This section offers information and tips on preparing for your first semester of teaching. We begin with places and networks where you might want to seek support, offer suggestions about different preparation strategies, and highlight the aspects of your course you may want to consider before it begins. The section concludes with guidance for thinking about both accessibility and the use of educational technology in your course.
Resources and Support
As you prepare for your class, it’s helpful to identify early what kinds of resources and support you’ll have outside of the classroom. You can expect the support you get from the department and campus where you are teaching to vary, but you can also seek and tap into a range of formal and informal support networks. Many departments will provide you with answers to the questions below, though you will often need to take the initiative of seeking out this information yourself. Department staff members are usually the best places to start.
Resources for Graduate Teaching Fellows and adjuncts (part-time faculty) vary greatly across and even within CUNY campuses by departments. Here is a helpful checklist of things to ask about in your new department.
How do I obtain?
- Campus ID
Do I have access to?
- Office space (keep in mind it’s typical for office and desk space to be shared among faculty)
- Paper for the printer and copier
- Classroom Supplies (whiteboard markers, erasers, chalk, pens, and notepads)
Also keep in mind that some departments may require large print jobs to be sent to the campus print shop rather than use up printer or copier toner and paper. Your department may have other resources to assist you in preparing to teach your course. In particular, you might ask about sample syllabi and previous semesters’ exams; departmentally held instructional materials like videos and visual resources; proctoring support and free blue books for exams; or anything else you imagine might help you plan ahead.
Academic Support Services
All CUNY campuses offer a range of support for instructors and students. These services may include
- librarians who can work with your students to shape research projects
- instructional designers who can support your use of educational technology
- writing center staff who can help refine your assignments and work with your students on their papers
- tutorial services focused within specific disciplines
- offices of accessibility that support students and faculty with disabilities
- counseling centers for students experiencing mental health and emotional struggles
Like most offices at CUNY, however, these units are often overextended and under-resourced, and the earlier you can integrate them into your planning for your semester, the better. For a list of such services by campus, see our TLC Guide to Navigating CUNY at https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/navigating-cuny-2/.
At minimum, you should be aware of what services your campus offers so that you can pass such information to your students via either your syllabus or other means.
Graduate Center and Other Resources
The Teaching and Learning Center
The TLC is here to support you. We hold office hours and phone consultations, offer workshops and focused inquiry groups, support experimental teaching through a variety of special programs, and foster the development of scholarship of teaching and learning. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us to discuss any issue that is impacting your teaching; you can find all our contact information on our web site: http://cuny.is/teaching.
In addition to the resources and services outlined above, another important source of support are your fellow educators: colleagues in the department where you are teaching and in your program at the Graduate Center, and across CUNY who can offer camaraderie, inspiration, and opportunities for collaboration. Consider sharing materials, assignments, and projects with other instructors teaching sections of the same course, or—as you gain experience—with graduate students teaching for the first time. Make it a habit to talk with your peers about their experiences in the classroom, and with faculty and staff at both the Graduate Center and the campus where you teach. Teaching can feel like a lonely enterprise, and it’s useful to remind yourself that you are part of a community of educators pursuing a shared set of goals (see relevant post on Visible Pedagogy: https://vp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2017/03/13/it-takes-a-village/.
Knowing details about your classroom in advance can help you make decisions about how you’ll conduct your class, from whether you’ll be able to integrate audiovisual materials to what types of group work are possible. If the classroom to which you’ve been assigned doesn’t fit the needs of your class, you may be able to request a room change. These requests should be made as early as possible and, sometimes, they take a bit of negotiating and charm. Depending on the school and department, these questions will be likely be handled through the department or require that you contact the Registrar directly. Always start with the department’s program assistant. Just like at the Graduate Center, folks in these roles are best positioned to get things done. Be nice to them, mainly because it’s the right thing to do… but also because they can look out for you and connect you to opportunities that may be of interest.
Time permitting, visit your classroom in advance of the semester. CUNY campuses vary drastically in their set-up, and just because you know how to get to the campus does not mean you’ll be easily able to find your classroom. Depending on the school’s security measures, you may need a key to access your room and potentially, a campus ID, and you’ll want to be familiar with those requirements in advance.
Modes of Instruction
First, it’s important to understand what kind of course you’ve been assigned. CUNY offers various types of courses and uses the following codes to designate how much face-to-face v. online time you can spend with a class. You may be told by your department that you’re teaching an “online” or a “hybrid” course, although students will see the codes below in CUNYFirst when they register for classes. Verify that your understanding of the structure of the course matches the information that students are given when they register.
