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The first day of class is an important time. This CDTL Brief on Preparing for the First Lecture/Class provides tips on pre-class preparations, ideas on approaching the first class session and hints in getting comfortable in front of the class.

July 2004, Vol. 7, No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
The First Class—Getting my Act together
 
Seah Kar Heng
Associate Professor
Department of Mechanical Engineering
 

Introduction

Standing in front of a class to teach a module for the first time can be a terrifying experience. There is an exasperating anxiety of the unknown since one is charting an untrodden path with so many uncertainties. In such a situation, one tends to feel nervous about the myriad details that could possibly go wrong, although the fear does diminish with experience. I have personally gone through such experiences many times in my career, and must confess that even after having taught in NUS for 20 years, I still have apprehensions about teaching a new module.

Preparation for first lecture

When I first joined NUS as a teaching staff, I was advised that one needs to spend about 10 hours in preparation for every hour of lecture. While there are really no hard and fast rules about preparing for lectures, the importance of preparation can never be over emphasised. This is because the more prepared a lecturer is, the more confident he/she will be in facing the class. Therefore, I have always abided by the unwritten rule that it is far safer to prepare more material to teach within what the allotted time allows than less. It is much easier to discard material that cannot be covered within the time frame than to cook up an extra topic on the spot if there is additional time.

I recently started teaching a module that I have never taught before. Although I managed to teach only about 60% of what I originally planned, the extra material was not totally wasted. Apart from using the excess material for my research on topics not covered in class, my rigorous planning stood me in good stead when my students asked questions (some beyond the scope of what was eventually covered in class). Rather than telling the students not to bother me (since they were veering off course), I was able to discuss with them the additional topics and encourage the students in their meritorious habit of researching outside the syllabus. By doing so, I was promoting creative thinking, lifelong learning, as well as student-teacher interaction. Thus, I have learnt that being overly prepared can bring dividends to both the lecturer and the students.

Preparation for first tutorial

The same principle of over-preparation also holds true for the first tutorial. I normally prepare a few extra questions for discussion, in case there is extra time during a tutorial. In fact, tutorials are far more unpredictable than lectures. While the lecturer can control the time quite effectively in lectures, how the tutorials progress often depend on the students’ response (i.e. whether the students are actively asking questions or not). Therefore, I have found it useful to have on hand some questions that I can throw to the class if nobody is in the mood to say anything. There are occasions when I need pockets of time to revise a topic on which I have received many queries through the module website and through email. Such sessions can be slotted into a tutorial lesson quite easily when there are minutes to spare. Of course, for the benefit of the whole class, the lecturer may also address the students’ queries during the extra time towards the end of a lecture.

Assessment

Another point that the lecturer needs to bear in mind while preparing for a new module is the problem of assessment. The topics covered in the module should provide sufficient scope for setting exam or test questions, depending on whether it is an examinable module or one with only continuous assessment (CA). Ultimately, marks are still the workhorse of our assessment system. A lecturer cannot simply impart knowledge, stimulate creative thinking and instil lifelong learning among his students, but forget about grading the students in a final exam or in regular CA. Since assessments are compulsory, they will, to a certain extent, affect the way we plan the syllabus and the way in which we deliver the lectures. It is therefore, important, during the first lecture (if possible), to tell the class explicitly how the module’s assessment will be carried out. If this is not done, the students might complain that they were never told, or were told very late in the semester, how to prepare themselves for this module.

In NUS, teaching staff are required to set the exam questions and provide the solutions early in the semester. Very often, the exam question on a particular topic is set even before the topic is covered in class. This is not necessarily a bad thing since the syllabus and the examination ought to be viewed as a whole, so that they are relevant to each other. It therefore behooves the lecturer to start thinking about the examination while preparing for the lectures. The fact that teaching staff are not supposed to repeat tutorial questions in the final exam makes it even more necessary for the lecturer to consider all the module’s components—the syllabus, the tutorials, the CA questions and the final exam questions—in totality.

Conclusion

By now the reader will realise that the rule of the thumb stating that ‘one needs to spend about 10 hours in preparation for every hour of lecture’ is just a guideline. To really be prepared for an hour’s lecture, one probably needs to invest about 20–30 hours. The uncertainties of any new module are infinite and the possible outcomes unpredictable. It is therefore safer to prepare more material than less. With more preparation comes greater confidence in conducting the lectures and tutorials, and more competence in handling unforeseen circumstances. An early start in preparation is hence an obvious advantage and should be the aim of every first-timer who desires to do a good job.


Associate Professor Seah Kar Heng is a winner of the Outstanding Educator Award 2003

 
 
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Inside this issue
The First Class—Getting my Act together
   
Your First Class: Preparation and “Theatre”
   
Stimulating Student Interest in the First Lecture
   
Starting on the Right Track
   
Making or Breaking a Course—the First Lesson