A Practical Introduction to College Teaching

All sections of this handbook, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, are in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.

For comments, questions, suggestions for improvements, and so on, please contact Ian Johnston.

[Table of Contents]

Section 2: Advance Preparation, Organizing a Course, and the Course Outline

Preliminary Comment

One important element in preparing for the new semester is to anticipate questions and problems which are likely to arise and to sort out in advance how to deal with as many of them as possible.  To make that task a lot easier, you should have a fairly good sense of where the courses you teach fit in the curricular scheme of things, the resources your institution provides, and the various agreed-upon ways of doing business.  Two additional tasks are to organize your own course and, once that is done, to prepare a Course Outline to distribute to the students in the first class (or earlier).  In order to complete these preliminary duties, you should review some important things in the weeks immediately before the first classes begin.

But first an obvious parenthetic reminder: the first two weeks of classes are extremely demanding for many of those working in various support departments (e.g., library, student services, book store, photocopying, registration, advising, and so on).  The Chair of your department or your Dean will also be very busy at this time.  You will not endear yourself to these people if you pester them then with requests or complaints which might have been sorted out earlier.  So make sure that, as much as possible, you deal with any issues well before the balloon goes up.

A Sense of the Relevant Details of the Overall Curriculum

College courses are almost always part of a coordinated departmental and institutional curriculum, and many of them involve prerequisites or are themselves prerequisites to other courses.  Often the credits students earn in a course can be transferred (or not transferred) to other institutions.  Some courses are electives; others are essential for a particular degree or for entry into certain programs.  Sometimes the essential requirements your course satisfies can also be met by an equivalent but different course (e.g., various options may exist for satisfying, say, a first-year English or science requirement).  Some courses carry a full load of credit, others partial credit, and still others no academic credit.  It's a confusing world, especially for new students (for others, as well). 

You need to understand clearly where the each of the courses you are teaching fits into the overall program offerings of your institution and the wider post-secondary educational options (this is particularly the case if you are working in an institution where many or most students hope to transfer somewhere else to complete the degree or if you are now in a post-secondary system with which you are unfamiliar—never assume that things here operate exactly as they did in distant institutions where you went to college or that the system has not changed in the years since you had to deal with it as a student).

For reasons we'll discuss in another section, it is generally a very bad idea for an instructor ever to offer a student specific academic advice not directly related to the work in the courses she is responsible for.  However, the instructor should be very well informed (and up to date) about her own courses in relation to the overall curriculum and prepared to handle questions about her courses (e.g., Does this course satisfy the science requirement for the BA program? Do I have to get a B average in this course to enter the departmental majors program? Is this course transferable to the University of Victoria?  Does this course grant me exemption from the requirement for first-year English? Do I have to take this course in order to enter the post-secondary teacher training program? Does this course have full college credit? And so on).  Normally, this information will be available in the College Calendar.  Alternatively, the Academic Advisor or your Departmental Chair will provide what you need to know.

It's extremely important you inform yourself of these matters and keep track of any changes.  If you don't, you may end up giving students incorrect information which can have a drastic effect on their later careers in college (not to mention the legal implications for you and the college).  Remember, too, that a student will assume any details you provide are correct, no matter how you may hedge what you say with qualifications (in the student's eyes you are an expert in these matters).  So keep yourself very well informed about the precise details of the courses you are teaching, and refer students to the academic advisors for answers to questions which are not related to those courses. Many instructors are notoriously lax about such matters and routinely dispense incorrect advice, even about matters directly relevant to their own departmental courses (something which makes Academic Advisors extremely irritated).  If you are not certain about particular details, then refer the student to someone responsible for knowing about such matters.  Never simply guess or offer advice based on out-of-date information.

If there are any special details like those listed above attached a course you are teaching, then make sure you include a summary of the pertinent details in the course outline (more about this later).  Otherwise, you may find out half-way through the semester that a student has enrolled in your courses by mistake or with false expectations.

Departmental and Institutional Policies, Procedures, Resources

As a college instructor, you are a member of a department, an area, and an institution which will have in place policies and procedures for a number of classroom issues.  These may well include curricular requirements (like a policy of continuous evaluation, compulsory and perhaps common examinations in some courses with multiple sections, published grading standards, specific requirements for particular courses—prerequisites and a minimum grade point average (GPA)—a standard chart translating letter grades into percentages, a formal appeals process, and so on).  You need to be thoroughly familiar with the ones which are relevant to your courses and integrate them into your curricular planning.  It is a very bad idea to overlook or remain ignorant or dismissive about such established institutional procedures and policies and to substitute your own.  That will create a good deal of confusion among your students and resentment among your colleagues (e.g., scheduling an examination during Study Days, exempting students from a departmental requirement for a final examination, substituting your own grading scheme for one established for the entire academic area, refusing to follow customary appeals procedures, and so on).

The department will also have certain basic resources (photocopying and fax equipment, and supplies) and may provide computer software relevant to the discipline, special programs of assistance (like a Math Learning Centre or a Writing Centre), a departmental library, peer counseling, relevant video material, special equipment useful for your classes (e.g., maps, astronomical models), and so on.  Make sure you have explored such resources thoroughly and understand what they offer, both those useful to you and the ones you will be recommending to your students.  Don't wait for them to inform you or have to confess your ignorance when a question about them comes up.  If the department allocates a certain amount of money for your photocopying and bookstore expenses, then make sure you work out just how that sum is going to impinge on your courses (even if a specific amount is not allocated to you personally, there will probably be guidelines about how much each instructor ought to be spending).

Does you institution have a policy on gender-free language?  If so, examine it carefully, and follow its provisions in the material you are preparing to distribute to students and in the language of your own lectures.  In some courses (e.g., first-year English) it may be important to encourage the students to understand and follow the provisions of such a policy.

You should have an informed understanding of any institutional policies and procedures on things like Study Days, student conduct in the classroom, plagiarism, deadlines for withdrawing from courses, appeals procedures, and so on.  Of particular importance here is a close look at the calendar to make sure you have an accurate idea of precisely how many classes you will have in each course and where the regular schedule will be affected by a holiday (of particular importance if you are teaching two sections of the same course and trying to keep them synchronized).  That sounds obvious (and it is), but it's quite surprising how many instructors still get in a muddle when a holiday, like Thanksgiving, suddenly appears or the semester ends in mid-week.

[The same attention should, of course, be given to provisions in the collective agreement and to any union matters which are likely to affect you, like a salary or workload appeal, payroll, pension and health benefits, professional development funds, sick days, and so on.  But that is not a matter immediately relevant to the central thrust of this handbook. One important thing to find out here, however, concerns out-of-town travel.  If you are planning to travel away from your community for a conference or a holiday, make sure you check the established policies or contractual clauses on these matters.  Some institutions, for example, place certain restrictions on faculty out-of-town travel during Study Days, during the examination weeks, professional development periods, or the Christmas and Easter breaks, requiring, for example, instructors to be available on campus at a time when regular classes are not in session].

Support Facilities

You and your students will routinely be making use of a range of support facilities essential to their learning, like the library, book store, photocopying centre, academic advising, student counseling, computer labs, and so on.  You should have a sense of just what your institution does or does not offer here, paying particular attention to any services you know you will be recommending to your students.

It's important, in this connection, to bear in the mind the basic notion that anything you expect your students to be able to do in order to complete the requirements of your course, you should be able to do yourself and, beyond that, if they need assistance in meeting these demands, you should be ready either to teach them yourself or let them know where they can get help.  For example, you will probably require students to use the library, display a working knowledge of some basic computer skills (especially word processing, e-mail, searching the internet, and perhaps accessing and contributing to local newsgroups), and so on.  How are you going to respond to students whose knowledge is insufficient?  Sometimes you may wish to deal with the problem in class (especially in the first year of the undergraduate program).  But if not, you should be ready to recommend where they can find the additional help they need, if that is readily available on campus.  

Many of these support services offer introductory or brush-up courses and workshops (e.g., touring the library, basic word processing, essay writing or study skills, browsing the web) or provide important assistance with home dial-up connections, recovery of files from damaged disks, and so on.  Normally when you tell a student that she has to learn or improve some particular skill in order to continue in your course, you should be able to indicate where she can obtain the assistance she needs.

It is, of course, quite reasonable to expect students to bring a sure command of certain skills with them into the course.  And these expectations change with time.  Nowadays, it is perfectly acceptable to insist that first-year students are familiar with calculators, videos, CD's, computers, basic word processing, accessing the internet, and sending and receiving e-mail.  However, you should be prepared to deal with a student who feels a bit uncertain about one or more of these tasks, especially if you are asking for something your students are unlikely to have done at home (like participating in a college newsgroup). 

These expectations vary a good deal, too, with the level of the course.  Paying attention to how a student finds and uses the library may well be an essential part of, say, a first-year English course, in which most students are new to the college (a familiarity with library offerings and procedures is not something one should ever assume all first-year students possess or can instantly acquire).  With a group of upper-division students, the instructor can safely assume they know the ropes (unless some specialized research procedures are called for). Don't be too quick to assume that other courses are going to take care of certain skills essential to your own (e.g., that first-year English courses will take care of library orientation, even if you know that is part of the English course).  In many cases, that other course may not have dealt with that skill yet, or else some of your students may not be enrolled or have taken that other course, unless it's clearly a prerequisite to your own.

At any rate, it really helps to be aware of some of the more important support options available (and to meet the people who provide such support).  That enables you to address problems quickly (particularly at the start of the semester) not by taking on the responsibility for getting the students over every obstacle yourself, but rather by encouraging the student to explore, as she should, what the college offers.

A Check List

Here is a partial check list to consider.  Reviewing these matters not only will provide potentially valuable information, but will also enable you to meet a number of very helpful people and give you a much better sense of the institution overall.  Getting to meet the people is, in fact, more immediately important than remembering all the details of the support service they offer, because if you know whom you should contact about a problem, you can always find the detailed information later.


As soon as you arrive on campus for work and have inspected your palatial office and made sure that the computer and telephone in it work and that your name is on the door (with contact information, like an e-mail address or college local, and, as soon as one is ready, a reading list for your classes), find the college bookstore, and check out what you need for your courses.  Make sure there is (or will be) a sufficient number of your texts in the correct editions.  If this facility is also ordering special supplies (art paper, hard hats, cooking knives, calculators, drafting equipment, safety gear, software and so on) check that the appropriate material is there.  Don't wait for unpleasant surprises in the first week of the semester.  If there's a serious problem, deal with it (through your department if necessary).  If you'd like an unwelcome shock, try adding up what students will have to pay for everything they need.


Spend a lot of time in the college library, looking over the resources most directly relevant to your courses (you don't want to be recommending material which is not available).  Organize any materials you want on special reserve (an extremely important point if you are going to expect many students to have access to a single document or film in a short space of time).  If you want your students to have a library tour (either in your class time or on their own) find out the details. If you expect your students to be making inter-library loans, using microfilm, or conducting research in special collections, find out how they  do these things (and the people who take care of them). 

Make sure you get a good sense of what the library does and does not provide.  How many journals relevant to your courses are in the collection?  Should you be ordering a new one?  Is there a slide collection? How extensive are the computer facilities in the library? Can students do photocopying there?  How much does it cost?  Where can they scan images?  What about colour printing or laminating illustrations or burning CD's (if your students are likely to require any of these services for your courses)? What support does the library provide for students wishing to carry out special research projects you may be assigning?

Computer Facilities and Technical Support

Make a tour of the computer facilities available to your students, especially if your courses require software which the students are unlikely to have on their home computers.  Note the hours the rooms are open, and check the range of programs loaded into the machines.  In many colleges, certain programs are available in some places and not in others.   Does the college place any restrictions on the use of the machines?  If you're going to be recommending students use certain facilities, check the hours, any relevant restrictions, supplies (e.g., paper), and so on.  Most students now have computers at home, so that these matters are less important than they used to be, except where special uses are concerned.

Check also the instructional and student technical support services.  If you intend to have a newsgroup or chat room or web page for the class, find out how to set that up and how students can access it from home (you may be able to pick up some printed instructions to hand out to students or guide them to a web address).  Take particular care to see if there is a place students can have faulty disks inspected and dealt with (this will enable you to respond quickly to an extremely popular excuse among students for not handing work in on time).  

If you're going to need special equipment (portable computers, digital projectors, tape recorders, screens, and so on) talk to the staff about the equipment they have available and procedures for checking it out (noting, above all, how much advance notice they need for you to be sure of getting what you want).  If you are teaching at night or on a weekend, make sure you have an accurate sense of the hours when you can check out equipment.  You might also enquire about any software you might like to use for which your college has a site license or discount (anti-virus utilities, spreadsheet or web-design programs, presentation software, and so on). 


Stroll carefully through each classroom you have been assigned—and do this well before the first week, so that if there are problems you have time to make some changes.  Look around each room, first, to get a sense of how you might feel in such an environment (Where are you going to stand or sit or move to?) and, second, to review thoroughly what it contains, making sure it answers your needs.  Are there enough seats?  Are the desks or tables suitable for what you want the students to do in class?  How flexible is the basic arrangement?  How are the blackboards configured?  Are they adequate for your classes?  Is there an overhead projector with a screen on the wall? Where do they keep the spare bulb (remember Murphy's Law)?  What about a computer for lecture presentations?  How does the digital projector work?  Where are the plugs?  What about a clock (do you have a good view of it from where you'll be standing)?  How does one open and close the windows, lower the blinds, close the curtains?  Are the lights working (don't tolerate a flickering neon light)? Is there a suitable lectern?  In a large lecture hall, what are the different options for lighting?  If you are checking out a science lab, then review carefully all the items you will be using (including essential supplies and lab equipment).  

Whatever you do, don't plan your semester's work only to find on the first day that the room is extremely awkward or unsuitable or that you have to scramble around to find something or to figure out how a piece of equipment works.  And if there are clearly going to be important problems with the space, make that known to your department head, and insist on a change.  This issue is really important: unless you absolutely have to, do not settle for a room which is obviously going to work against what you would like the students to experience in your class.  You will have issues enough without having to feel and make your students feel totally frustrated by the space.

Is the classroom one which provides wireless connection to the internet?  If it is, then you can probably expect some students to bring portable computers to class and to use them there, and in many cases they may not be making notes but reviewing their e-mail or browsing through the internet or playing games during your lecture.  That is something you might want to think about in advance and make provisions for in your preliminary instructions.