P = In-Person. No course assignments and no required activities delivered online. (Note: this designation does not mean that digital tools won’t be deployed in the course. You may still integrate educational technology into your face-to-face class.)This is the default mode of instruction when no other information is given to CUNYFirst about the course.
W = Web-Enhanced. No scheduled class meetings are replaced, but some of the course content and assignments, as well as required or optional activities, are online.
In practice, most courses probably fall under this category, but this needs to be clarified by your department and the registrar so that it can be listed properly in CUNYFirst.
PO = Partially online. Up to 32% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. Between twenty minutes to fifteen hours of required online work per semester could replace time spent in the classroom.
H = Hybrid. Between 33% and 80% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. Between twelve to thirty-seven hours of required online work per semester will replace time spent in the classroom.
O = Online. More than 80% but less than 100% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. Between twenty-eight to forty-six hours per semester will replace time spent in the classroom.
FO = Fully online. 100% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. All of the class work, including exams, is online.
Note that a major difference between O and FO is that in an Online class, the final exam can be given in person, but in a Fully Online class, the exam must be given online.
Most campuses offer additional support for faculty teaching in modes other than face-to-face. If your department tells you your course is being offered in one of these modes, ask them about resources for faculty in your position. Most importantly, keep the instructional mode in mind when you’re designing your course. For more information on online and hybrid course design, see the section below as well as further discussion in the next chapter, “Course and Syllabus Design.”
Online and Hybrid Courses
Successful online and hybrid courses often require more intensive planning than face-to-face classes. This is especially true if it’s your first time teaching in this instructional mode. Very few Graduate Center Teaching Fellows are assigned online or hybrid courses, but it does happen from time to time. You may find yourself assigned to teach online or hybrid courses for a number of reasons. You may be approached by a department chair and offered the opportunity to teach in these modes, and receive support in developing your course. You may be applying for a position where teaching in such modes is expected of you. Or, you may even be told, right before the semester, “oh, by the way, your course is completely online. And it starts tomorrow!”
One challenge of hybrid or online courses is that there are fewer built-in opportunities to gauge student comprehension in-person. Often students are confused about what faculty expect of them, and this is true of classes in every mode of instruction. In face-to-face classes, this confusion often becomes readily apparent to mindful instructors, but it can be harder to detect online. Careful assignment design clarifies the expectations you have of students in your online or hybrid course. Creating an organized and well-structured course is especially crucial in these contexts. Once you have a structure in place, it becomes easier to carve out time and opportunities for you and your students to improvise.
Here are some guidelines for scaffolding assignments in a partly or fully online course that will offer you multiple opportunities to intervene in your students’ knowledge-making process:
- Consider workflow: ask yourself what assignments from face-to-face classes might be better accomplished online. For hybrid classes, design online assignments that prepare students to take full advantage of the time the class spends meeting in person.
- Articulate for students the reasons for assignments, the method of assessment, and the grading process.
- Tie low-stakes and high-stakes assignments together to build upon each other in a gradual progression.
- Construct tasks that give students practice before assessment.
For a more details, see our TLC Guide to Online/Hybrid Course Development at https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/hybridonline-course-development/#Instructional_Design.
CUNY’s classrooms are famously diverse, with 76% of students identifying as Hispanic (31%), Black (24%) and Pacific Islander (20%) as of Fall 2017. While 70% of CUNY students are under age 25, in the same classroom you’ll have students just out of high school and students who spent the day taking care of their grandchildren. You may have a classroom with as many first languages as students given that 39% of CUNY undergraduates speak a native language other than English and 35% were born outside of the U.S. mainland.
For more demographics on CUNY students, check out the Student Data Book from the Office of Institutional Research at http://www2.cuny.edu/about/administration/offices/oira/institutional.
Some students in your class will be well-prepared for college-level academic work, and others won’t. This range of experiences and identities makes CUNY’s classrooms vibrant and interesting places, but it also can make equally engaging all students a challenge. Even the most seasoned and committed faculty struggle to make sure their courses are appropriately responsive to the needs of individual students while also serving the broader curriculum. It’s important that beginning faculty members acknowledge and accept this challenge, and commit to making their classrooms the most inclusive spaces they can be.
