Amber Johnson

    We just posted an article, 99 Excellent Advice Sites for Teachers. I thought I’d drop a quick line and let you know in case you thought it was something you’re audience would be interested in reading. Thanks!

  2. fmorgan says:

    Joe Corneli of PlanetMath.org notes that Zimmerman’s “A Social Cognitive View of Self-Regulated Academic Learning” (J. Educational Psych. 81) provides a list of 14 successful student learning strategies on page 17.

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