Other items you might check out while inspecting the classrooms are as follows: Where are the nearest washrooms?  Is there an emergency phone (for technical support or first aid)?  A public phone? A drinking fountain? A fire extinguisher or alarm? A food or coffee machine (really important if you have long classes with a break in the middle)?  If there's a cafeteria within easy reach of the room where you teach a night class, when does that facility close (you may need to schedule the break in your class with that in mind)? If your working environment requires special additional safety features (like a first-aid box or an eye washer), make sure you know where they are and how to access them.  The more familiar you are with the immediate working environment, the less likely you are to encounter problems which you cannot deal with easily.

Counseling and Advising

Familiarize yourself with the counseling and advising centres.  What resources does the college offer for diagnosing and dealing with special problems (e.g., learning disabilities, depression, financial distress, illness, pregnancy, and so on)?  Where does a student go to get accurate and official academic advice about his transcript and the courses he should be taking (very important)?  What is the name of the person a student should contact if he needs these services?  You can count on having to cope with students who come to you with such special problems (some of which they might not be aware of).  It really helps if you have a sense of what's available on campus (especially the person they need to talk to).  In almost every instance when a student comes to you for advice about matters not immediately relevant to your course, you should be referring him to someone else.

Other Departments

If you are teaching a service course for a program in a different department (like English for Forestry, Mathematics for Business, or Psychology for Nursing, and so on), make sure you introduce yourself to the instructors in that department and get from them as firm an idea as you can of their overall program, so that you can see where your particular course fits in the integrated curriculum.  You should ask about any special elements of their program which are likely to affect the students' participation in your course (e.g., a field trip or practicum which will take them off campus when they are supposed to be attending your class).  If you yourself are sponsoring an activity for your students which is likely to disrupt their attendance at other classes, normal protocol requires you to inform the other instructors about such a trip, giving as much advance notice as possible, so that they do not get an unwelcome surprise half way through the semester.  Do not count on the students to keep other instructors informed about such commitments.


If you're going to be photocopying material for your classes, find out if your institution has an copyright agreements in place, and, if they do, understand the provisions clearly.  This rule applies also to video presentations in class, if you are planning to rent movies and show them to your students.  What are the procedures for satisfying any copyright requirements?  Do not, under any circumstances, violate clear copyright laws.

Class Lists

Finally, check over your class lists thoroughly (these are available from Student Services or online).  Are there any significant patterns there?  For example, are all the students in the same general program (e.g., a departmental majors), or is there a mixture?  Is there a block of students from a particular program (e.g., a significant number of BSc students in a first-year philosophy course or BEd students in an upper-division Shakespeare course, and so on).  Are any students on an ESL program? What's the ratio of females and males or of lower-division and upper-division students?  How will the composition of the class affect the curriculum you wish to set up?  Do you have to re-think any of your basic assumptions about who will be in the group (for example, you may be organizing a Technical English course on the assumption that all students in the class are in, say, the Forestry program, and thus have deliberately framed the assignments to fit the practical details of forestry situations; if you discover that there are some students in your class from other programs, you may need to make adjustments)?  The more you know about the class in advance, the better prepared you will be to deal with their questions and problems. In some cases, you may have to re-think something in your curriculum (for example, teaching Huckleberry Finn to a class made up largely of students who are learning English as a second language is a very bad idea, since that book has so much outdated slang in it).

If you are not sure just what to expect, then it's probably wise to talk to an instructor who has recently taught the course (that's unquestionably useful no matter what you expect).

If your institution offers such assistance, you might want to consider taking a special professional-development workshop on dealing with certain student groups with which you are quite unfamiliar, like First Nations or ESL students, if there is a significant number of them in a class.  Here again, a conversation with an experienced instructor can also provide useful guidance.

Text Books

One final matter: although this point does not belong in a rubric of support services and is perhaps obvious advice, a new instructor is well advised to get thoroughly familiar with the text books he is using, especially if he did not choose them.  And this means knowing what is in the entire book, not just in the parts of it which the students will have to read.  More than once I have surprised to have a student inform me of useful material in a textbook (usually an anthology or a grammar handbook for an English course) which I had not read with sufficient thoroughness, because I had attended only to those sections of it which were part of the required curriculum.

Organizing a Course

The major task of preparing to teach a course is organizing the curriculum (which, of course, includes the reading list, the schedule of classes, the assignments, the distribution of marks, and so on).  Depending on the course you are teaching, such preparation might be relatively straightforward, or it might involve certain options you might want to think about, even experiment with.

The Question of Priorities

The first major thing you need to think about is the purpose of the course.  What are the one or two most important particular things students should have learned by the time they complete the semester?  If they had to take from your course only one important concept or skill, what should that be?  If you were teaching the same students in a later course, what are the one or two most important things you would want them to know?  

It's usually the case that there are a few important purposes.  If so, you need to organize those purposes in a list, from the most essential to the least important, so that when you come to organize the curriculum (especially the allocation of time and the nature of the assignments) you make sure you deal, first and foremost, with the major priorities, if necessary sacrificing some of those of lesser importance.  Remember that the more major priorities you have for the course, the smaller your chances of achieving any one of them.

For example, first-year English courses often have a number of different purposes, ranging from basic essay-writing and argumentative skills to a knowledge of library research methods, styles for referencing material, and acquiring a more specialized vocabulary for and greater familiarity with interpreting fiction of various kinds.  If the class is made up largely of students who intend to go into all sorts of different programs and who are there mainly to improve their ability to write satisfactory essays for all their college courses, you need to make sure you allocate sufficient time for that, even if such a priority means you will be spending less time reading and discussing fiction or introducing students to the different ways of studying literature.  Conversely, a curriculum for an upper-division English course for majors students will reflect a reverse priority, paying much more attention to interpreting the literature and (perhaps) to research methods than it will to basic essay writing. And so on.  So what do you think are the one or two most important things a student should retain from your course?

You may think the immediate disciplinary demands of your subject area are all that matter (or what matters most).  In many cases you may be correct.  But if your course is expected to provide valuable information or skills to students who have no intention of enrolling in departmental majors programs because they are moving elsewhere, you need to be very careful not to create a course which treats everyone as a potential majors student in your departmental discipline. This caution is particularly important in lower-division courses which attract students planning on going in various directions or in service courses in technology programs.  Yes, it's important and fun for, say, first-year Hospitality students to read and discuss fiction from time to time.  But that doesn't mean these activities should dominate the curriculum to the detriment of the practical demands of basic technical writing (if that is a major priority the course is supposed to address).  And spending time making sure they understand MLA formatting will probably be wasted.  Many lower-division students are required or choose to take a course in History or English before moving into other programs.  Such students will have little interest in or need for some of the things one might want to teach to a class of students all aiming at a History or English majors degree.  Similarly, if you are teaching a science class full of students seeking to fulfill the science requirements for a BA, then it's probably unwise to set up the course as if you were teaching BSc students intending to major in science.  In other words, adjust the priorities of the course to reflect the learning needs of the students in it.