The number of students in your class matters. Check your class’s course caps (the number of spots allotted to a particular course—usually determined by the number of chairs that can fit in a particular room). You can find course cap information on CUNYFirst. CUNYFirst is the university’s integrated resources and services tool, and facilitates course registration, grading, and many other functions at CUNY. CUNYFirst is complex and not particularly user-friendly. If you need training on CUNYFirst, ask your department’s administrative assistant.
Within CUNYFirst, you should also see the following information:
- a list of the classes you’re teaching, with the number of enrolled students/cap for each class
- your assigned classroom
- a roster of enrolled students. If you click on the roster (an icon next to the title of the course), you will find some preliminary information about your students, including their major, if declared, and level.
This information is helpful when imagining your class as an audience. For instance, are you teaching a large lecture course or a small seminar? Will they mostly be first-year students, juniors and seniors, or a mix across all levels?
The number of students in your class can also shape your instructional choices, including:
- the type of activities and assignments you’re including (for instance, assigning group projects might make more sense in a larger class than in a seminar, while including opportunities for peer review and individual conferences could work well in a smaller class)
- the ways you use educational technology (if it’s a large group, it may be helpful to use an online platform to provide students hesitant to speak in class another chance to participate in the conversation)
- the kinds of classroom management strategies that you can implement
Who’s Taking Your Class?
Speak with others at your campus to learn what you can about the student population and student life. Talk to colleagues who have taught there and ask them what they encountered in terms of their students’ level of preparation.
Consider whether your course is part of a general education curriculum and/or required for the major. What prior knowledge and skills does the course assume students will have? Many courses are built upon prerequisites and it can be helpful to acquire some knowledge about what your students should have already taken before enrolling in your course. But while a course may presuppose that students will have a certain skill-set, it’s not always the case. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consider prerequisites as you plan, but also to anticipate how you’ll support students who are less prepared.
You should also consider how your department is situated within the school, as doing so will help you develop a sense of what students may expect to get from their time in your course and in your discipline.
- Does the department where you are teaching offer a major, and if so, how many students are in the major?
- Or is it one that’s often referred to as a “service department,” which offers introductory or skills-based courses to students who will then major in other disciplines?
- Will the majority of students in your course pursue a career in a different field?
Instructors should think about accessibility throughout the process of conceiving, developing, and running their courses. The principles of Universal Design for Learning (http://udlforteachers.com/) urge educators to integrate choice, variety, and flexibility into course design and procedures, avoiding one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching and learning. Beginning your course planning with accessibility in mind can save time during the semester and, most importantly, helps ensure that all students have the support they need to achieve the goals of your course.
Students may require particular accommodations because of specific needs. If a student has registered with the student accessibility office, then the professor should receive notice of their needs and can reach out to the accessibility office for guidance on how to best provide necessary accommodations. For example, if a student is visually impaired, he or she may need to use additional software or hardware to access course materials both in and out of class. If a student has a mobility impairment, you may be asked to reserve an accessible seat for that student, relax expectations about class arrival time, and make additional accommodations for any out-of-class activities.
Many students with disabilities, however, do not register with accessibility offices, including those with invisible disabilities such as chronic illnesses, cognitive and/or learning disabilities, emotional and/or psychological disorders, and speech and language disorders. All of these conditions, as well as mobility impairments, hearing and/or visual impairments, may impact students’ ability to engage in your class and with your assignments between classes.
Because so many disabilities are invisible, the best way to solicit information regarding students’ learning needs is to repeatedly ask your students to reach out to you to discuss any needs, and to be kind, accommodating, and supportive when they do. Your campus may have a model accessibility statement that you can integrate into your syllabus, but adding a personal or additional note that invites students to share their needs or make requests for accommodations to the professor directly powerfully indicates a concern for student learning and willingness to adapt to meet student needs. Consider how you will organize your course (and your classroom space), the tasks you will ask students to undertake, the materials you will offer them, and your overall instructional approach to ensure that your classroom is as inclusive as possible. And remember that attentiveness to universal design is an ongoing process. The more times you teach a course, the easier it will become to find creative or alternative ways to engage students with diverse learning needs.
Textbook procurement can be difficult for both you and students. If a textbook is required by the department, ask if there are copies on hand for you to use as you prepare. If not, contact the publisher (or get the name of the representative who works with your school and department) and ask for a desk copy. Note that it may take weeks to receive desk copies, so allow time; often, publishers require that books be sent to a departmental address, in which case you may want to alert the department administrator that you’re expecting a delivery.
