Tips for Teaching a New Course

We all like to have the opportunity to teach new courses. How do you go about doing that? In your first year as an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college chances are all the courses you teach will be new. Where do you start? These tips focus on teaching biology courses, but they work just as well for any subject matter.

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For a course that is in your field of expertise, especially one that is an advanced or intermediate level course, the trickiest part is finding the right “level”. You don’t want your course to be too easy, too simplified. You don’t want your course to be too advanced and overwhelming. I recommend you browse a number (at least three if they exist) of textbooks in your subject, or in a closely related subject, to get a sense of the level of the material. If it’s your first time teaching a course, having a textbook as a guide for you and for your students, is a very good idea. Most textbooks have resources like references, ideas for further reading, that you can look over. Even if you don’t plan on having a textbook for your course, it helps for you to have an idea of what previous professors might have included in a course similar to yours. That said, though, do not plan your syllabus around a textbook. The book is giving you an idea of “level”, but shouldn’t dictate how you organize your own course.

Think about what your students need to get out of the course. Design your course with these outcomes,  your course goals,  in mind.  If one goal is critical evaluation of the primary literature, you need to be sure to give the students lots of practice with that. If a goal is to have a broad survey type understanding of many topics, that course will have a very different design than one where the goal is for students to have a deep understanding of a current topic within the field. I don’t think most courses have enough time to develop more than about 4 or 5 different main goals/concepts, so you really have to make some tough choices.

Most textbooks are really encyclopedias. I only use textbooks to get a broad look at a field of study. In fact, these days, I hardly look at textbooks at all for intermediate or advanced level courses. You need to decide what subset of concepts or content is critical to meet the goals of your course. No one course can possibly “cover” an entire subject thoroughly or well. Consider having a focus or theme to your coverage of a field. For example, I often teach neurobiology or neuroscience courses. This is a HUGE field of study. I usually organize my course around one or two subthemes. I choose two or three of the hottest, most current areas of study within neurobiology and develop a course integrating those areas. Often, when planning a neuroscience course, I read “special issues” of the top journals in neuroscience. One time I used a special issue of the journal, “Neuron,” to organize my entire semester’s course. That was a really fun version of my course. This year, I’m organizing my advanced topics in neurobiology course around three of the newest areas of study in my field. All of the papers I’ve selected have been published within the past 4 or 5 years, most in 2014. For this advanced level course, I want students to experience the front line of a field, to read the debate, the controversy, to see the gaps.

A very important tip that I sure wish someone had told me when I was developing my first college course: Talk to your colleagues! Ask them for copies of their course syllabi, even if their field of expertise is quite different from yours. Ask them what kinds of assignments they have for introductory, for intermediate, for advanced students. Get a sense from their course descriptions about how much course material is covered in a class session, what kinds of course goals are important in your new department. Don’t be shy, here. Your colleagues will be happy to share their own experiences with you. I have learned so much about course development and revision from my colleagues.

If you are assigned to teach a lab course right away your first semester, resist the urge to create all new laboratories. Use laboratory exercises that your colleagues have used. You can always modify, add/subtract after you’ve gone through a set of labs. The advantages of this are numerous. The equipment is there and has been used before. An expert (the previous instructor) is there and will very likely be happy to help you. There are instructions already written to give out to students.

If you need to develop a set of labs to insert into a course, I would urge you to consider placing them into the latter half of the semester rather than right away, to give yourself time to work on them on the weekends. There are TONS of great ideas on the internet, and a growing number of electronic resources for college level laboratories. See if there are some ideas you can adapt for your own course. One terrific source is the up and coming video journal: Journal of Visualized Experiments.

Don’t feel like you have to have 12 or 13 weeks of lab if the course is new to you. Consider letting your students spend more than one week with the same kind of laboratory technique- let them repeat the process, particularly if the lab involves measurements or experimental results. Or, consider skipping a week or two or having a couple of lab sessions devoted to a journal-club style discussion of a primary research article, breaking the lab session into small sessions of small groups of students. It’s better to teach  8 or 10 good lab sessions than 13 frenzied ones. Less really is more. It’s not how much you cover, how many labs you have, it’s how well do your students learn the key concepts or techniques in your field.