Now, it may be the case that in a particular course everything is equally important for the student's learning (e.g., in a language course).  But even here, there are probably some things which you can predict the students will have more difficulty with than others.  So allocating more time for that part of the course at the expense of something else might be advisable.  Such matters are difficult to judge if one is completely new to instructing.  After all, one of the major advantages experience brings is a much better sense of what to expect in advance.  So it might be very helpful to discuss this matter with an experienced instructor who has taught the course.  Where should you be prepared to spend some extra time?  What parts of the curriculum will be especially difficult for students? In addition, one can often build some flexibility into the curriculum (a week of no scheduled readings), so that you can slow down to cope with some problem you encounter along the way.

Some courses give the instructor considerable flexibility in the selection of material (e.g., a first-year English literature course); others do not (e.g., a first year Physics course).  Where you do have some flexibility, put some thought into the selection of the material and, if possible, introduce sufficient variety in the selections.  For example, first-year literature courses dealing with poems and short stories should normally include work written by men and women, rather than obviously excluding one group.  If you have compelling reasons for confining your selections to just one group, then at least be prepared to deal with strong objections from certain students.  If you are choosing potentially controversial material, have a sense of how you are going to cope with problems.   Obviously you should not let the possibility of objections necessarily deter you from selecting those titles which you think the students should be reading, and often a controversy in the class room can provide a very valuable learning experience.  But think about how you are going to deal with objections.  Here again, a conversation with an experienced colleague can be very helpful.

One other point about priorities.  You should obviously link the number and style of the assignments you are going to use to assess the students to the major priorities of the course.  A course which strives to introduce students to the basic vocabulary and concepts of a particular subject area will probably derive more benefit from several multiple-choice tests than from a long essay assignment (e.g., in first-year Psychology); a course which is encouraging students to learn to write essays will probably eschew multiple-choice testing in favour of short written assignments (with a considerable emphasis on rewriting); an upper-division Social Science course might well use a single substantial research project and paper.   And so on.  We'll be discussing this further in the section on assignments. 

Another thing to bear in mind about assignments: a student's perception of a course is determined almost entirely by the activities associated with marks.  These requirements and the mark each carries tell the student what topics or activities he should focus his attention on and how much time he should spend on them.  Do not expect students to pay much attention to anything which does not have a direct bearing on the final grade, no matter how much you recommend it. And you can anticipate trouble, if you assign a very time-consuming task which counts for little or nothing in the final grade.  If there's some activity you think essential to the student's learning, then assign some marks to it, and let the marks reflect the importance of that part of your course.  For example, if you really want students to learn to write clear, effective English in your term papers, then you will need to make that a priority in the marking.  If you assign, say, 5 percent of the mark to something called style (reserving 95 percent for something called content), you will probably guarantee that most students will ignore the requirement for a clear style.  Put some teeth into the requirement, or forget about it.

Where necessary, you should make sure your planning includes sufficient time for you to review what you expect in these assignments.  If, for example, you are teaching an Economics course and you require a term paper which will account for a significant percentage of the final grade, then, first of all, make sure the essay topics reinforce the most important things you want students to learn and, second, make sure the curriculum includes time to instruct them adequately on what you are expecting them to produce when you use the phrase term paper.  Do not simply assume, as many teachers do, that teaching essay writing is the job of certain English courses (which some students may not have taken) and that therefore you have no responsibility for dealing with that skill, or that students will all immediately understand precisely what you mean by the phrase term paper (more about this point later in the section about assignments).  And remember that the effectiveness of many assignments is seriously reduced if you do not provide sufficient time to review them after they have been marked.

A Newsgroup, Chat Room, or Web Home Page for the Course

You will need to think about the computer resources you wish to prepare for your students.  In many cases it's particularly helpful (for reasons mentioned elsewhere) to develop a place on the internet where students can routinely go for information about the schedule, recommended readings, assignments, useful supplementary links, and so on, and such a resource can save the instructor a great deal of time and effort (not to mention departmental photocopying money).

If you wish to provide such a resource, you will need to decide if it is to serve exclusively as a means of conveying information to students or if you wish it also to enable students to interact with each other.  In the former case, a web page is sufficient, an internet resource which you, in effect, control, edit, and eventually delete.  In the latter case, a newsgroup or chat room is necessary, so that students can post their own messages and respond to other postings.  In some situations, of course, you may wish to do both.

In either case, you should consult the resources your institution has for setting up such supplements to your courses.  There may be special software programs available, and there will almost certainly be expert assistance for those who need help, especially with the basic design of a home page on the web which looks reasonably good and is easy to navigate.  In fact, in recent months some colleges have made much more sophisticated interactive possibilities a high priority, and it is now possible (through programs like WebCT) to move beyond a simple web page and newsgroup combination (such new software, we can be sure, will be commonplace within the next few years).  However, the programs that make this possible do require a certain amount of initial training, and if you are a total neophyte, it might be wise to stick to the simpler options at first, until you have time to master the more complex possibilities.

If you want to set up a newsgroup and expect students to be able to access it from home, then get some instructions from the computer support staff (or a link to such material) so that you can inform students of how they go about altering the settings on their home computers in order to access the newsgroup (you can expect that some students will have initial difficulties in doing so).

If you are setting up a web page or newsgroup, you might want to check to ensure there is no outdated competing material which could confuse the student.  For example, the last instructor to teach a course with the same name and number as the one you are offering may have set up a web page or newsgroup and failed to delete it from the system at the end of the previous semester.  Such outdated information can be a major source of confusion to students (who may not notice the date on the material, if there is one).  If you do need such material deleted, check with your department or computer support to find out how that gets done. 

Some Initial Expectations and a Diagnostic Assignment

An important challenge in preparing some courses is thinking through your initial academic expectations of the students.  What can you assume about what they know already, and where can you be fairly certain they will experience difficulty?  As mentioned in the previous section, this demand can pose difficulties for a new instructor, particularly one fresh out of graduate school, where he may have grown too accustomed to the lofty world of specialized post-graduate discourse and have long forgotten what undergraduate classes are like.

Here it is wise, as mentioned, to confer with experienced instructors who have taught the courses before and to err on the side of caution, particularly in lower-division courses, for if you pitch the opening classes way above the capabilities of many students, you may permanently bewilder them.  So it's prudent to limit significant expectations about what the students already know or about how they can perform particular skills (e.g., do not assume in an essay-writing course that lower-division students have a clear sense of what an argument is or of what makes one argument better or worse than another—you may think they ought to know things like that, but your opinion will almost certainly not match the facts of the class you are dealing with).  On the other hand, you do want them know that there is work to be done in this course and that you are not going to pander to some lowest common denominator.  

Diagnostic Assignment

It might really help if you organized a small initial diagnostic assignment early on (in the first few classes), for example, a two-page written response to a short reading, or a multiple-choice quiz on material you think they should know, or a short essay in response to a particular question relevant to your course.  Since this is a diagnostic exercise very early in the semester, you should not assign any marks to it (or very few).  And be prepared for a shock.

Such an initial assignment makes at least two valuable contributions.  It will give you an immediate sense of the students' abilities (the level and the range), and it will provide the students with a sense of the standards you are setting in this course (in effect, an early wake-up call for many of them).  If you don't offer something like this and instead make the first significant assignment a mid-term essay or exam, it may be far too late for you to recognize some important facts about your students or for them to realize just what they have to do in the class (that's especially true if your general instructional demeanor is relaxed and informal).  

