Prism Magazine September 2001



Web Extra


- Compiled by Nancy L. Denton with contributions from Elliot Eisenberg, Renata S. Engel, Jerry Henderson, L. Glenn Kraige, and Michael A. Magill.

Summer is ending, and you start each day with that horrible churning feeling-the new term is nearly here, and the next group of demanding, judgmental, never-happy students will soon be with you. There must be something you can do to get past this classroom condition--some of your colleagues actually seem to be energized and excited about the upcoming semester! What makes their teaching experience so much better than yours? Do they have a secret formula for success in the classroom?

Five mechanics educators with exemplary teaching records were polled to learn their secrets in hopes of helping instructors get beyond simply adequate teaching and move closer to great teaching. These five educators' styles run the gamut from formal, traditional lecturing to informal, cooperative learning approaches. Their personal style doesn't appear to be an important factor in the classroom, as long it's truly their own style. All concurred that first impressions matter. The first day greatly determines the tone of a class for the rest of the term.

Glenn Kraige, Virginia Tech professor of engineering science and mechanics, uses most of the first day establishing the course rules and the general atmosphere for the semester. He distributes both a course outline and a course policy sheet at the first class session and adheres very closely to the schedule and stated policies. The policy sheet addresses typical items about homework solutions, grading scale, and honor policies to be followed. In addition, Kraige includes a sheet stating the student cost for a one-hour lecture ($23 for in-state students and $40 for out-of-state students, for a total of approximately $1,000 for a 40-student class). He clearly states that both the instructor and the student have responsibilities regarding these financial figures. Elliot Eisenberg, professor of engineering at Penn State-Hazleton, also devotes much of the first day to communicating policies and course requirements. He says, "it's important to carefully explain, and be certain that students understand, your expectations of them-both academic and behavioral. Students need to be told how you expect them to behave in class and during exams and what the consequences of inappropriate behavior will be. Whatever the consequences, you must be willing to enforce them."

Renata Engel, associate professor and director of Penn State's Schreyer Institute for Innovative Learning, begins by telling her students that she welcomes their questions and they should feel free to stop her at any time during her lecture to review a confusing point. "As I walk into class the first day, I remind myself that the most important question I will be asked during the semester is the first question that I am asked. My answer will determine whether I will be asked other questions during the semester. Likewise, my reaction to the first answer given by a student will determine whether others will venture answers to my questions in the future."

The human aspects of the classroom are in the forefront of teaching concerns for Michael Magill, professor and head of the Mechanical Engineering Technology Department at Purdue University. He says, "The two most important ingredients for establishing the ideal classroom atmosphere are instructor attitude and students knowing that the instructor genuinely cares about them and their personal success." He notes that establishing these principles from the start will enhance the classroom culture, regardless of student problems or instructor shortcomings and that adopting a positive attitude is within the control of the instructor. Probably the most straightforward method is to begin by making sure you are fully prepared for class the day before the class meets. If it fits your style, Magill suggests figuring out how you can incorporate a quick joke, funny transparency, or other icebreaker, especially on the first day, and encourages all instructors to devote the 15-30 minutes prior to entering the classroom to reviewing and visualizing how they would like their class sessions to unfold. Lastly, take time to remind yourself how it was when you were the student starting a new course with a new professor and emulate the best behaviors and practices you observed in your instructors.

Take the opportunity, whenever possible, to accommodate students on waiting lists, especially those whose schedules were canceled due to finances and other personal problems. This could mean letting them enroll or letting them attend your class for about a week until other students drop the class. These students can become much-needed allies later in the course and can attest to your honest concern for their scholastic well-being.

If you plan to incorporate significant discussion or other student interaction in your course, the best time to begin getting students involved is on day one. Engel suggests the following technique to get past students' fears of public speaking and to begin their acquaintance with future team members. She has the students take three minutes to meet two or three people around them and to learn some interesting fact about each person. Engel then asks her students to introduce one of the people they met to the class. The class environment will immediately become less intimidating and more engaged. Particularly effective with part-time non-traditional students, Eisenberg recommends introducing the college version of "show-and-tell" on the first day. He encourages students to bring anything to class that relates to the course. Many will bring things they have broken or found to be of interest at their jobs; occasionally, they will discuss newspaper or magazine articles.

Magill reminds us to avoid thinking that reluctance to speak implies students are not listening or engaged. It does behoove the instructor to carefully watch for other signs of student understanding or confusion. Of the educators questioned, all cautioned against taking any action that might embarrass students, the result of their fears of saying something "dumb" in the eyes of their peers or something that will cause the instructor to belittle them. Kraige will not address individual behavior concerns in the classroom, but instead requests the student to visit his office for discussion of inappropriate classroom behavior. Eisenberg has the class close their eyes before he asks questions directed toward gauging the group's understanding of course material, their study habits, etc to remove peer pressure from their responses. An essential element of this "anonymous" technique is to maintain the students' trust by not revealing individual inputs at any time.

Probably the most important action an instructor can take to increase student learning effectiveness is to learn their students' names, according to Kraige. This can and should begin on the first day of class. Kraige recommends photographing the class, enlarging the print, and having the students write their names on it. Study the print whenever possible. Engel's get-acquainted activity where the students introduce each other offers another approach. The action of learning the students' names ties in directly with Magill's principle that you must care about each student in your course.

Professor Emeritus Jerry Henderson of California State University?Davis sums up the components in his "Top 10 Considerations on 'How to Handle a Class":

  1. Understand the preparation of the students in your class. Your job is to increase knowledge and its use, not waste the students' time or give them a "snow job."
  2. Prepare everything that you present. Do not waste the students' time thinking about material on their time.
  3. When preparing lectures, assignments, and exams, consider them from the point of view of the students, i.e., their background, interest, time availability, etc.
  4. In addition to presenting the subject matter, inform the students, often, why the material is part of the curriculum.
  5. Students are people. Learn their names.
  6. Talk with the class, not to them. You are the instructor because you have more knowledge and experience, not because you are a superior being.
  7. Admit errors. Clear up unanswered questions the next meeting if some research is required. Never fudge or guess!
  8. Make yourself available both physically and mentally outside of class, and expect the students to have formulated their questions and concerns.
  9. Learn about and consider student differences-gender, ethnicity, etc.
  10. In spite of what your colleagues and administrators appear to think, good teaching does matter. Long-term feedback from the consumers (students) confirms this.

The teaching insights and recommendations cited here are excerpted from a panel session sponsored jointly by the Mechanics and New Engineering Educators' Divisions at the 1999 Annual Conference. Copies of the panelists' full written comments can be obtained from Nancy L. Denton at


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