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With the start of a new semester, how can instructors and teaching assistants be sure they are creating a positive learning environment for their students? Beyond devoting time to preparation, creating effective classroom materials and assignments, and getting to know the class, one of the most important things you can do to start the semester off right is to clearly communicate your expectations to the students and understand their expectations of you as an instructor. Research shows that when expectations are well-reasoned and clearly laid out, student learning, motivation, and engagement all increase. Clearly communicating expectations for the course can also reduce conflict and confusion later in the semester by establishing policies upfront. Oftentimes, the best way to communicate your expectations is to put them in writing in a syllabus or policy sheet and to discuss them with students during the first class sessions. Here are five common areas of mutual expectations to consider discussing with your students early in the semester:

  1. How should students communicate with you?

At a very basic level, consider telling your students how you prefer to be addressed (Dr., Prof., your first name?). Students should also know how to get in contact with you: what are your office hours, will you respond by phone or email, and how long will you take to respond? You may also let students know how to give you feedback, such as whether you will collect mid-semester evaluations.

  1. What are the expectations regarding assignments and grading?

Lack of clarity in the grading process can be a source of anxiety for both students and instructors. Early in the semester, let students know what assignments they are expected to complete and when they are due. Consider establishing a policy for if/how you will re-grade assignments, and let students know about your late policy, the honor code, and what grade scale you use. Later in the semester you may also address whether you will read drafts of assignments and when you expect to return graded work.

  1. What are your expectations for the classroom?

How should a student come prepared for each class, and what will a typical class section look like? Do you have policies for engaging in discussion or ensuring safety in a science lab? You might also communicate with students about whether you have policies for using laptops, cell phones, or other technology in the classroom.

  1. Do you have policies for emergencies or special exceptions?

Over the course of the semester, it is likely that at least one student will miss class for an excused (or unexcused) reason. What should that student do to get caught up with the missed work? What if a student is absent for a test, quiz, or for turning in a homework assignment? Do you grant extra credit or test retakes, and if so, in what cases?

  1. How can students succeed in the course?

One technique for promoting success is to have students from previous classes give advice for how to succeed in the course and to distribute it to students early in the semester. The start of the semester is also a great time to let students know about other resources that will help them do well in your class – such as where they can get assistance with writing, tutoring, disabilities, mental health, or skills related to your course. While it may seem obvious, being clear at the start of the class about what makes a successful student sets the tone that you have high expectations and that students have lots of opportunities to meet them.

You may have other expectations for students in the context of your course; be sure to take some time early in the semester to think about your expectations and communicate them clearly with your students. Then, turn the tables around and ask students what they expect from you. Once you have established reasonable mutual expectations, keep the communication going throughout the semester to ensure everyone is on the same page and ready to learn.

Want to know more about mutual expectations?

Turn it into a first-day activity. Write down what you expect of your students and what you think students expect of you. Then have students work together to list what they expect of you and what they think you expect of them. Compare lists and see whether your expectations match up!

Additional Resources

“Narrowing the Gap between Students and Instructors: A Study of Expectations” – Zimmerman et al.

Successful Beginnings for College Teaching: Engaging Your Students from the First Day – Provitera-McGlynn

7 Tips for the First Day

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