In addition, it will help you recognize a student who is clearly out of his depth and should not have selected this course in the first place, in time for you to make significant recommendations to that student.  No student should be allowed to develop a completely false sense of his chances of dealing with the material in the course: if he is clearly in trouble at the start, you need to inform him of that while there are still certain curricular options open to him (giving him the option of staying, of course, even if he knows that your preliminary assessment is that he will probably have serious trouble meeting the demands of the curriculum).

First Subjective Impressions

Whatever you do, at the start of the semester be careful that your subjective impressions do not mislead you about the students' grasp of the material.  They may look intelligent, eager, and interested, and you may be really enjoying the experience (they will be full of energy and the air will reek with pheromones).  That does not necessarily mean they are understanding everything as fully as you might think or are ready to move on to more complex material. And do not put excessive trust their answers to questions you ask in class about whether they are grasping the material or not (such questions may prompt candid replies, but many students will be very hesitant about indicating in front of others their own confusion and bewilderment).  Nor should you confuse conversational fluency, friendliness, and charm with intelligent understanding.  The only way you can find out just where they stand is to ask them to provide some written evidence. 

Preliminary Study Material

You might also want to remember also that in the first week of the new semester the college bookstore can be a frantic place, with very long queues.  Hence, some students may not get precisely what they need immediately (this applies especially to first-year students, who are often sufficiently confused by college life already and who have not thought about purchasing books earlier, particularly if they have had little-to-no orientation in the week before classes start).  Sometimes there are problems with student loans, and some students will not have money to purchase books immediately.  

If possible, you should try to start the first one or two classes without having to use material from the book store (by, for example, having some photocopied substitute or by asking the students to download some material from the internet).  If you don't do that and begin by assigning the class a chunk of the required textbook to read for the first week, you may be ensuring that those classes are rather counterproductive (many students will not have the text yet).  You can mitigate this problem somewhat by posting on your office door well before the start of the semester a reading list for your courses (with the full knowledge that not every student will either see it or act on it).

Overall Rhythm in a Semester

In planning the curriculum, you might want to remember, too, that each semester has a particular rhythm.  In September the students are keen and bring lots of ambition and energy to the course.  By the last two weeks of the semester many of them will be scrambling desperately to catch up, frequently skipping classes in order to complete assignments or prepare for examinations.  For that reason, it's unwise to have to accelerate near the end of the semester to get through all the material.  It might be an idea to think of front-loading the course, in effect, to hit the ground running, so that the amount of work eases off near the end (leaving some time for review, perhaps).  

Front-loading in this manner also helps to inform students that they need to get down to work immediately.  Throwing students in the deep end and letting them slow down near the end is much better than walking them slowly into the shallow end and insisting they sprint in the last few weeks.  Another very busy time for students occurs in mid-semester, when many courses have mid-term tests.  It's prudent to avoid having major assignments or activities during this period and to schedule one's own tests either before or after this very busy time, if possible.

For reasons mentioned elsewhere, it's very important for each student to have a clear sense (based on marked assignments) of how she is faring before the last date for voluntary withdrawal from a course.  So in organizing your course, make sure the student will have enough reliable information about her success or lack of it in the course by that date.

The Course Outline

The Course Outline is a particularly important document, for it establishes, in effect, the contract between you and the student and goes a long way to defining the basic rules for your class.  It should provide the student extremely clear information about all the key elements in the course, with no ambiguity, and thus give you and a student something you can both appeal to should she later express some dissatisfaction or confusion about something directly affecting her grade (a very common part of many student complaints about the marking of an assignment, the final grade for a course, or the quality of instruction is an allegation of a lack of clarity about what was expected of the student).  So in deciding what to include in the Course Outline, make sure you put in sufficient material to cover any possible complaints on that score.

The Course Outline is also the student's first contact with the course and the instructor.  The information it contains should give the student a very precise idea of what the course is going to require (so that she can change to another course if she does not think this class is suitable for her).  In addition, the Course Outline defines a certain tone for the course.  It's the student's first indication of just how organized the instructor is and how he intends to conduct the class.  Hence, it's important to get the document set up properly.

In thinking about what to include in the Course outline, the instructor should remember (once again) the basic principle that any important instructions which are not written down will inevitably be misinterpreted or forgotten (or will provide a student the convenient excuse that he misunderstood what you said).  So never provide essential information orally, without also offering a written statement.  The Course Outline is the obvious place to list such details. 

The items a Course Outline must include are the following (not necessarily in this order):

—Specific information about the course number and name and about the instructor (contact information, office hours), together with a list of the required and optional texts (with editions specified, if that is important) and any equipment or supplies the students will have to purchase.

—A detailed break down of the number and nature of the assignments (with dates) and the relative value of the assignments as contributions to the final grade.

—Any special instructions concerning items like attendance, conduct in class, format for essays, treatment of late work, plagiarism, eating or drinking in class, illness, and so on.

—Other information you want every student to be informed about at the start of the course (e.g., computer skills required, newsgroup participation, transfer status of the course, and so on).

Some instructors also include in the Course Outline a detailed timetable, class by class, so that students can see from the start the schedule of readings, assignments, tests, and so on.  If you want to leave yourself some flexibility to adjust the curriculum as you go in response to what you discover about how the students are learning, you might want to avoid committing yourself to such a rigorous timetable or at least put in a proviso that this schedule is subject to change.

Newsgroup or Web Page for Course Outline Material

Before going into more detail about each of these sections, I should mention some of the advantages here of a class newsgroup or web page.  A printed Course Outline which includes all the material you might like to distribute at the start may well amount to quite a lengthy document (hence, a drain on the photocopying budget and perhaps rather intimidating to the students).  You might want to think about giving the students a relatively short document listing the essential things (reading list, assignments, marks, the more important initial rules for the course, for example) and providing links to material in the newsgroup or on the web (to handle things like format for essays, treatment of plagiarism, and so on).  In this way, the information is officially available to the students, but it does not all have to be printed and distributed.

Information about the Course and the Instructor

The Course Outline should begin by identifying the course (by number and name) and the instructor.  Such initial information must include the following: the instructor's name (as you would like it to appear on the assignments), office number, office hours, and contact information: office local extension, e-mail address, and home phone number (optional).  If you don't want students phoning you at home, then leave the home number out and indicate (in writing) that you do not wish them to call you at home.  If you include the home phone number, then you obviously must be prepared to talk to them pleasantly when they take you up on your offer and regularly interrupt your dinner.  

An important advantage of restricting your off-campus contacts with students to e-mail is that you then have a detailed record of all communications.  There's no point in inviting e-mail, however, if you are not prepared to read your e-mail frequently and answer enquiries promptly.  As mentioned in the previous section, the fact that many students lead hectic lives which significantly restrict their time on campus means that you should try to establish a clear way they can contact you regularly from home (rather than simply saying they have to see you in your office hours).

If you are inviting e-mail communications, make sure you insist that students write their names out in full at the bottom of each communication (perhaps with the course name and number as well).  Many of them will have rather odd user names (e.g., maidenofdeath, deusexnihilo, phatbitch, and so on), and you may have more than one student called Prudence or Ambrose.  So you'll need the full name in order to understand where the message is coming from.  If communicating with students by e-mail is going to be an important part of the course, you might want to require them, as a first assignment, to send you an e-mail greeting within a few days, so that you have all their e-addresses available. 

Office Hours and Course Information

If possible, you should organize your office hours so that some of them are close to the times of your classes (immediately before or after). If you are teaching one long class per week (e.g., at night or on the weekend), you can be reasonably sure that some of your students work during the day and perhaps come to campus only at that time.  In such a case, it really helps if you can schedule an office hour (or half hour) in the classroom immediately before the class, so that these students have a ready opportunity to see you in private without having to make a special trip during the day.

Information about the course should indicate the time and place of the classes, together with any special information the student needs to know.  If the course has pre-requisites, for example, mention that in writing (the registration process may  have inadvertently let a student into your class who does not have the appropriate previous courses).  If the course satisfies particular requirements (e.g., for first-year English or entry into a majors program) include that, along with any information about credits and transfer credits (if that's relevant).  The latter requirement is essential if there is any chance a student might not understand something different about this course (e.g., that it has no academic credit or partial credit or more credits than usual).

Required Texts and Supplies

Obviously, the Course Outline should indicate clearly what the student needs to purchase for the course.  Here the information should offer the student some guidance if there are options.  For example, if you require a particular edition of a book and no other will do, make that very clear.  If the edition is irrelevant, then indicate that (this option opens up the second-hand market or the internet for certain texts).  This point applies also to any special supplies your students will need (calculators, art supplies, drafting equipment, and so on).  Make sure you separate required texts and supplies from recommended items.

If you are going to require students to go on field trips, attend and review local theatre productions, or participate in special assignments out of class (other than routine homework assignments, like essays), make sure you mention these, giving dates (if necessary) and indicating the cost (if there is one).

Do not make the students purchase items they are not going to need or more expensive editions of books than are necessary, and do not surprise them later in the semester with additional expenses.

Assignments and Grades

A crucial part of the Course Outline is a list of assignments and a percentage break down of how much each one contributes to the final grade (out of 100 percent).  There should also be either a table indicating how you translate percentages into letter grades or else a reference to where students may look at such a table (if there is one in the college calendar, for example).

It's useful to include a line or two to indicate the nature of each assignment.  Notice, for instance the following examples:

The out-of-class essays (each worth 20 percent) will be short interpretative arguments on the literature we are discussing in class (for detailed instructions on the format for essays and references check the following link: [URL provided]).

The three in-class quizzes will be multiple-choice tests (each roughly an hour long) based on sections of the material we have covered in the immediately preceding weeks.

The examination will be a three-hour in-class assignment during examination week, requiring the student to write two short essays on topics dealing with the fiction we have read in the previous three weeks.  Students will receive a copy of the questions in advance.

The oral presentation will be a seven-minute talk to the entire class on a subject to be determined by the instructor and the student (for further details see below or consult the following page on the internet: [URL given]).

The surprise tests will be short (approximate 15 minute) multiple-choice quizzes testing students on the material they have been asked to read for that class.  As the name suggests, these tests will be surprises (i.e., the instructor will give no advance notice of them).

The examination will be optional.  Students may take it to improve their overall mark (one final way of making up for missing or botching an earlier test or assignment), but there is no requirement to do so.  A bad examination mark will not lower a student's final grade if that student has completed all necessary work during the semester.  Students will receive further details about the examination later in the semester.

If you want to provide more extensive descriptions, leave these short ones in place and devote a later section of the Course Outline to a lengthier treatment of particular assignments (or else refer them to a web page or newsgroup entry where they can learn more).

Attendance and Participation

Do you require attendance or not?  Will you be keeping track?  Is attendance essential for part of the course but not for other parts (e.g., for lab sessions or seminars or field trips but not for lectures)?  If you require students to attend lectures, will there be a mark for it or a penalty if students miss classes?  Without such a mark or penalty, don't expect the rule to be followed very scrupulously.  If you are indicating that attendance is voluntary, you might want to include a comment to the effect that students who miss class should not expect the instructor to inform them of what they missed (unless they have a medical excuse backed up by a doctor's note) and that students are expected to keep themselves informed about any important matters mentioned in the class they missed (e.g., information about a change in the schedule or an upcoming test, and so on).  Take away from the students in advance any excuse for missing work or a test because they were absent the previous class.

If you are assigning a mark for attendance or participation (or both) you need to think about how you are going to keep a continuous record which will form the mathematical basis for that mark.  You should never simply assign such a mark at the end of the semester based upon your subjective recollection of the student's work.  If a student challenges the mark you give at the end of the semester, what evidence will you have to show her how you arrived at that particular grade and why, in your view, that grade is fair?  Such evidence is obviously much more important when the mark you assign is a significant part of the final grade.

If participation in class room discussion is going to make up a significant portion of the final mark, then you will need to prepare a document which explains in detail what you mean by participation, the actions you are looking for which guide your marking of that class by class.  If you'd like to see a sample document prepared for Liberal Studies courses in which participation makes up about 30 percent of the final mark, click here: Seminars.

Be very careful about assigning marks for something very intangible and subjective like "attitude."  That's a recipe for trouble.

Deadlines, Late and Missing Work

What policy are you going to have concerning dates when assignments are due?  There is no perfect answer here.  Some instructors are extremely strict (no late papers accepted, no matter what the excuse), some are very lenient (the due date is some point in the semester), and some are between these two extremes (e.g., late papers will be accepted up to a week after the due date but with a penalty of 5 percent per day).  If you take the first course (no late papers under any circumstances) you will make your own marking life much more tolerable and also help to teach the students something about disciplined work habits (something many of them really do need to learn).  But you will also undoubtedly penalize one or two good, hard-working students who get sick or have some family emergency.  If you choose the easy-going alternative, you will face a certain amount of chaos, with papers coming in at all times, but you will be being as flexible as you can be (not that all students like that: many of them don't get serious about finishing a project until there is a firm deadline looming, so it's a mistake to believe that being extremely flexible is always educationally valuable and something that will endear you to students).

If you're in doubt, it is probably wise to err on the stern side, but with some provision for medical excuses (with a medical certificate) and perhaps a limited late-essay time period (with a penalty).  Alternatively, you might want to stick with a firm deadline but have in the course some way of making up the missing work (e.g., with an exam or an extra assignment).  It is, however, essential to have some policy in place and not to deal with students on an ad hoc basis (a practice which invites charges of unfairness or favoritism).  Assume that you are going to have some students miss deadlines.  What are you going to do about that?

What about a student who misses an in-class test or fails to hand in an assignment?  Does she simply forfeit that mark, no matter what her reason for the missing work?  Is there some way she can make up the missing work if she has a medical excuse?  Once again, there is no ideal solution, but the Course Outline should indicate how you will handle such cases in your course.

Obviously, it is unwise to go overboard with offering students ways to make up some missing work, for students do need to learn that deadlines matter.  New instructors are often astonished at how late in the semester some students who have failed to hand in assignments expect that they have some automatic ways to make up for the missing work and that they can still pass the course when their mathematical chances of doing so are zero, because there is so much missing work.  Such an attitude may perhaps be the result of how they were dealt with in high school or of a long-ingrained habit of not believing that instructions about assignments matter.  Such students should, of course, be told to read the initial instructions and to follow them next time.

Similarly, do you have any firm policy on Incomplete grades, that is, assigning the student a final mark of Incomplete (where your institution has such a thing) and giving him some extra time once the semester is over to hand in the missing work?  In thinking about this, you might remember that a student's motivation tends to fall off sharply once the semester is over, so that marks of Incomplete may be just stalling the inevitable.  However, under special circumstances (e.g., prolonged illness) an Incomplete grade may be appropriate.  The Course Outline should indicate your use of this grade (never available, available under special medical conditions, or generally available to any student).  If you are going to offer the students the option of having an Incomplete grade, make sure you find out the details of your institution's policy of converting an Incomplete to a letter grade (usually an F) after a certain length of time, if such a policy is in place.  You and your student should understand exactly what an Incomplete grade involves. More about this later.

You might also want to remind the students of the last date for withdrawing from a course without a penalty (if your institution has such a policy).  It is also very helpful if you have organized the assignments in the course, so that the student has a clear idea of how he is faring by the time that Withdrawal deadline arrives.  Many students will not remain in courses where there is a serious risk their Grade Point Average will suffer and hence limit their chances of gaining entry to certain programs.

Initial Demands on Students

If you are counting on your students already having some particular skills in or knowledge of certain subject areas, it is important to remind them of that in the Course Outline, so that they are not confused about why you are demanding something which you are not teaching in the class and are alerted to what they may need to brush up on.  Notice the following examples:

Students in this course are expected to be familiar with word processing, e-mail, participation in a college newsgroup, and the standard MLA requirements for formatting essays and for providing in-text reference and a list of works cited.  We will review newsgroup procedures briefly, but students who are in doubt about the other requirements should familiarize themselves with them as quickly as possible.

This curriculum assumes that students have a solid grasp of introductory statistics, including basic concepts in probability, correlation, z-scores, standard deviation, normal distributions, and sample populations. In addition, students must have a basic working knowledge of Excel.  We will not be reviewing these subject areas in class.

Students should not be enrolled in this course unless they already have a basic grasp of conversational Spanish and are ready to participate immediately in small group conversations.  If you have any doubts about your fluency, please talk to the instructor as soon as possible.

All students in this class must have completed at least 6 credits of first-year English.  If you do not have these credits now, then you will not receive any credit for this course, no matter what your final marks.

Obviously, such conditions should be accompanied with some advice about where students who need immediate review help can find it, if there is any readily available (e.g., in special workshops organized by support services or your own department).

A Timetable

Many Course Outlines provide a detailed timetable, class by class, week by week, throughout the semester.  Such a printed schedule can be very useful, but its rigidity can sometimes be a drawback, since it takes away a good deal of the instructor's ability to respond flexibly to the unexpected (e.g., a snow closure, the need for an unanticipated review or a second make-up quiz, and so on).  If you do include such a schedule, you might want to provide an escape clause indicating that this schedule is provisional only and subject to change if necessary.  Alternatively, you might like to build some unassigned time to use at your discretion.

If there is no detailed timetable provided, the students should certainly be given some sense of the overall sequence, especially in the following areas:

--the approximate dates by which they are supposed to have read the longer works;

--a sense of the sequence of assignments, with approximate or exact dates when they are due (an important point if there is one major assignment in the course, like a research paper or lengthy technical report);

--the dates of important in-class assignments (essays, tests, and so on).

Conduct in Class

Do you have any special instructions about class room behaviour? Is it essential that students bring the textbook or something else to class (e.g., calculators)?  Is it essential for them to wear certain clothes (lab coats, protective gear, hard hats, special boots, hairnets, and so on).  What should they do if they arrive late?  What about eating in class or bringing coffee or soft drinks?  Should they turn their cell phones off?  Will you be having a class break routinely?  How long will it be?  Do you expect them to make notes?  Will you be providing any assistance with that by posting outlines or the text of lectures in the newsgroup?  And so on.

What about the use of portable computers in classes wired for the Internet?  Some students will, no doubt, like to take notes on computers, but others will use the machines for other purposes.  Do you want them to be staring at their computer screens rather than attending to what you are saying?  How much will students using portable computers (for whatever purpose) distract other students?  There is no simple correct answer here, but if you are likely to face that situation, you might want to clarify what you expect.  You might want to remember that in large lecture halls, students using computers (for all sorts of purposes) can seriously distract students sitting behind them who are not using computers (one possible solution is to insist that those using computers should sit at the back).

Students are increasingly carrying various electronic devices (cell phones, Blackberries, text messaging instruments, portable video games, iPods, and so on).  You might want to make it clear to them that you do not welcome the use of such machines in class.

Policy on Student Contributions to the Curriculum

One potentially troublesome point you might want to think about for some courses involves the students' reactions to each other's work in curriculums where class discussions of such work are an integral component (e.g., in creative writing and fine and performing arts classes where students' work is passed around and discussed among all the students).  Giving students a full and free rein to express themselves artistically in front of their peers may occasionally lead to moments of extreme tension when some members of the class feel another student's work is pornographic, sexist, or racist and, hence, personally offensive to them.  

The issue is tricky, of course, because the particular student in question (and his friends) will be quick to cite principles of free speech and artistic expression.  If you are teaching a course like this, you might consult an experienced instructor in your department, to see if there are any existing policies in place (like having the instructor screen things in advance or placing certain restrictions on subject matter).  If there are, then you will need to remind students of these in the course outline.  If there are not, then you should consider whether you want to establish them for your course. Conflicts like this may be relatively rare, but when they do occur, they can be very nasty, divisive, and time-consuming.  Remember that the doctrine of free speech or artistic expression does not mean the freedom to express oneself in any way in every setting.

Newsgroup Participation

If you have decided to set up a newsgroup, you might want to incorporate it into your curriculum in various ways.  First, you could use it to post important initial notices (like sections of the Course Outline, an extended definition of plagiarism, instructions about the format required for essays, assignment topics, and so on).  Then, during the semester you can routinely provide useful information like essay topics, any changes to the reading for the upcoming week, answers to a test they have just taken, reminders of college activities (recommended or required), potentially useful links for material the students are studying, and so on.  A newsgroup can be a really effective way to keep students constantly informed in writing about what is going on in the course.  It also saves a great deal of photocopying time and money.

If you are going to use a newsgroup in this manner, then you must insist in the Course Outline that students regularly consult the newsgroup to check on any last-minute instructions.  And you will need to provide some information either about how students access the newsgroup (on campus or at home) or where they get information about how to do that.

There are some ways in which you can encourage active newsgroup participation if you wish to.  For instance, you might advise (or require) students to participate by taking part in a continuing newsgroup discussion of what is going on in the course or any other matters interesting to them (particularly assisting each other with some of the material and the assignments).  Naturally, if you require such participation then you will have to assign some marks for the participation and indicate to the students how you intend to determine the appropriate mark; in addition, you will have to monitor the newsgroup regularly, participate yourself, and, if necessary occasionally nudge the discussion in a particular direction (as in a seminar).  If you want to do this, one useful initial assignment is to require students to post a short introduction to themselves in the newsgroup early in the semester.  This will, in effect, force them to find out how to access the newsgroup, read the messages, and post their own. And it will help them to get to know each other.  

Do not, however, distribute a list of e-mail addresses or phone numbers of all students to the class without asking if there is anyone who does not want her name included.

Plagiarism and Cheating

Make sure the Course Outline contains some reference to your treatment of plagiarism and cheating.  With experienced students, who should understand very clearly what these terms mean, you might just quickly mention the range of penalties (from zero for the assignment, to an automatic failing grade for the course, along with any other penalties your institution may have in place, like adding the student's name to a list of known plagiarizers or expulsion from the college).

If the students in the class are new to college work, however, you may need to spell out in more detail just what these two terms mean, especially plagiarism, making sure they understand that it refers to more than copying something verbatim without acknowledgement or submitting someone else's work as their own.  For in some high schools, students are encouraged to paraphrase research material in their own words and offer it up without detailed acknowledgement other than (perhaps) a list of works cited at the end.  Hence, they may not understand that incorporating borrowed material into their own writing can be more complicated than they had thought.

Do not assume that first-year students are being taught these things in other classes or understand all the forms plagiarism can take or that a verbal description will be sufficient.  Give them a detailed written understanding of what plagiarism involves (preferably with examples) or refer them to a place where they can find such information (e.g., the College Calendar).  Such information might well be placed in a newsgroup or on a web page with only a reference to it in the Course Outline.  In some courses, like first-year English, instructors routinely take time in class to review the varieties of plagiarism in some detail.  Whatever you do, spell out the details, or you may have some trouble persuading the student that the punishment you select is appropriate.  Give them a fair and stern warning, so that they are under no illusions whatsoever about what happens if they get caught.  And make sure your warning includes the caveat that they should never trust internet sources which sell essays with a guarantee that they are original and scanned for plagiarism.  Such companies routinely lie and simply refuse to answer complaints.

With classes where they may be some real doubt about just what plagiarism is, it's also advisable to give yourself some leeway in the punishment, rather than committing yourself to an automatic failing grade for the course, since circumstances may vary considerably: "Any case of plagiarism will involve severe penalties, from a zero for the assignment to a failing grade for the course, and perhaps even expulsion from the college."

You might want to include in this section a clear statement to the effect that in cases where one student has obviously copied another student's work, both assignments will receive a mark of zero (an important point for classes where all students will be submitting similar assignments, like lab reports, field trips, reading notes, solutions to mathematics problems, composition exercises, and so on).

While on the subject of cheating, I might mention that in some courses a student might be strongly tempted to submit the same paper to two different instructors to fulfill the requirements for two different courses (e.g., a first-year English course which requires a research paper on a topic of the student's own choice and another first-year course with a similar requirement, e.g., Theatre or Philosophy or Sociology).  Such a practice is not necessarily cheating, of course, and different instructors have different attitudes towards it.  If you have any concerns about this matter, you might mention them in the Course Outline or else in the instructions for the particular assignment.  Before making any decisions about this, you might want to talk to some instructors in your own department.  I normally permit the practice, provided the student informs both instructors involved and that the essay meets the precise requirements (for content and format) of the course I am teaching.  Other instructors do not permit the practice.

Special Instructions About Assignments

Where appropriate, you should include some information about the style and format for assignments, especially essays, technical reports, seminar notes, and so on.  Can these be handwritten?  Should printed work be double spaced?  Will you accept fonts of any style and size (remember the old student formula for making a four-page essay easier to produce: "Increase the margins, double the font size")? Do you require a title page, a binder, a list of works cited on a separate page, a standard way of providing in-text references and bibliographies?  Do you want the pages numbered, black print on white paper, standard quarto paper, and so on? If you don't specify these things precisely, you may well receive a wide variety of styles in the material handed in (papers written in cursive scripts, italics, block capitals, Jokerman font, 8-point font, variously coloured printing schemes, single or triple spacing, margins 1 mm wide, and so on).

Of course, you can defer this information until you provide the details of the assignment.  Putting it in the Course Outline, however, saves you the trouble of doing that later.  You can simply refer to the instructions provided earlier in the printed outline or in the newsgroup or both.  Incidentally, it is quite acceptable nowadays to demand that all students produced their written work on a word processing program.

Here are a few more details to think about (not that you have to include all of these in the Course Outline): Where do students hand papers in to you other than in class (your letter box, your office secretary, under your office door)?  Can students e-mail assignments to you?  If so, do you have any special requirements about the software?  Make sure you include the provision that all work handed in to you must have your name on the front page (in case the material goes astray).  Accepting e-mailed assignments is not a particularly good idea if the format of the assignments is important (except in attachments).  The e-mail program may well garble the lineation and other format options (e.g., double spacing, italics, and so on).

Finally, make sure you tell the students to keep a back-up copy of all assignments prepared on the computer, so that they can provide a second copy in the event that the one they handed in gets lost or mutilated.

A Web Page for the Course

As mentioned above, it's probably a bad idea to make the printed Course Outline a major document consisting of many pages.  So, to repeat myself, it's probably best to provide the essential information on a few pages (information about the instructor, required reading, assignments, break down of the marking) and to put the supplementary information (note on plagiarism, format for written assignments, instructions on participation, and so on) on a web page set up for that course.  If you provide the appropriate address on the printed Course Outline and inform all students there that they are expected to be familiar with the contents of this internet material, they will have all the necessary information in a convenient form.

You might want to think of other material to include on the web page for a particular course, for example, a link to your e-mail (if you want e-mail contact with students), a link to the newsgroup (if there is one), a link to your college home page, and links to supplementary material relevant to your course.  The web page should also contain the full Course Outline.

Such a web page is useful for all sorts of reasons.  If you set it up before the semester starts, it provides a useful description of your course for students who have not yet made up their minds.  You can direct students who have lost their course outline to get another one there.  And any new students who show up in the second or third classes (after you have passed out the Course Outline in the first class) can be directed to that site to find out what they need to know.

First Curricular Readings

The last item you might want to think about is attaching to the Course Outline any material or instructions relevant to the first three or four classes, when, as mentioned, you may have to deal with students in class who have not yet had time to visit the bookstore.

Learning About Your Community

A final important preparation for new instructors is to get to know something about the community in which they are teaching, so that they have some understanding of the social, cultural, and political background of the students.  Start reading the local paper (especially the editorials and the letters to the editor).  No, it's not the New York Times, but it's one of the best indications of the backgrounds of your students.  Watch local television, especially the news.  Find out what the local "hot" issues are (you may well want to draw on some of them as examples in your courses).  Get a sense of the range of concerns which dominate the community's thinking.  Are there any upcoming local political battles you might want to build into your courses (a public referendum on something or other, a march to protest or support immigrants, a legal tussle over religion in the schools, an environmental debate or confrontation over a development project, and so on).  What are some of the main issues facing minorities in the community (First Nations, immigrants, and so on)?

Are there any upcoming cultural events (plays, recitals, film festivals) which you might want to recommend to your students?  What about the local sports teams?  Is there any good music regularly available in town? How about recreational possibilities?  If possible, explore the area so that you have a sense of the different sections of the community (you will be talking with students about where they live or work, and it's helpful to have an overall sense of the region; in addition, your interest in and knowledge of the community will pay all sorts of unexpected dividends in the class room).  Whatever you do, don't adopt a "big city" attitude that this place is far too provincial to be interesting.  If you do that, you may be erecting unnecessary barriers between you and the students and limiting many very interesting and useful conversations in and outside of class.


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