Page last updated 28 April 2020
This is my checklist of things to do anytime I start a new class. Some of these points are echoed in this article How to Teach a Good First Day of Class. The specific things I do vary from class to class, depending on if the students are mostly math majors, or are mostly science/engineering majors, or are reluctantly taking math for their general education, but I always approximately follow this list.
Send out an non-compulsory survey like this one to the students before the first day. It’ll serve to give you an idea of the demographics of the class, and it’ll also open up the conversation between you and any student who would like to express their concerns to you before the course. For example, a couple times now students who had previous failed the course I’m teaching have responded to the survey to tell me this. It’s helpful to have these students identified immediately so that you can make sure they succeed this time.
Be familiar with the teaching space before actually having to work in there. Doing this allows you to notice and fix any logistical problems with the room, like if there is not computer, or if the whiteboards aren’t visible from some of the seats, or if the room is messy and needs to be cleaned.
Provide your name, email, office hours, course website, and campus resources link:
Tell them about other online resources like YouTube, and WolframAlpha, Desmos, and provide them with an online copy of the textbook. Remember to say that students don’t have to have questions to attend your office hours; they can simply come and hang out and work, because it may help them to have a designated time in their schedules to do the work for this class, and your office hours would make a good time.
Kinda obvious, but tell the students the logistics of the course. Try to make these logistics as simple as possible: You should be able to reasonably verbally tell them the mechanics of when homework is due, how to turn it in, how many exams there are, etc. The students shouldn’t have to refer to the syllabus as a “reference manual” for the course very often.
It’s important to give the students an accurate impression
of who you are professionally in relation to them.
If you’re the course instructor, then that relation is kinda obvious:
you’ll guide each class meeting however you do,
and then at the end of the term you have to
pass judgement upon them
assess their learning for the University.
If you’re a TA then this is a bit more important
because they won’t be sure how to regard you going in.
As a TA you can be more personable to them than the instructor,
especially if it’s a large class with many sections,
and you can designate myself as their primary contact
if they have questions.
In either position, make sure the students know
it’s okay to come to you with meta questions, like
“How am I doing in the course?”
Tell the students how the content of this course relies on ideas from the prerequisite courses, and give them an impression of how the ideas of this course will be useful in their future studies, especially courses in their major (so you need to read the surveys to know their majors). This will almost certainly entail giving the students an overview of the course.
Tell the students “Math is hard. When learning math your brain is trying to make connections between abstract patterns. But your brain is a squishy meat noodle historically used to find food and recognize danger. It’s not inherently good at dealing with abstract ideas, so it’s perfectly normal to experience a feeling of struggling when learning math. This feeling is just your brain working to make a connection while you work to understand a new idea, and it is through this work that you become better at math. Struggling is not an indicator that you’re bad a math or that you’re just dumb; it’s a normal feeling that comes with actively working to learn.”
Tell them their health and happiness are more important than success This needs to be said to the students periodically. They’re all so stressed out about grades and their future, and they’re all so afraid of failure. A calming reminder that their health and happiness matter and are more important than their academic success — maybe coupled with the mantra that happiness comes from within — will go a long way towards maintaining the students’ mental health.