6 Tips for New College and University Educators

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As I wrap up my 5th year of teaching, I figured I’d put together a nice little set of tips for folks just starting to teach at the college-level. In general, my tips are very big picture and will help you get through some of your tougher times as an educator.

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A List of Tips for New Educators

Since starting my teaching career in 2018, I’ve grown a lot. A major part of that growth has been learning how to deal with some challenging teaching situations. As a result, this list isn’t really going to give you the kinds of tips you might typically see—like how to organize your office or how to structure your free time. Instead, it’ll focus on the challenges you will face as an educator and how to prevent and/or overcome them.

You Should Always Get Details Down in Writing

One lesson I learned very early in my teaching career was to always get agreements down in writing—especially if you want to be a flexible educator for you students. In other words, if you make a deal with one of your students (e.g., by giving them an extension on an assignment), that deal should be written down somewhere like your email.

Hopefully, it’s somewhat obvious why this is important, but I’ll explain anyway. If you do not get a deal down in writing, it’s very easy for the student to ignore the agreement and submit work on their own terms. Previously, I talked about a student who did exactly this to me, and I had no way to call them out on it.

If there is nothing else you take from this list, it should be this tip. It was the first major lesson I learned, and I haven’t had any problems like it since.

You Can Prevent Most—But Not All—Cheating

As someone in the world of computer science, there’s a general obsession with objectivity. In other words, there is this belief that there is always a right and wrong answer to a question. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of lazy assessments that ask students to answer questions with an objectively correct response—or at least a correct response according to the instructor.

Naturally, the consequence of giving assessments which only have one answer is that students will very quickly be able to retrieve the correct answer without doing the work (i.e., cheating). I’ve had instructors in the past try to solve this problem by changing their assessments every semester, but this is a lot of work for very little payoff, in my opinion. In my own experience going as far back as even my first semester of teaching, I’ve seen a lot of these kinds of assignments plagiarized

One solution to this cheating problem is to provide more open-ended assessments, such as open-ended projects. The point here being that students can then select a topic of their own interest and build their knowledge around it.

There are, of course, other strategies for preventing teaching, most of which involve just getting to know your students. For instance, knowing your students’ names is a great way to make students feel less anonymous.

Of course, even if you go through the effort of preventing cheating, you will still have some students that cheat. It is inevitable, and I do not see a reason to beat yourself up over it. Maybe just send them my tongue-in-cheek article on how to cheat in a better way.

You Should Take Your Teaching Evaluations With a Grain of Salt

As far as I know, many institutions have students fill out some form of teaching evaluation at the end of each semester. This is a great tool for you to help develop your teaching with some feedback directly from your students. However, you should be wary of the results for a few reasons.

First, students aren’t exactly equipped to evaluate teaching. They aren’t trained in it, so they don’t know what effective teaching should look like. However, they can tell when an environment is welcoming and supportive, so I would definitely listen to them when they describe their experiences.

Second, in my experience, teaching evaluations are very rarely used as a part of the promotion journey. If institutions aren’t going to respect them as a part of your performance reviews, then I think it’s safe to say that you shouldn’t stress too much about your teaching evaluations either.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, teaching evaluations are biased to folks that look like me: a white male. This reality has been reproduced multiple times in the literature, so you may put a ton of work in your teaching to still receive bad reviews from your students. This is partially why I think we should throw them out as a form of feedback.

You Should Find Ways to Align Expectations

As an educator, you will find yourself in situations where you communicated your expectations poorly. In other words, students will think they need to do one thing when you had something else entirely in mind. Unfortunately, this only becomes more complex when you introduce additional stakeholders, such as graders or other instructors.

For me, I had a lot of trouble aligning expectations between my students, their graders, and me. Often times, I would say one thing to a student and a grader would say another. Naturally, this led to all sorts of problems. Specifically, I recall having a grader who was significantly tougher on students than I would have liked, which lead to many students losing motivation.

Ultimately, I ended up creating rubrics for all of the assignments. That way, graders were bound to the structure of the rubric, and students could get a feel for what was expected of them. Sure, there were still disagreements between the three groups, but the difference was usually a point or two.

You Do Not Have to Stress About Your Choices

In general, teaching is a tough field. You have to deal with a lot of challenges coming from a lot of different directions, like students, parents, and administrators. Not to mention, you will be presented with situations that don’t have a correct answer.

One scenario that came to mind for me was a student who would routinely show up to exams late, expecting to be able to get the full time needed. In a scenario like this, there are a lot of ways to approach the problem. You could tell the student, “tough luck.” If possible, you might stay late to give them extra time. Alternatively, you might offer them a retake exam at a later date.

Regardless, when you’re presented with a scenario where there is no clear way to proceed, it’s okay not to beat yourself up over the path you choose. In my case, I went the “tough luck” route, consulted some colleagues, and walked my decision back later. It’s okay to do that.

You Can Chalk a Course or Semester Up as a Loss

Aside from my writing tip, I would say that my second most important tip would be that it’s okay to realize you’ve done all you can do. I first had this realization last semester at the end of my fifth year of teaching when I found that I just couldn’t engage one of my classes.

One thing you will have to come to terms with is that what you do as an educator will not work for every single student all of the time. Sure, you might try to leverage a diverse set of teaching techniques, but there comes a point when it’s okay to stop trying. I reached that point with one of my classes last semester.

Thankfully, semesters end, so you always have that to look forward to. You will get a chance to try again next semester.

Bonus Tip: You Can Grow As an Educator

Many of the stories I drew on to create this article came from old reflections I wrote over the past several years. Here are just a few of them:

If you want to get better as an educator yourself, I’d recommend writing your own reflections. They can help you process a semester, and you can look back on them to see how much you’ve grown.

Alternatively, you can follow my educator journey by reading one of the articles above or exploring my list of ways to grow the site. Otherwise, take care and thanks for reading!

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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