Getting Through That Class The First Time
21 February 2003
At SIGCSE 2003,
a panel discussion was held on the following question:
How does one
"survive" teaching a course for the first time?
What follows is a transcription of the ideas shared by the attendees
of the session, as facilitated by the panelists. The ideas have been
roughly categorized by subject area and reworded for clarity by the
moderator; the content of the ideas is that of the original
- Be confident; remember, even if you're uncertain about the
material, you know more than your students do.
- Keep a positive attitude; it's contagious.
- Have an attitude that embraces doing new things; look at new
courses as a way of growing and not stagnating.
- Be honest with students about the course and your experience.
- Tell students you will make mistakes, and don't be afraid of
making them as class proceeds. (After all, they might learn something
from them ...)
- Don't apologize too much.
- Make class fun.
- Find people who teach (or have taught) similar courses. Ask them
for advice, resources, course materials, good textbooks, tips on class
organization, and pitfalls to avoid.
- Search the web for similar courses, especially from schools
similar to yours. (Ask permission if you borrow significantly from
- Check textbook publisher and/or author websites for resources.
- Sit in on colleagues' courses and learn from them.
- Find a campus mentor to guide you.
- Get excellent teaching assistants to help you with the course.
- Check online repositories for educational resources, such as
MERLOT (www.merlot.org) and
- Check past proceedings of SIGCSE and CCSC conferences for relevant
- See the list of resources at the end of this document as well.
- Remember to "pay it forward" ... offer your improvements to those
who have given help to you, as well as those who will follow you.
- Figure out what you want the students to be able to do,
and then figure out how to facilitate those behaviors.
- Consider using some of the following techniques:
- Collaborative learning
- In-class exercises
- Open-ended questions
- Student presentations of easier material
- Be influenced by other instructors' schedules for your course;
they can give an indication of good pacing.
- Don't make up a strict course schedule; feel free to adjust it if
you aren't accomplishing your goals.
- Re-use your own material from other courses.
- If you are teaching multiple courses, schedule exams for different
courses at different times.
- Build a "backup lecture" to use in case you fall behind.
- Have students give oral reports on material, including fielding
questions from other students.
- Team-teach for a day/week/month with another instructor.
- Bring guest lecturers into your course.
- If you have several new course preparations at the same time,
focus your efforts on doing one well.
- Get a good textbook for the course.
- Get a good backup textbook for your own use: one that is more
comprehensive and more advanced than the regular textbook.
- Follow the textbook's suggested organization (see the preface) the
first time through the text (modulo omitting or supplementing material).
- Regarding "bad textbooks" that are selected for you:
- Don't apologize to students for the text (it may unnecessarily
sour their attitude toward it).
- Teach from a different textbook.
- Provide concept maps to students to help them navigate the
- See if your department will help pay for new textbooks.
- Accentuate the positive aspects of the book.
- Provide a bibliography to students, including how to get old
editions of the text (e.g. half.ebay.com).
- Ask students to evaluate multiple textbooks for you.
On Notetaking and Slides
- If you use slides:
- Post them online. If you post them before class, students can
print them before coming to class and take notes on them.
- Include discussion questions on the slides.
- Beware of slides provided by publishers. Often, they contain too
much information, and have annoying errors.
- Make students take notes ... but not too many notes.
- Don't forget the power of blackboards and chalk.
- Get assignments from other textbooks.
- Grade simply.
- Design assignments which can be graded simply.
- Allow students to resubmit assignments for improved grades.
- Let students evaluate their own work.
- Have students write reports on their submitted programs.
- Don't feel obligated to grade everything.
- Randomly collect and grade homework.
- Make sure your students get feedback on their performance.
- Do the homework assignments yourself.
- Be flexible in your grading.
- If you call assignments "take-home exams", students may take them
- Use oral quizzes.
- Post online a list of test study suggestions.
- Write one exam question every day after class.
- Have your students write questions (including the answers) for
upcoming exams. Turn those questions into a study guide, and promise
that a subset will be on the exam.
- Be flexible; if something isn't working, do something else.
- Let your students teach you; they often bring great experiences
with them into the classroom.
- Follow-up with students and their questions (especially when they
stump you the first time).
- Reward the behaviors you want to see in the class. (Remember
the Gold Stars?)
- Don't be afraid to change your expectations for the class as the
- Don't be afraid to let the class get rowdy.
- If you write "sample programs" to learn the material for yourself,
post those samples online as "demos".
- Slow down when you're unclear about the material; most of us tend
to speed up when we reach unfamiliar material.
- Use students' work in class.
- Show students bad code (and the consequences of bad code).
- Don't be impatient with student questions.
- On the first day of class, ask open-ended questions; this sets the
tone for the rest of the course.
- Pursue tangential topics as they arise.
- Remember that no two students, or sections of a course, or
terms a course is offered, are alike.
- Keep a log of what works and what doesn't, which you can use the
second time you teach the course.
- Get student feedback early and often:
- Ask specific questions rather than general ones.
- Use quick "post-mortem" evaluations at the end of lectures.
- Consider online surveys (e.g.
- Look students in the eye as you teach; you may be able to assess
how much learning is occurring.
- Listen to your students.
- Ask your students what they hope to get out of a course.
- Ask your students what they fear will happen in a course.
- Teach introductory courses before the advanced ones in a subject.
- Refrain from teaching during the summer; use those times for
research and learning, which can feed into your teaching.
- Treat your time learning about new ideas as "play".
All of the ideas above were generated by the attendees of this panel
discussion at SIGCSE'03; their generosity is gratefully acknowledged.
The moderator would also like to extend thanks to the panelists,
Jim Caristi, and
Ellen Walker, for their contributions
before and during the panel discussion; without their assistance,
none of this would have been possible. Any errors, of course,
remain those of the moderator.
Suggestions for improving the structure of this document would be
welcome; please contact Jim