When I started as an adjunct faculty member, I had no teaching experience. I was handed a syllabus, a classroom, and students, and left to figure out the rest on my own. In preparing that first course, I focused on what I thought were the essentials of teaching: finalizing the syllabus, picking the readings, and writing the assignments. Now, with nearly 20 years of teaching experience, and nine working as an educational developer, I know that while those planning steps are needed, they are not the most important. These are three essential things that adjunct faculty (and all faculty) need to know about teaching when getting started.
1. Connect to students
Study after study shows that key to a student’s success is their connection to a faculty member. As an adjunct instructor, your time on campus and ability to meet with students might be limited, but there are things you can do during your class to build relationships with your students to help them succeed (and make the work more meaningful for you).
- Get to class early/stay a bit late. This strategy is the easiest to do if you have the flexibility in your schedule to arrange it. If possible, try to arrive at least 15 minutes early to class. Take a few minutes to get ready (open your slides, organize the handouts, etc.) and then use the rest of the time to chat with your students about their weekends, their pets, their favorite sports teams – whatever helps you learn a bit more about them and communicate you are interested in them as people. You might be surprised by what you learn. One day before class a student taught me how to make perfect ramen noodles! Similarly, if you can, stick around for a few minutes after class so that students can ask you questions they might not have felt comfortable asking in front of others.
- Ask students to complete a pre-semester survey. You can send your students a pre-semester survey in a welcome message (another great way to connect with your students!). The survey can be short and focus on a few things that will help you get to know your students and their learning needs. Use the information to connect with your students when you meet them in class, and/or to help you form groups (you are welcome to copy my survey!).
- Learn your students’ names. Research shows that students feel more welcome in the classroom when their professor makes an effort to remember their names. This is pretty doable in a class of 20 or so students, but if you are one of those people who have trouble remembering people’s names in social situations (like me), then you can ask students to create name tents to use during class. These name tents have two extra bonus features: 1) They help students use each other’s names and 2) you can use them to take attendance by making note of any name tents not picked up at the beginning of class. Have a class with a lot of students? Ask students to sit in the same seats after a couple weeks of class and use a seating chart so you can refer to students by name, or ask students to always introduce themselves when speaking in class (and then try to get as many of the students as possible to speak!).
2. Create a welcoming environment
If you implement the practices suggested above, you are already on your way to creating a welcoming environment for your students. Here are a few other things you can do to ensure all students feel welcome in your classroom.
- Co-create classroom norms with your students. This is a great first day of class activity that gets students engaged with each other and the instructor right away. To get this started, you can share a suggested list of behaviors that will support student learning in your class and ask your students what they would add/subtract; you could also have them brainstorm what, in their experiences, have been elements of welcoming classrooms and use that to generate a list. Whatever the approach, once the norms for your class are agreed upon, you and your students can refer back to them whenever there is an issue with how students, or you, are interacting with each other.
- Use a variety of methods for sharing information. The principles of Universal Design for Learning recommend that educators provide students with multiple ways to engage in their courses, including the ways in which information is presented to them. Planning for this doesn’t have to be a lot of work; for example, when giving students instructions for an assignment or activity, accompany verbal instructions with written instructions on a slide or handout. You could also integrate videos or podcasts into your course materials, in addition to assigning readings.
- Encourage student participation. We know that active participation in class can improve student learning but participation does not always mean speaking. Try mixing up how students participate by facilitating small and large group discussions, as well as providing ways for students to participate non-verbally, through the use of discussion boards or response systems. You can also alternate who participates by asking to hear from students who haven’t contributed to the conversation, or use think-pair-share so that students can process their thoughts before sharing.
3. Provide meaningful feedback
Another way to achieve both of the above goals, and support student learning, is to provide students with clear, supportive feedback on their work. This recommendation might sound daunting at first, so here are some tips to make providing feedback easier for you and more meaningful for students.
- Utilize the Wise feedback model. Wise feedback gives feedback to students in three parts: it communicates the educator’s high expectations, their belief that students can meet those expectations, and provides specific suggestions for anything students need to do in order to do so. For example, here is the kind of feedback I recently gave to one of my students: “For this assignment, the connection between the set design and the theme needs to be very clear. While you haven’t done that in the work you submitted, I know that you can. For your revision, in addition to describing the set, be sure to add how the design elements support your identified theme. Let me know what questions you have before re-submitting.”
- Be transparent about your criteria. Students will be better able to demonstrate their learning, and grading will be easier for you, if you include descriptions of the assignment criteria you will use to grade the work. You can create a grading rubric by defining – for yourself and your students – what skills/knowledge you are looking for students to demonstrate by doing the assignment, and at what level they should perform. Once you have designed your rubric, you can use your institution’s Learning Management System to share the rubric with students, and also use it to more easily provide students with feedback on their work.
- Use formative assessment. Not all feedback to students has to be on graded assignments; you can also create opportunities for formative assessment, which is the assessment for learning not of learning. How might this work? At the end of class, ask students to share their muddiest point or summarize the big ideas from that class period in a minute paper. Then start the next class by addressing any questions/lack of clarity you identified. These types of formative assessments not only give you a chance to give students feedback on where they are in the process of learning, but also give you feedback on how you might need to adjust your teaching in the future in order to ensure that course concepts are clearly communicated to students.
I recommend to new adjunct faculty that they pick two to three things from this list to start with in their first semester, and then add on more as they gain experience and confidence. And there is one more piece of advice I have: Get connected to your institution’s Center for Teaching and Learning. They can help you implement all of these suggestions and be a partner in planning other aspects of your course, including developing the syllabus, choosing content, and designing assessments.
Teresa Focarile is the associate director for educational development at Boise State’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Her scholarly work has focused on how educational developers can support institutional efforts such as program assessment and concurrent enrollment, as well as designing programs for adjunct faculty. At the CTL, she supports a variety of CTL and university-wide efforts, including the Course Design Institute, the Great Ideas for Teaching and Learning Symposium, and Program Assessment Reporting. She has taught at the college level for 18 years, the past 12 for Boise State and the previous six for the University of Connecticut.
Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert, Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.
Mary-Ann Winklemes, “Introduction to Transparency in Learning and Teaching,” Perspectives in Learning 20, no. 1 (2023). https://csuepress.columbusstate.edu/pil/vol20/iss1/2