Making a Strong Start to a New Semester

The first few weeks of a semester usually set the pattern for the entire semester. Student quickly analyze a teacher's attitude and style and, based on their previous experience and current observations, make judgments about their own role in the class and decisions about their level of engagement and participation. Establishing a positive attitude from the onset has clear advantages for both teacher and students. Making a strong start requires that teachers communicate their expectations to the class in an effective manner. What is said and done during the first few weeks of a class may determine the outcome of the semester for many students.

On the most obvious level, students have a right to know what will be required of them during the semester: the number and kinds of papers and/or exams for which they will be responsible; the policies they must observe concerning attendance, late assignments, absenteeism, group work, etc; the method of calculation for final grades; the level of class participation that is expected; and any other information a teacher is able to provide on how the class will be conducted. By first explaining and answering students' questions about all course requirements and then distributing a detailed syllabus to the class that restates this information, what they have to do to keep up—and if they don't, they have no one to blame but themselves. If all has been carefully prepared and explained at the beginning of the semester, and teachers spring no surprises later on in the semester, students have no grounds for complaints.

Perhaps less obvious but equally important are the other messages that must be conveyed. Unless students get a sense that the teacher views them as capable adults on equal footing with all others in the class, they will almost certainly not respond to the class with active participation and enthusiasm. Students need to get the message from their teachers that they will be treated with honesty, respect, and fairness.

Treating students honestly does not mean being brutal or cruel. If, indeed, the truth sometimes hurts, it may be because the truth-sayer, in many cases, seeks to hurt rather than help. Every student has weaknesses in one area or another; rather than focusing on the students' weaknesses alone, look also at the students' strengths. Let all the students understand that you regard them as capable of succeeding in the course, especially those who are experiencing difficulties in the class. Don't portray a student's problem as failure; transform it into an opportunity to approach a problem in a different way.

It is important, however, always to be open and honest with students about grades. Kindness doesn't mean glossing over a students' bad performance on a test or a paper; such actions do not help the student in any way. Work with the student to set realistic goals and then determine what level of work will be necessary to reach these goals.

Respecting students as individuals is another crucial element in creating an environment where students are able to learn. Encourage them to think independently and to express their ideas without fear of ridicule. Pay attention to students when they speak; for some undergraduates, it is extremely difficult, almost painful; to speak up in class—an inattentive or joking response could inhibit that student from participating in the future. Furthermore, when students see that the teacher is taking the ideas of their classmates seriously, they will also begin to listen with respect to their peers.

Be fair to all students. Do not just teach to the three smartest students in the class or to the majors, ignoring the rest. Avoid stereotyping students by race, gender, ethnicity, or any other equally arbitrary category, and take care not to teach to just a single group. Set high expectations for all of your students. Research has shown that students work up (or down) to the expectations of the teacher. Give up on your students and they will give up on the class; inspire students to put forth their best efforts and they may surprise you and, even, themselves.