Five Tips for Getting a Good Start on the Semester (and Maybe Even Enjoying Ourselves a Little)

By Paul Hanstedt

My friend Gray Kochhar-Lindgren says there’s no better way to raise the temperature in a room than for one person to tell another person how to teach. I always try to keep this in mind when talking with folks about what we do in the classroom, this thing that has the potential to change the world in very real, very powerful ways—but that also, at times, makes all of us, students and faculty alike, feel incredibly vulnerable. That in mind, please take what follows with a very large grain of salt.

  1. Don’t begin by covering the syllabus. Do this later. First impressions matter, and if the first thing we cover is the syllabus, then the message we send is that the class is about rules and regulations, rather than ideas and powerful learning.
  2. Instead, begin with a Beautiful Problem—the kind of problem that engages you in your work, the kind of problem that drew you into the field, the kind of big, gorgeous, difficult challenge that engages your curiosity and intellect and keeps you going even as it drives you nuts. If you’re teaching art history, put a painting on the screen. If you’re teaching mathematics, show students a problem that’s puzzled mathematicians for years. Sure, you may have to tone down the degree of difficulty a little, but don’t go down too far! Provide students with a few tools to tackle your beautiful problem, then let them go.
  3. Meet students where they are. Yes, this is something of a cliché, but we often forget, focusing instead on how students fall short of our expectations. So when they tackle your Beautiful Problem, point out not their shortcomings, but the small steps, the little bits and pieces of brilliance. We need to have high expectations, but it’s impossible for anyone to meet those expectations if they can’t even begin.
  4. Never apologize for being passionate about your topic—or anything else for that matter. Show students not just what you love, but why. And don’t apologize for expecting them to throw themselves into it as well: for these 90 minutes, this is what we do. And we will do it well. An engaged approach will engage students—and more importantly, it will show them that “work” and “joy” are not antithetical.
  5. Assume a gracious and powerful audience. Teaching is a rhetorical act: we’re presenting a construction of our selves teaching a construction of the course topic. And we’re teaching it to a constructed audience, created by all of our assumptions about who these students are, what they do or don’t want, how smart they are or aren’t, how far they can or can’t go, how hard they will or won’t work. The thing is, people rise or sink to the level we’ve created for them—they can read how we’re reading them. So assume a wise audience. Assume a room full of students filled with good will and a willingness to work hard. Assume an audience with good intentions, and the desire to be pushed, and the desire to grow. Then forget that you’re the teacher and that they’re the students, and just have a conversation about things that matter.

Paul Hanstedt is a John P. Fishwick Professor of English and Director of the Teaching Collaborative at Roanoke College, where he led the revision of a campus-wide general education program, developed an innovative writing-across-the-curriculum program, and teaches a wide range of courses. He is the recipient of several teaching awards, including a 2013 State Council for Higher Education in Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award and the 2014 CASE Carnegie Virginia Professor of the Year. He has authored numerous articles and stories and several books, including General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty and Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World.

Developing an Evidenced-Based Philosophy of Teaching

By Amanda Kratovil-Mailhiot

As a recent graduate of a PhD program, I received very little formal training in teaching. Naively, I entered academia as an assistant professor of nursing believing that, like in my past experiences, on-the-job training would suffice. How hard could it be to teach undergraduate student nurses anyway? What I failed to recognize was the culture change in education since I was a student. I quickly realized that the roles of the teacher and learner as discrete entities were a thing of the past; teachers and learners are unifying forces to improve student comprehension and retention!

Self-Reflection Is Key

When I read the ACUE program description, I knew this was the formal, yet on-the-job training I needed to be a successful educator. My hopes were confirmed the very first lesson/module. The format of the course is such that I learned the theory and techniques supporting each topic in a well-developed and engaging online format, and then I was required to implement the most appropriate technique in my class that same week. My self-reflection on the successes and difficulties of implementation was one of the most important parts of my growth as a novice instructor. It forced me to take the time and really think about how the students perceived and interpreted the techniques that I used. The focus of my teaching began to shift away from my own goals and intentions of the activities and learning techniques to the students’ perceptions of those activities, which was my biggest takeaway from the program.

Evolution of an Evidence-Based Philosophy

Because of ACUE’s program, I found my philosophy of teaching evolve, similar to the evolution of new graduate nurses to expert nurses. At first, I was focused on the task of delivering content to students, of preparing well-designed lectures and assignments that accurately assessed what I intended for the students to learn. Throughout the ACUE course, I began to realize that it does not matter how well prepared I am if the students are not receiving and interpreting the information in the way in which I intend. I learned that students may understand and retain more from discussing key concepts with each other than from me lecturing content to them. Therefore, I have implemented many of the ACUE techniques focused on facilitating discussions and learning amongst my students rather than lecturing and forcing information onto them from my isolated perspective. An example of this (also one of the biggest challenges that remains for me) is limiting my input during discussions and group work. I can stand in front of a class and tell students my perspective of a concept in 100 different ways. However, the information is based on my perspective, and many students may be disengaged or my message may be misunderstood. On the other hand, when students begin talking to each other about the same concept, it can be like magic and the concept may become clearer to them in just one conversation with their peers.

The Benefits for Novice Instructors

I was fortunate to have participated in the ACUE program during my second semester of teaching. I could not have asked for a better time to learn many techniques for engaging students and becoming a more effective facilitator of learning. Earning the ACUE credential this early in my career not only provided the opportunity for me to incorporate evidence-based theory and techniques into my teaching philosophy at an early stage, but it also afforded me a solid foundation upon which I can continue to improve and develop. In fact, the student perspective of teaching and learning has prompted me to shift my research focus to undergraduate education.

Promoting and Developing New Evidence

The ACUE program has prompted me to explore new areas of teaching and learning. I plan to qualitatively explore faculty members’ experiences implementing active learning techniques in the baccalaureate program. As Case Western Reserve University discovered after initiating an Active Learning Initiative in 2013, the challenges and barriers to implementing active learning techniques in the classroom are dynamic (Juergensen, Oestreich, Yuhnke, & Kenney, 2016). Undoubtedly, each academic setting has its own nuances to overcome. In our baccalaureate nursing program, instructors’ implementation of active learning techniques varies greatly between instructors. Students’ acceptance of active learning in the classroom seems to be, at least somewhat, dependent on the milieu the instructor sets for the active learning classroom; ensuring students understand the rationale and research behind active learning is crucial.  Through research, I hope to better understand faculty members’ baseline perceptions and interpretations of active learning strategies. This information may then be used to promote the implementation of educational interventions, like ACUE, to provide an equal opportunity for all students to learn from faculty who are using evidence-based teaching methods.


Juergensen, J., Oestreich, T., Yuhnke, B., & Kenney, M. (2016, January 25). New challenges to active learning initiatives. EDUCAUSE Review. Retrieved from

Amanda Kratovil-Mailhiot is an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at Purdue University Northwest. She is currently conducting a systematic review of baccalaureate instructors’ experiences engaging students with active learning techniques. She earned her ACUE credential in spring 2018.