Advice for new university instructors

The first semester you teach a university-level course, you will likely be thrown in with little preparation or guidance. This is the experience of almost everyone I have spoken with.

Professor lecturing 450

Whether you are a graduate student, a starting assistant professor, or an industry professional teaching as an adjunct, I want to summarize the advice I have developed over 8 semesters teaching as a grad student. This is geared toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) topics.

This isn’t intended to address pedagogical theories—that’s an enormous topic in comparison to what I can cover here. Instead, this is more of an overview of the things I think would be helpful tips that no one is going to tell you, a behind-the-scenes look at what your next actions should be after you are hired to teach a course.

The 30,000 ft perspective

  • Don’t be a cog. Find ways to bring your own identity and experience into the course. Don’t emulate someone else—find your own voice. Example: I have forensic structural engineering experience, so I frequently find creative ways to relate my course material to real-world building and bridge collapses that I’ve investigated. How can you make your class memorable?

  • You have a significant responsibility. It’s a honor to get to help shape a future generation of engineers and scientists. So, take it seriously and remind yourself of the importance of this work regularly. Talented students may make career decisions based on your encouragement and counsel.

  • You’re the expert—that’s why you were hired. Remind yourself of this fact when you feel your confidence wane. Your expertise should also drive you toward excellence in teaching.

Before you start

  • Find your university’s faculty handbook. You don’t need to have any doubts what your university’s policies are about X, Y, or Z. This is important because you don’t want to accidentally violate an institutional policy you weren’t even aware of. Review your university’s interpretation of the FERPA policies. Here is Georgia Tech’s teaching handbook [pdf].

  • Identify all important dates and add these to your calendar. Look up: due dates for midterm grades or progress reports, drop day, due dates for final grades, the final exam period, etc. Your department may or may not send reminders about this sort of thing—it’s your job to deliver on time.

  • Buy at least one other well-known textbook on your course’s topic with lots of homework/example problems. This will come in handy in a myriad of ways: different ideas how to present a topic, unique examples for class, exam question ideas, etc.

Planning Lectures

  • Don’t default to what’s easy—investigate what is most effective. There is no magic formula here because every topic will require different types of tools, notes, or props. But for goodness sake, don’t opt for a Powerpoint deck “just because”.

  • Collect syllabi, course notes, old exams, lecture content schedules, etc. from faculty in your department who have taught the class before and are willing to share with you. You absolutely must develop your own version of these materials, but having others’ will give you some great ideas about the scope of the material and what is reasonable for a semester. Note: if you try to deliver someone else’s notes, your lectures will be a disaster. Choose and solve example problems yourself. Write your own derivations with cues. This process is necessary for you to give awesome lectures.

  • When teaching a new class, plan a lecture schedule for the entire semester at the onset. This schedule is invaluable because it will help you keep track of the pace you need to maintain. You’ll probably always want to go deeper and spend more time on each topic than your schedule will allow—but you can’t afford to miss required topics at the end of a semester. I keep an Excel file with a list of each lecture date, topic, and book section.

  • Write lectures at least 4 sessions in advance at all times. It’s stressful to write lectures the day prior to giving them—you don’t have time to let the theory and examples marinate. You might think it wouldn’t matter for basic classes, but during my first semester teaching a class as basic as statics, I could tell a big difference (in terms of polish, composure, clarity, and stress) between delivering lectures I developed two weeks prior vs. the day before.

  • Expect teaching to take a lot of time. During my first semester teaching, I would estimate I spent three hours developing each one-hour lecture (other friends of mine have corroborated that number). Do the math and budget your time appropriately. You need a realistic expectation about the time involved. Teaching a class subsequent semesters is much less involved, although I still find preparing exams to take a lot of time in particular.

Delivering Lectures

  • Start the semester on a confident and enthusiastic foot. Your first time in front of a room of 50 students can be daunting, but you can’t let on. Show up, deliver the syllabus confidently, establish that you are an authority on the topic, and get into the material. This is especially important for graduate students. If they don’t take you seriously after the first lecture, it’s difficult to regain that. On a related note:

  • Dress the part. Don’t over-do it, but I have found that starting out dressing higher on the professional scale helps establish credibility. For a graduate student, I often teach in a sport coat and slacks toward the beginning of the term. By the end of the semester, I’m typically in nice jeans, black leather shoes, and a dress shirt—still nice but more collegial.

  • Be accessible. Encourage any and all interaction during class, even though it might occasionally derail your schedule. Learn your students’ names so you can draw them into the discussion. Maintain a personable and respectful demeanor to set them at ease in their interactions with you from the start. Make it plain that you intend to challenge them, but that you’ll be there along the way to encourage and help. Prove to them during lectures that you’re the kind of person they can feel comfortable visiting during office hours. Make a show of your enthusiasm.

  • Do not BS your students in class. When you are giving a lecture you just wrote, you will be distracted and occupied with remembering the transitions and thinking of the best way to explain things. So don’t be surprised when a question from a student in class throws you for a loop. Stop, think about it, and give an honest answer. “I need to think about the best way to explain that—I’ll get back to you next time” is perfectly valid. Nothing will destroy your credibility more quickly than giving an obviously BS answer because you were caught off-guard.


  • Find a teaching mentor. This person will be invaluable as someone to bounce ideas off, review materials and approach, and discuss issues that arise. I have had to deal with several instances of academic misconduct—having a mentor I could discuss the issues with privately gave me the confidence to deal with those situations boldly. Ask the best instructor you know.

  • Find out what resources your university offers to support instructors. At Georgia Tech, we have the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. This group provides an outstanding service to our institute. They offer classes on pedagogy each semester, attend lectures and give constructive feedback upon request, and review your teaching philosophy, among other services.

  • Join relevant pedagogical organizations. In engineering, for instance, there is the American Society for Engineering Education. Joining the analogous society in your field will provide no shortage of resources on how to best craft an environment for effective learning.

In Conclusion

The above stream of consciousness probably only scratches the surface of things you might want to consider at the onset of your teaching career. Good luck!

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