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Career Advice

10 steps to build your first academic course


You’ve just been given the chance to teach your first academic course. It was not entirely expected, and you have less time than you would like to prepare. What do you do?

The first steps are to stay calm and be realistic. Your first teaching experience will not be your best, your course is unlikely to be structured exactly as you would like it, and you will inevitably feel that you could have been better prepared. These feelings are normal, and any fear you have is natural.

Keeping these thoughts in mind, here are 10 steps to make the process more manageable and fulfilling:

1. Gather basic information

Put yourself in your future students’ shoes. Read the description of your course in the university or college calendar and note:

  • Prerequisites
  • Minimum and maximum enrolments – this will affect whether you have to hire and train TAs
  • The course schedule – keep in mind holidays and university closures
  • The course delivery method – in-class vs. on-line

2. Speak to colleagues

Find someone supportive, and ask lots of questions: Is there a previous course outline you can see? Who takes your course – for example, majors or non-majors? Does your university/faculty/department enforce specific policies – for example, do all courses require final exams? Are there faculty, program or discipline aims or goals that your course must support? What types of academic and social support are available to students across campus?

3. Assess your own strengths and weaknesses as an instructor

Be realistic about what you can expect from yourself. How much time do you really have to plan and teach? How well do you know the material?

4. Determine course objectives and expected learning outcomes

The best courses are focused. Instructors have clear expectations of what their students should learn and how they plan to enable the learning process. Set expected learning outcomes first, dividing them into knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Establish your objectives in light of these outcomes. Keep in mind your course, discipline, program, and your university’s mission.

If the subject matter of your course is relatively unfamiliar, skip to steps 8 and 9 (you can come back to 5-7 later).

5. Determine methods of assessment

Now that you know what you want students to learn, figure out how you will measure whether they have met your expectations. What types of assignments will be effective? How will you assess them? Are there rubrics that you need to build?

6. Draft a thorough course description

Make the course your own by expanding the paragraph in the course calendar: Before you begin, refresh your subject matter expertise by skimming three or four leading texts in the field. Aim for 100–200 words, and mention your focus and main themes.

7. Draft course policies and expectations

Whether you include all of this information in your syllabus is up to you, but make sure to have answers to these questions before you start teaching: What is your instructor communications policy? Do you have office hours? How often do you respond to email? Can students reach you by phone? How do you deal with requests for extensions? With appeals? With plagiarism?

8. Develop the course content

This step is by far the most intense, but potentially the most rewarding: If you’re a non-expert, don’t be afraid to allow a textbook to guide your organization of the material and your choice of readings. This might not be ideal, but it’s a start. If you’re more confident in your background knowledge, structure the course first, and select the readings later.

9. Build your course tools

Do these things as soon as you can:

  • Order textbooks.
  • Place readings on reserve.
  • Set up your website.
  • Start building your teaching and learning aids, e.g. PowerPoint slides.

10. Prepare to monitor areas for improvement

Planning a course the second time is always easier, but how much easier depends on how closely you track your first experience. Throughout the course, track well-received and poorly received readings, keep records of sessions that go well and those that must be revised, and reflect on the effectiveness of your choice of assignments.

Few instructors feel completely fulfilled when they complete their first teaching experience. It is always seems too rushed or too reliant on someone else’s material and ideas. Don’t beat yourself up over this. Improvement will come with experience. Until then, allow your commitment to your students – and to teaching and learning more generally – to shine through.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the
Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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  1. Vlad / April 17, 2019 at 04:28

    Thank you for an article and all your advice.