Think, too, about your students as you’re selecting your course materials:
- If the department requires a particular textbook, what options do the students have for accessing it? Can they rent it?Are copies placed on reserve at the library?
- How much is the book, and are there cheaper alternatives? (For instance, are used copies widely available for purchase online, or could students use a previous edition instead of the most recent one?) Is the book available for purchase at locations other than the campus bookstore? It’s a good idea to include ISBN numbers for all assigned texts on your course syllabus so that students who choose to order the book from an outside source have the correct edition information.
If you are designing the reading list from scratch, do you want to assign whole books or assemble a selection of readings into a course pack? Explore posting open-access course material to an online platform, such as a blog on the CUNY Academic Commons.
Many schools require that you upload your textbook information to CUNYFirst and/or request that you order your textbook directly through the campus bookstore. The date to order books is very early—often it has passed even before you’ve been assigned a course! The bookstore can rush the books for you, if necessary, but you’ll need to follow up (in email or by phone) to confirm that the correct titles and quantities have been ordered. Frequently bookstores order fewer copies than students enrolled in the course and then return excess copies after the first few weeks of the semester.
Tip: Sometimes it takes students some time to get their hands on the book(s). You might think about making the first couple of readings available through other avenues. If you are using an online platform like Blackboard or the CUNY Academic Commons, you should upload the materials you want the students to access there.
Open Educational Resources (OER)
Open Educational Resources are freely available, remixable, and reusable teaching and learning materials that college faculty may choose to use in place of textbooks, which in some fields can cost students significant amounts of money. In addition to reducing course costs, OER adoption can also facilitate pedagogical innovation and experimentation, allowing faculty to curate a range of course materials to meet the specific goals they’ve set for their courses. (For more on this, see this post on Visible Pedagogy https://vp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2017/02/21/oers-thinking-beyond-the-textbook/). For beginning college instructors, developing an awareness of OER and how they’re deployed can create opportunities not only to respond to the needs of your students, but also potentially to work with others to design teaching and learning resources within your field. OER are now available for courses in a wide variety of fields, with more being published every semester.
In recent years, there has been significant and growing interest in implementing OERs at CUNY. New York state began making a significant investment in OER during the 2017-2018 academic year, fueling a number of OER-related support and development initiatives across CUNY. To learn more about this investment, see http://open-nys.org/. And, you can always reach out to your campus library for more information about what OER are available in your field.
If you are interested in searching for OERs that you might use in your course, visit TeachOER.org.
The opportunities to integrate digital tools are quite vast for a college instructor, and can be overwhelming for someone who’s just beginning to explore these approaches to teaching and communicating. Whether and how you choose and combine tools depends on your course goals, your comfort with technology, the digital access available to your students and on your campus, and the level of uncertainty you’re willing to tolerate in an assignment or a class.
As a faculty member, you’ll be able to decide if and how you would like to integrate educational technology into your teaching. Before you start planning your course you should think about the ways you’ll want to communicate with your students, and how you might like to deploy digital tools to connect meetings, foster community, or facilitate specific kinds of writing and multimedia work.
Here are some questions that may help you better understand both your comfort level and goals:
How comfortable am I with…
- new tools?
- fielding technical questions from my students?
- organizing digital spaces?
Do I want to use technology to…
- push information out to my students?
- facilitate conversations beyond the classroom?
- create a record of what’s happened in the course?
- integrate the open web into my teaching?
There is no “correct” answer to the question of how much digital technology you should use in your classes. Classes with few digital tools can of course be effective, as can those that integrate many tools, and this holds true across the disciplines. The key is to integrate digital tools into your teaching intentionally and purposefully. In order to do this, you need to develop a clear sense of what role you want the tools to play in your course. You then need to match that sense to an understanding of the affordances of different technologies.
Let’s consider an introductory history or literature course. You’ll likely be asking your students to
- do a significant amount of reading and perhaps some limited research
- write short informal papers and longer, higher stakes papers
- participate in class discussions
- attend lectures, and
- take assessments such as quizzes or exams.
It’s possible to integrate digital technology in each of these instructional moments in ways that can enhance the experience of your course for both you and your students. Digital tools can help you easily distribute reading materials and other artifacts to your students, while facilitating the storing and organizing of those materials for revisitation and reuse during or across semesters, or across classes. Delivering materials via the web can also facilitate the easy integration of both open access and primary source materials into the reading your students do.
