Student Representative Column

The teaching side of academia: How to prep your first course

Tips and considerations when preparing for your first semester of teaching.
By Amy L. Stamates, MS

description At some point during your graduate career, you may be asked to teach a course. Teaching your own course can be an important professional development experience (e.g., building confidence in public speaking, honing presentation skills) and is critical if you plan to pursue a career in academia. However, some graduate programs may not offer a formal teaching course or mentored teaching experience. Thus, the primary goal of this column is to provide some tips and considerations when preparing your first semester of teaching. 

  • Plan ahead. The most important aspect of teaching is time. You need time to prepare your lecture and/or lab materials, course schedule, assignments and tests. If you can find out when and what topic you are teaching a few months in advance that can be incredibly helpful. Then you can plan your schedule in advance and devote time each week to preparing content for each chapter. However, it is certainly possible that you may be approached two weeks before the semester starts about teaching a course. If this is the scenario that you have, try your best to have time set aside each week for course prep so you do not get behind.
  • Create a syllabus. The syllabus is a critical component of each course because it outlines what your goals are for the course and what you plan to have students complete. You can include whatever information that you want about the course, but I suggest that you make it as detailed as possible and have others proofread it. If possible, try to find other example syllabi from those that have previously taught the same course. That can give you some ideas on how you want to approach the class. If you are teaching a new course and you do not know anyone who has taught the class, you may find it helpful to search for an example syllabus online. Lastly, many universities require specific statements (e.g., diversity statements, statements about resources), so make sure that you check with your university’s guidelines.
  • Prep lecture content. Your course textbook may have instructor resources that provide content and example slides, and there may be great activities in the textbook chapters that you may want to use. So always check the instructor resources first. Also, if you know someone who has taught your course before, you may ask them for their slides and other course materials to help you as you prepare. Lastly, the internet can be very helpful. For example, Div. 2 (the Society for the Teaching of Psychology)’s website includes various psychology courses with developed content.
  • Find a mentor. Throughout your first semester teaching, there will be situations where you need to ask for help. For example, there may be a student issue that you are unsure how to handle. Having a faculty mentor that can discuss these topics with you is critical.
  • Evaluate yourself. Students often do not get feedback on their teaching other than end-of-the-semester student evaluations. You may consider asking your students for feedback at the midterm, so you can monitor if there are significant student concerns and modify your approach. In addition, you may consider having a faculty mentor shadow one of your lectures and provide feedback on your presentation style.
  • Attend teaching workshops. Each university provides some type of professional development series for instructors, and these can cover a wide range of topics (e.g., teaching ethics, how to prepare assignments, using technology in the classroom). Attending these types of events may give you some ideas on how to structure your course, and you can receive advice from other faculty members also attending.  

Want to learn more about teaching in psychology? The following websites have additional information on how to get started and what topics to consider: