Blog 1

Launching the teaching and learning blog


Celia Popovic

Monday September 14th 2015

The start of term evokes a mix of emotions for most of us usually accompanied by a rash of purchases and promises to ourselves and others. Whether new pencils, pristine journals, and yet to be used library cards are your cup of tea, or if you are thinking optimistically about Twitter and Facebook accounts, laptops, tablets and smart phones, the start of term is a time of new beginnings, optimism and excitement for some and possibly anxiety for others.

In the Teaching Commons we started the year back in July when we held the first of two orientation days for new faculty. With teaching starting this week, and Freshers’ Week behind us we can almost hear the crackling of the paper as professors share their course syllabi and students find out a little more about what to expect in the coming weeks.

As a time of new beginnings we thought this would be the perfect time to launch our weekly blog – Teaching and Learning at York. We have reached out to the teaching community inviting those who teach to share their concerns, insights, pet peeves with the rest of us. If you haven’t yet been asked, please don’t be shy – contact me at if you would like to offer to write a blog. We ask for between 500 and 750 words and a photo or picture either of yourself or something related to the blog topic.

For some reason the image the comes to mind when I think about the start of the year is the time I lectured a group of 400 third year medical students at a University in the UK. As I began my carefully rehearsed talk about techniques and practices likely to bring them success as learners I realized that I was the audience – not them. In perfect sequence the students began what in the UK we would call a ‘Mexican wave’ (see ) of coughs from one side of the lecture theatre to the other, and then back again. This was not my most auspicious moment as I realized what was happening and wondered how to capture the students’ attention. This group of students had clearly used the previous two years to find ways to amuse themselves at the lecturer’s expense in what I found to be an astonishingly effective passive aggressive act. I survived to not only tell the tale but also to continue on for a second and subsequent weeks.

Perhaps I should have followed the advice in this article by David Atkinson in the Guardian newspaper from September 2012 –

Six top tips to get the first class off to a flyer

1) Arrive early and prepare the room: That includes seating arrangements. You’re striving for active engagement from the off.

2) Start to learn names: Take a register and, when someone has a question, ask him or her to give their name first.

3) Hold the admin until week two: Instead, set an interesting task to whet their appetites and then guide them through it.

4) Engage the students with the material: A real-life exercise to discuss is a great way to do this.

5) Set ground rules implicitly: The concept of andragogy suggests that when rules are created (or negotiated), they are also explained.

6) Give out the module handbook at the very end: Ask students to come back to the next session with two questions each about it.

What are your top tips for a perfect new start to the year?

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6 comments on “Blog 1

  1. I’d like to add something about starting the term in an online course. I think establishing contact and letting the students know you care is a key concept, whatever the mode of teaching. For my online courses, I usually send a message out to all the students in the class a week or 10 days before term begins. I let them know that the course website is active. (I publish the opening page at this time, with a course description, a bio-note which tells the students something about my background, and information on the how to get set up with Moodle). I provide information about getting an account in Moodle, and let them know that I will be posting the course outline on the first day of classes. Then on the night before the first day of classes, or in the morning of the first day of classes, I send out another message to all the students confirming that the course outline has been posted. In both messages, I include a welcoming sentence or two. I indicate in the course description that I have a learner-centered pedagogy. I also encourage students to email me with any questions.
    I’ve found that this early communication can make a big difference. Students find these emails reassuring. Often an online format is new to them, and these messages give them the information they need. They let students know that someone is ‘there’ and available to answer their questions. These emails also ‘frame’ the communication ‘channels’ for the course. They set up the virtual community that will be the course learning environment, and keep everyone centered on the course, under the same roof. Students see right away that someone is there and that someone cares, that they can communicate easily with their instructor and that they will be given the information they need to succeed in the course. These messages are reiterated in the information I give about communicating with the instructor in my course outline, and also in another email I send out week 2, after I’ve had an opportunity to receive some student feedback and see how the initial activities are working. (And yes, I agree with the Guardian article that beginning with an activity is great. I always ask my students to complete a short questionnaire about their perceptions of the topic. This gives them (and me) a good idea of where we are all starting from as we build knowledge together. )

  2. Begin the first moments of the first class with a highly interactive discussion or exercise — before talking about anything else. This helps set the tone for the entire semester, and starts building both the routine and expectation that “this will be one of those classes where you need to participate.”

  3. Begin as you mean to go on!

    I learned the hard way that it is nearly impossible to expect students to be take ownership of their learning if I don’t set the stage early on for this to happen. I used to tell my students to come prepared to class as we all do, but for the most part, they were able to come to class, sit back and relax for the first half during which time I covered the materials they had to read prior to coming to class. They learned quickly that I would discuss important concepts from the readings during class and didn’t come prepared. Once I changed the structure of my class, they became more engaged, but it would have been much smoother (i.e., less resistance) and productive to adopt a learner-centred approach from the first day of class.

  4. I teach mainly elective courses, so I find a lot of students are ‘window shopping’ for the first couple of weeks. That is, students have registered for more classes than they will actually take or have registered for classes in concurrent timeslots and are deciding which to keep and which to drop. Therefore, my first class includes a strong ‘what’s in it for me’ component i.e. how is this course relevant to me and my life if this is not my field of interest – reinforced by a multimedia overview of the main course themes, ideas, requirements and readings. This enables me to fill in the new students who will inevitably straggle in over the next few weeks without being overly repetitive. I find this helps ground the committed students while providing the fence-sitters with the inspiration and information they need to make decide if this course is for them. Only when the course population settles, will we divide into study groups so there is a greater degree of certainty that group members will be in for the long haul.

  5. Whether being a CD or a TA, the use of ice-breakers ‘to get to know each other’ helps to create a positive and friendly atmosphere on your first tutorial. My favorite one is: “two truths and a lie”. In small groups, students write 2 truths about themselves and a ‘lie’. They introduce the 3 ‘facts’ to their peers who try to guess which one is a ‘lie’. You can wrap up the activity by saying that this is the only time they can ‘lie’ in your tutorial…
    Have a great start of the year!

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