Additionally, asking students to write in a networked, digital space (such as a blog) encourages them to imagine a range of audiences and gives them practice producing multi- and mixed-media compositions. The resulting archive of your class’s reflections can be useful as students are reviewing for exams or constructing longer pieces of writing. It is also provides the instructor with a great opportunity to assess what’s worked and what hasn’t over the course of a semester.
To learn more about how to integrate digital tools into your course, see the TLC’s guide on Educational Technology: https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/educational-technology/.
Tip: Networked digital spaces provide students who are reluctant to participate in class discussions a potentially more controlled environment for engaging with their classmates, course materials, and you. Such reticence in the moment can result from a number of cultural, emotional, intellectual, social, and psychological factors. Digital spaces for informal participation can thus foster a more inclusive learning environment.
Student Privacy and Data
Before requiring students to use a particular tool, faculty should assess how the tool approaches its users’ data. Here are some questions that can guide such an evaluation of a digital tool:
- Assuming it’s web-based, does it require users to display their name or other identifying information such as an email address?
- Does it allow users to do their work with the tool under an alias?
- Does it afford users control over who sees their content and activity, or does it require all work to be done on the open web?
- If you’re planning to have students use a mobile application, does it depend upon location services in order to function?
- Does it require access to other applications to unlock its full functionality, and if so, might a user’s privacy be undermined?
If you try a new tool, you may have a colleague or an administrator ask you if it is “FERPA-Compliant,” and you’ll want to have an answer to this question that shows you’ve thought through the privacy implications of the tool you’ve selected and have a strong pedagogical argument for its deployment. A good rule of thumb is to select tools that require little-to-no personally identifying information for their use beyond an email address. Even if a tool does require additional information, that doesn’t necessarily mean it violates FERPA (which stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). As long as students are made aware of what a tool captures and displays about them and they have the ability to opt out, your use will be FERPA-compliant.
Finally, never post student grades to a public or non-secured environment, which is a clear violation of FERPA. Many faculty members maintain grades in the gradebook on Blackboard, even if they use other tools for more dynamic activities in their classes.
More on FERPA
The 1974 FERPA Act or Buckley Amendment is designed to give students some control over how their information is shared and amended. Universities have slightly varying policies about how to disseminate student information such as grades in compliance with FERPA. Some schools interpret the Act to mean that no grade information may be shared over email, while others allow grade information sharing through the internal school email system, and others still allow comments and scores on individual assignments but not midterm or final grades.
FERPA also impacts how campuses and instructors approach the use of educational technology. The act has not been updated to account for web-connected communication, and the rules and restrictions can be quite confusing. If you’re unsure of the policy on your campus, ask your department or the campus registrar, but a rule of thumb is to try to avoid exposing student data, and to allow students who are concerned about doing work on the open web to opt out or complete requires assignments via other avenues.
When assessing a tool’s functionality, consider how it approaches the question of user-produced content and data.
- Who owns content produced through a tool?
- What rights to user-created content does the company that supports or hosts the tool claim?
- If a student wants to remove, revise, remix, or otherwise make changes to the content after they’ve produced it, are they able to do so?
- Can students easily take their work with them after the semester has completed?
Selecting tools that empower users to own what they’ve created can signal to your students that faculty see the knowledge and work that they are producing during the course of their studies as valuable and connected to work that moves beyond the boundaries of a single assignment or class. The Domain of One’s Own project at the University of Mary Washington (http://umw.domains/) takes this idea a step further by giving students their own web domains, and then offering curricula that empower students to build their digital and scholarly identities completely within spaces that they own and control.
A project like Domain of One’s Own requires resources, support, and community that you may not have access to on the campus where you are teaching. Nevertheless, the principles of such a project can be applied to both how you assess and select a tool, and then how you nurture your students’ understandings of its utility.
Whether you have months to prepare your course or you receive your teaching assignment just before the start of the semester, preparation is essential. Thinking through elements like textbook procurement, classroom technology, and class size will help ensure your course runs as smoothly as possible. At the same time, be sure to make use of the many formal and informal support structures available to you. Your Graduate Center colleagues can be a helpful source of information, whether you’re chatting over coffee or exchanging syllabi and assignment ideas. And finally, remember that the Teaching and Learning Center is always here to help, no matter where you are in your course preparation process!
For more information, check out our TLC Guide “New to Teaching: During the Semester” at https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/during-the-semester/.