Advice for New Instructors

Every student deserves to have an instructor with at least a minimum ability to teach. This page provides some advice and links to additional resources that may be helpful for those instructors with little training in pedagogy.

While most new instructors are naturally interested primarily in the nuts and bolts of teaching (how do I actually DO this?), it is worth taking just a little time to consider the big picture as well. What does it mean to be an effective teacher and how can you ensure that you are building good habits from the beginning?

Effective Teaching: One model that may be useful for new teachers is to consider the types of attitudes, skills and knowledge that effective teachers need.

Effective teaching Venn Diagram 3

Anyone who has been asked to teach a college class likely has sufficient knowledge of their disciplinary content already but good teachers also need to know something about pedagogy, i.e., teaching methods and theories. Understanding the context in which you are teaching (is it a big or small class? required or elective? who are your students?) helps you determine which pedagogical approaches are most appropriate. The overlapping circles here indicate that to be an effective teacher, one really needs all three types of knowledge. On the skills side, being well-organized and able to communicate well are likely not surprising to see here; instructors may be less likely to think about the importance of interpersonal skills but the relationships you develop with students can have a huge impact in how much they learn. Again, an effective teacher needs ALL of these skills. Part of building good relationships is having empathy, particularly when students lives are quite different from the instructor's. Effective teachers also approach the classroom with an open mind, both in terms of being receptive to what students bring to the classroom and being open to changing their own thoughts and behaviors. Finally, the best teachers are student-centered, which includes a belief that teaching is about helping students learn, not just delivering information; teaching is something you do FOR students, not TO them.  

A Learning Classroom: Another model that may be useful is to consider the components of an effective classroom, that is, one where all students are most likely to learn at deep levels:

Four pillars model

Similar to the Venn diagram above, knowledge is key here: it provides the foundation for everything else. The four pillars represent principles that underlie how an effective course is taught, all the materials and activities that the teacher creates.

  • Transparency: Transparency means that students understand howand why they are learning course content in particular ways. That means instructors need to consider how and why they are asking students to learn in particular ways.
  • Inclusivity: An inclusive classroom is one where ALL students feel welcome, safe to participate, and supported in their learning.
  • Interaction: There is plenty of evidence that students learn more when they interact directly with course contact and with other people as part of their learning. 
  • Reflection: Having students reflect on their learning can help student both learn more deeply and learn “how to learn” (see Vanderbilt’s page on metacognition for information and resources). Reflection is equally important for instructors, to consider what is or isn’t working and what changes might lead to improved learning.

These pillars are connected by three things that the teacher does or provides for students.

  • Support: Effective teachers do not simply present students with a course and let them sink or swim. They consider how to appropriately scaffold course content and how to support students who may struggle at different points along the way. This will look different for each instructor and each course but increases the odds that all students will succeed.
  • Feedback: Feedback is information, and both instructors and students need information about whether they are learning in order to make adjustments before it is too late.
  • Alignment: Alignment refers to an aspect of course design, making sure that all the assessments, activities and outcomes for the course connect to and support each other. In a well-aligned course, activities actually help students develop the skills and content knowledge you want them to develop, and those skills and knowledge are then used in assessments that actually assess whether students have learned what you want them to learn.

And all of this brought together by (and helps to build) the rapport that the instructor establishes with and among the students; again, relationships can have a huge impact on student learning. In the best classrooms, none of these individual pieces stands alone but they build on and build toward each other.

In addition to the resources embedded above, the following links may be helpful to those just getting started in the classroom: