Use these resources to inform your teaching as well as help departments, programs, and Schools with programs like TA training. Also, the Stanford community can browse or borrow from VPTL’s library of practical and theoretical works on teaching and learning in Sweet Hall.


Planning Your Approach

Defining Your Own Teaching Goals

Consider the following teaching goals and decide for yourself which are most relevant to the material you teach and the role you want to play in your students’ intellectual and personal development.


Every aspect of your teaching will be shaped by the role you want to play in the mentorship and development of your students. Every nuts-and-bolts teaching strategy, even the most practical advice about lecturing or writing exams, serves the goal of helping you become the kind of teacher who has inspired you.

Below are some examples of some of the highest teaching goals to remind you that great teaching is more than a handful of teaching tricks strung together with modest aims and sufficient expertise in your field.

Inspire Students

Nothing pushes students to do their best work like a professor who takes pride not in his or her own accomplishments, but in helping others realize their potential. “

—Jason Dent, Philosophy, ’05

Your effort and enthusiasm as a teacher directly influence students’ commitment to your course and interest in your field. Great teachers inspire students by demonstrating belief in their students’ abilities and by providing the support students need to meet challenging academic demands.

Facilitate Mastery of a Field

In choosing my area of concentration I decided to combine two of my interests, sports and medicine, and study sports medicine. Initially I was just mildly curious about the field. However, after taking a class on exercise and physiology by Dr. Anne Friedlander and talking with her outside of class, my interest became more than just academic. She opened my eyes to the practicality and numerous applications of sports medicine. In a few weeks I will begin a sports medicine internship with a grassroots organization that encourages older individuals to maintain health through an active lifestyle. Thanks to Dr. Friedlander I am learning more about sports medicine and enjoying opportunities to apply that knowledge in everyday life.

—Angela Markham, Human Biology (Sports Medicine), ’05

Your classroom is a training ground not only for future study in your field but also for many aspects of life. Great teachers help students master the fundamentals of their subject matter, which will pay off both for advanced study in their field and for students’ everyday understanding of the world.

Mentor Young Intellects

I attribute a great deal of my intellectual growth at Stanford to my advisor’s mentorship and guidance. I came to her last year as someone who was completely intimidated by economics. But from the first day of my research assistantship she pushed me to challenge myself academically and personally. For the first time, I began to understand what it meant to set high goals for myself without fear.”

—Felicia Estrada, Public Policy, ’04

Long after individual facts and phrases are forgotten, your students will carry with them the intellectual skills you help them develop, from critical to creative thinking. Great teachers prepare students for lifelong learning.

Help Students Find Their Voice

“Although I had been very outspoken during high school, initially it was very hard to find my ‘voice’ at Stanford. I think my breakthrough came during an African history class. The professor showed that he valued our class participation both in the grading of the course and by encouraging every student to speak at least once during the quarter. He received our comments in such a nonjudgmental way that after a couple weeks I felt much more confident speaking up in all my classes.”

—Andrea Snavely, International Relations, ’04

Once you’ve helped students find something they want to say, you need to help them find a way to say it. Great teachers give students the skills to communicate effectively and the confidence to express what they think.

Help Students Articulate and Follow Their Values

“It’s all too easy for students to think the learning process is limited to lectures, readings, or problem sets. It takes a great professor or TA to take course material outside the context of the classroom and remind us that we study in order to better the world. I remain impressed with instructors who take time to do this in traditional classes, not just those labeled as ‘service-learning courses.'”

—Felicia Estrada, Public Policy, ’04

One of the main goals of higher education is to help students figure out who they are and how they can be of service to their community. Great teachers help students understand the social responsibilities of their field and the social impact of their choices.

Back view of male prof lecturing to large class in lecture hall, many students

As an academic you may at times feel the attractions of teaching and research as opposing forces. Promotion processes, as well as your own desire to advance your field, usually require that you devote considerable time to research, publication, and presentation.  On the other hand, teaching is one of your primary obligations as a scholar. How can you strike the right balance?


Caucasian and Black male scientists, white lab coats, in lab, look at data together

Before you reconcile yourself to the idea that excellence in teaching and research are mutually exclusive, consider the similarities between the two endeavors.

  • Presenting at conferences and fielding questions from the audience requires the same skills as lecturing.
  • Designing an outstanding course outline and syllabus uses many of the same skills as putting together a literature review or grant proposal.
  • Both teaching and research help you develop insight into your field, refine your communication skills, and draw on your ability to select and organize content in a meaningful way.

Because they require similar skills, you will find that improvement and advancement in one feeds back into improvement and advancement in the other.

Manage your time

New instructors’ first concern is often one of simple time management. The following suggestions may be helpful as you first establish the balance between teaching and research:

  • Consider doubling your teaching load during one quarter so that you have at least one quarter free for time intensive projects, such as major grant proposals.
  • Invite your colleagues to give guest lectures on their areas of expertise, and volunteer to do the same for them—it will give you a chance to practice speaking about your research to a nonexpert audience.
  • Build a teaching library of videos, class activities, and presentations that you can draw on when you become unexpectedly overwhelmed by other demands.
  • Your research program can also enrich your classes. Stephen Bostock of Glyndwr University, Wales, has identified four effective ways for instructors to bring the process as well as the products of research into the classroom:
  1. Use current research perspectives, paradigms, and debates in the classroom to show that knowledge is contested and growing, rather than accepted fact.
  2. Include recent research results as part of curriculum content.
  3. Introduce both generic and subject-specific research skills and scholarly activities into course assignments, including literature review, experiment design, peer review, book review, conference paper presentation, and grant application.
  4. Invite students into your research community in small ways by requiring them to join scholarly email lists or discussion boards, use online conference proceedings as resources for class assignments, or attend departmental talks.

Male and female observers look through large window at class in next room

Inspire students to work with you

You can view your classroom as a pool of potential research assistants and honor students (who often contribute greatly to a research program). Undergraduate RAs bring enthusiasm, time, and a fresh perspective to your work. There are some drawbacks, such as the training and start-up time, but the rewards are great. Many RAs who are inspired by a specific course will stay with a faculty member or graduate student for much of their time at Stanford.

Consider coordinating a course on current faculty research in your department, with faculty rotating as speakers. This may count toward your teaching requirements while helping to match interested students and faculty.

Be on the lookout for research directions

Finally, there is always the possibility that questions that come up in class will inspire new directions for your research. For example, Professor Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, potentially the most well-known research study in Stanford’s history, was inspired by an exercise in his psychology class. Other Stanford professors report similar classroom inspirations.

Psychology professor Ewart Thomas says this phenomenon is particularly likely to occur in those classes where “we are operating at the borders of what is known and what is not known.”

Teaching Improvement

Most instructors regard their teaching as an intensely personal matter. While they may be more than willing to allow colleagues to critique their written work, they are unlikely to invite them into their classrooms to observe and make comments. However, teaching is like any other academic endeavor—it is an acquired skill, one more easily gained if you get specific feedback on how you are doing.

If you decide that you wish to make significant improvements in your teaching, the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning can help you identify the specific skills and strategies that will enhance your teaching style. This is particularly true when you aren’t quite sure what needs improving. For some faculty and TAs, it has taken as little as a student small-group evaluation to enhance their questioning technique or grading policy. For others, it has required considerable time to learn better methods of organization or delivery. VPTL events and workshops can be a source of new ideas and support to try them. The crucial factor in each case has been the teacher’s willingness to recognize the need for change and to try new approaches.

You may be motivated by a specific goal, such as the desire to try a particularly innovative class format or to increase the average attendance in your large lectures from 60 to 90 percent. In this case, turning to the collective wisdom of your colleagues, the advice of students you know well, the Teaching Commons website, or the resource library available at the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning may be enough. VPTL, on the fourth floor of Sweet Hall, has a wide collection of books and journals on almost every aspect of teaching. You will find dozens of ideas on better lecture techniques alone, for example.

Any steps that you take to improve your teaching are likely to be worthwhile both professionally and personally. Faculty at research universities are increasingly expected to teach well, as has long been the case at student-oriented liberal arts colleges and most state colleges and universities. When well done, teaching can be a source of enormous personal satisfaction and pleasure. Successful contact with students can balance the sometimes lonely aspects of pure scholarship; it also gives you a chance to pass on those values, ideas, and passions that are at the core of your commitment to scholarship.

Characteristics of Effective Teachers

Effective teachers appear again and again to display certain characteristics, while ineffective teachers tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly. Below is a look at some of the things more effective teachers tend to do right and less effective teachers tend to do wrong.

Organization and Clarity

  • explains clearly
  • is well prepared (see Preparing for the First Day)
  • makes difficult topics easy to understand
  • uses examples, details, analogies, metaphors, and variety in modes of explanation to make material not only understandable but memorable
  • makes the objectives of the course and each class clear (see Course Design, Course Goals and Learning Outcomes)
  • establishes a context for material

Analytic/Synthetic Approach

  • has a thorough command of the field
  • contrasts the implications of various theories
  • gives the student a sense of the field, its past, present, and future directions, the origins of ideas and concepts (see Consider Your Audience)
  • presents facts and concepts from related fields
  • discusses viewpoints other than his/her own

Dynamism and Enthusiasm

  • is an energetic, dynamic person
  • seems to enjoy teaching
  • conveys a love of the field
  • has an aura of self-confidence

Instructor-Group Interaction

  • can stimulate, direct, and pace interaction with the class (see How to Lead a Discussion)
  • encourages independent thought and accepts criticism
  • uses wit and humor effectively
  • is a good public speaker (see Speaking at the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking)
  • knows whether or not the class is following the material and is sensitive to students’ motivation
  • is concerned about the quality of his/her teaching

Instructor-Individual Student Interaction

  • is perceived as fair, especially in his/her methods of evaluation (see How to Evaluate Students)
  • is seen by students as approachable and a valuable source of advice even on matters not directly related to the course (see Interacting with Students)


Doing the right things with your teaching is of course critical but so is avoiding the wrong things.  Richard M. Felder, North Carolina State University and Rebecca Brent, Education Designs, Inc., have come up with a list to the ten worst mistakes teachers make.  They are summarized here in increasing order of badness.  Further details and additional material can be found at Richard Felder’s Home Page.

Mistake #10: When you ask a question in class, immediately call for volunteers.  When you do this most students will avoid eye contact, and either you get a response from one of the two or three who always volunteer or you answer your own question

Mistake #9: Call on students cold. If you frequently call on students without giving them time to think (“cold-calling”), the ones who are intimidated by it won’t be following your lecture as much as praying that you don’t land on them. Even worse, as soon as you call on someone, the others breathe a sigh of relief and stop thinking.

Mistake #8: Turn classes into PowerPoint shows. Droning through lecture notes put into PowerPoint slides is generally a waste of time for everyone.

Mistake #7: Fail to provide variety in instruction. Effective instruction mixes things up: boardwork, multimedia, storytelling, discussion, activities, individual assignments, and group work (being careful to avoid Mistake #6). The more variety you build in, the more effective the class is likely to be.

Mistake #6: Have students work in groups with no individual accountability.  The way to make group work work is cooperative learning, an exhaustively researched instructional method that effectively promotes development of both cognitive and interpersonal skills

Mistake #5: Fail to establish relevance. To provide better motivation, begin the course by describing how the content relates to important technological and social problems and to whatever you know of the students’ experience, interests, and career goals, and do the same thing when you introduce each new topic.

Mistake #4. Give tests that are too long. If you want to evaluate your students’ potential to be successful professionals, test their mastery of the knowledge and skills you are teaching, not their problem-solving speed.

Mistake #3: Get stuck in a rut. Things are always happening that provide incentives and opportunities for improving courses. This is not to say that you have to make major revisions in your course every time you give it-you probably don’t have time to do that, and there’s no reason to. Rather, just keep your eyes open for possible improvements you might make in the time available to you.

Mistake #2. Teach without clear learning objectives. A key to making courses coherent and tests fair is to write learning objectives-explicit statements of what students should be able to do if they have learned what the instructor wants them to learn-and to use the objectives as the basis for designing lessons, assignments, and exams.

Mistake #1. Disrespect students. If you give students a sense that you don’t respect them, the class will probably be a bad experience for everyone no matter what else you do, while if you clearly convey respect and caring, it will cover a multitude of pedagogical sins you might commit.

Teaching Strategies

Great teaching occurs both in traditional classroom settings and outside the classroom. In this section, we offer some practical advice specific to a variety of teaching contexts, from lectures to laboratories to office hours. This advice is just a sample of teaching strategies that will apply to instructors in any field; for more detailed advice, or for strategies developed by instructors in your field, consult the many resources available elsewhere at this website.

Great Beginnings: Things to do early in your class

Checklist for Effective Lecturing

Be Prepared

  • Outline clear objectives for your lecture—both what students should know after the lecture and why it is important.
  • Develop a lecture outline and any audiovisuals.
  • If you are nervous about the lecture, write out your introduction and rehearse it.

Keep Your Focus

  • Limit the main points in a lecture to five or fewer.
  • Create effective visuals, analogies, demonstrations, and examples to reinforce the main points.
  • Share your outline with students.
  • Emphasize your objectives and key points in the beginning, as you get to them, and as a summary at the end.

Engage Your Audience

  • Focus attention early on using a quote, a dramatic visual, an anecdote, or other material relevant to the topic.
  • Integrate visuals, multimedia, discussion, active learning strategies, small-group techniques, and peer instruction.
  • Link new material to students’ prior knowledge, such as common experiences or previous coursework.
  • Show enthusiasm for the topic and information. Remember, you are modeling your discipline.
  • Give students time to think and genuine opportunities to respond.
  • Plan for diverse learners. Use verbal, visual, and kinesthetic approaches such as hands-on exercises and simulations.

Get Feedback

  • Observe students’ non-verbal communication: notetaking, response to questions, eye contact, seating patterns, and response to humor. Are they “with” you?
  • Use the “minute paper” or other assessment techniques. Ask students to respond in one or two sentences to the following questions:What stood out as most important in today’s lecture? What are you confused about? Do this every few lectures—it will take you about 15 minutes to review the responses and you’ll learn an enormous amount about your students.
  • Give quizzes periodically on lecture objectives, not obscure material. Are they getting it?
  • Conduct midterm teaching evaluations or simply ask the students for suggestions and comments at the midpoint of the quarter.

Laboratory Teaching Guidelines

The laboratory is an exciting place where students investigate, analyze, and reflect. They test and apply theories and make abstract concepts concrete.

However, the processes of investigation don’t always run smoothly, and students need guidance to make sense of their results. Here are some strategies for designing and supervising effective lab sections.

Course Planning

Planning a laboratory course involves making several kinds of important decisions:

  • What projects/experiments will you assign?
  • How can you best integrate the teaching of theory with the related labs?
  • How will you balance and organize cooperative and independent study in the lab?
  • What equipment will you need?

As a first step in making all of these decisions, consider both the content and the inquiry skills that you want students to master: your content goals indicate what you want to cover, while your inquiry goals should direct how your students will interact with this material and which skills they will need.

Choice of Projects

Base your choice of projects on the stated goals of the course’s lab component. In general, appropriate goals are:

  • to help students understand theory by observing and verifying concepts
  • to have them go through research and design processes
  • to help them improve their powers of reasoning by manipulating cause-and-effect relationships
  • to acquaint them with essential equipment

These goals involve higher-order thinking skills that cannot be attained without the direct, creative involvement of the student. If we routinely structure the learning to “make sense,” or to ensure a certain result, we short-circuit the processes that inquiring learners might follow and limit the skills they will develop in the process.

Projects driven fully by student inquiry require time, careful planning, and close, interactive support. The payoff for such effort is the increased level of student engagement and the development of analytical and problem-solving skills.

Integration with Theory

When planning the course schedule, it is essential to coordinate the teaching of concepts with their laboratory applications.

As you attempt to blur the line between lecture and lab, think broadly about real constraints and accept as few artificial disjoints as possible. What bridges can you build between the two? Are there aspects of your lab course that can be brought into the lecture room and vice versa? Be sure to coordinate lectures, assigned readings, and supplemental references.

Group Work

Many laboratory projects are conducive to group learning, which can take place both inside the lab and outside of class, during post-lab discussions or small-group study sessions. Besides offering students the benefits of learning from each other, group work readies students for conditions in the outside world, where most scientific or technical projects involve teams of people.

Early in the course, you may want to divide your students into lab and/or study groups of two to four partners. Because different experiments require different numbers of apparatus, some weeks you may have to consolidate two of these small groups or otherwise reorganize things, but keep in mind that four is a good upper limit if you want each student to actively participate.

It is especially useful to ask the students to divide complex projects into parts and to coordinate individual tasks. If needed, a lab assistant can help with the coordination. With this approach, students can take responsibility for one part of the project while maintaining an appreciation for the design and concepts of the whole project.

Appropriate Equipment

Select the most appropriate equipment for each experiment and make sure that it is in working order, with clear instructions for its use available to students. The equipment should be neither so complex nor so rudimentary as to undermine the point of the procedure.

Plan Each Experiment

To ensure that lab exercises run smoothly and that students don’t run into ambiguous directions or computational difficulties, follow these planning steps before every experiment:

  • The professor and lab assistants or TAs should rehearse the procedure before the lab sections and review the results afterwards
  • Prepare lab assignments at least a week in advance
  • Try out each experiment, or have a TA try it out, before giving students the assignment sheet
  • Make sure that the requirements are feasible and clearly stated and that the specific numbers chosen produce the desired results

Student-Teacher Communication

Designing Effective Discussion Questions

A good question is both answerable and challenging. It will inspire analysis, synthesis, interpretation, and critical thinking. Below are several types of questions and suggestions about when to use which kind. You’ll also find useful information on how to manage group dynamics.


Experienced instructors learn to prepare a mix of questions— those that are easily answered, slightly challenging, or highly complex—that they can draw on as the discussion develops.

  • Begin with material students are familiar with or feel comfortable with. This might be a question that can be answered with information from general experience or from basic data in the subject area.
  • Once students are warmed up, ask questions requiring students to explain relationships among the units of information and to form general concepts.
  • Let the discussion peak by asking questions that require students to apply concepts and principles they have developed to new data and different situations.


Here are some types of questions that tend to facilitate thoughtful, sustained discussions:

  • Analysis
  • Compare and Contrast
  • Cause and Effect
  • Clarification


Here are some types of questions that you’ll want to avoid and that can lead to dead ends in discussions:

  1. Simple Yes-No
  2. Elliptical
  3. Leading
  4. Slanted

Managing Group Dynamics

Choosing what questions to ask is only half the battle, however. How and whom you ask can also influence their effectiveness with the group. Pay particular attention to the following aspects of group dynamics:

  • Decide whether to ask questions of a particular individual or the whole group. Sometimes calling on an individual may help to get a slow class going, but it can release the other students from the responsibility of formulating answers for themselves. It also puts students on the spot, which can decrease goodwill and intellectual risk-taking. Directing questions to the entire class may mean waiting longer for an answer.
  • Leave sufficient wait time after asking a question before answering it yourself, repeating it, rephrasing it, or adding further information. Wait at least ten to fifteen seconds before making any change in your question.
  • Avoid rapid reward for responding. Rapid reward means calling immediately on the first person who indicates an answer or approving immediately of a correct response that a student has given. This prevents other students from evaluating the response for themselves and interrupts their thinking process.

Interacting with Students

When you ask a teacher what the best part of teaching is, the response almost always describes some aspect of the teacher-student relationship. Whether it’s the one-on-one conversations in office hours or the joy of seeing a classroom discussion come alive, positive interactions with students remind us why we became teachers and scholars.

Small Groups and Discussions

How to Lead a Discussion

Be Prepared
  • Carefully consider your objectives for a discussion. Do you want students to apply newly learned skills, mull over new subject matter, learn to analyze arguments critically, practice synthesizing conflicting views, or relate material to their own lives? These goals are not mutually exclusive, but they require different types of direction.
  • Use discussion to help students link concepts to their own lives; to encourage students to evaluate material critically; and to address topics that are open-ended, have no clear resolution, and/or can be effectively addressed through multiple approaches.
  • Provide students opportunities to “warm up” through brief (one- to five-minute) in-class writing exercises on the topic, three- to five-person mini-discussions, or a homework exercise prior to the session that focuses students on the topic(s) to be covered.
  • Consider using a variety of question types such as exploratory, relational, cause and effect, diagnostic, action, and hypothetical.


  • Provide clear guidelines for participation. Discuss them beforehand, stick to them, and enforce them during the discussion.
  • Share your planning decisions with your students. Let them know what your focus is, and why it is important; also invite students to contribute suggestions for discussion topics and formats.
  • Make sure the assigned material is discussed in class; if the students don’t come prepared with questions and responses, do not let the discussion wander. Bringing in specific quotes, problems, or other samples of the assigned material can ensure that even underprepared students will have something to talk about.
  • Distributing study questions in advance demonstrates your own interest and helps focus their preparation. Consider asking students to email you their thoughts to one question. This will also give you insight into the students’ thoughts while you plan the discussion.

Facilitate, Don’t Dominate

  • Use open-ended questions and ask students for clarification, examples, and definitions.
  • Summarize student responses without taking a stand one way or another.
  • Invite students to address one another and not always “go through” you.
  • Pause to give students time to reflect on your summaries or others’ comments.
  • Consider taking notes of main points on a chalkboard or overhead, but, if you do, write everyone’s ideas down.
  • Toward the end of the discussion, review the main ideas, the thread of the discussion, and conclusions.

Creating a Good Climate for Discussion

You can also significantly increase the quantity and quality of participation simply by creating an encouraging environment for discussion.

  • Know and use the students’ names. In addition, make sure that the students know one another’s names.
  • Arrange the room to maximize student- to-student eye contact; e.g., chairs around a table or in a circle. You might vary where you sit from time to time, to break students’ habit of staring at the front of the room.
  • When students ask questions, try to help them find the answers for themselves.
  • If arguments develop, try to resolve the disputes by appeal to objective evidence rather than authority of position. If the dispute is over values, help students clarify their values and respect each others’, even if resolution is not possible. Disputes can often form the basis for interesting writing assignments.


  • Notice how many students participated in the discussion.
  • Notice who did and who did not participate (look for gender and racial biases).
  • Check the tone of the discussion—was it stimulating and respectful?
  • Ask students about their reactions to the discussion session.

Leading Discussion Groups

Explain ground rules and expectations

Generate discussion by

  • asking questions
  • having students ask questions
  • having students assigned to introduce material
  • breaking into pairs or groups

Vary the kinds of questions you ask

  • Exploratory questions
  • Relational questions
  • Cause and effect questions
  • Diagnostic questions
  • Action questions
  • Hypothetical questions

Evaluating Your Teaching

In May 1977, Stanford’s Faculty Senate approved a resolution calling for universal evaluation of courses by students at the end of each quarter. Since then, course evaluations have become a standard fixture of teaching life at Stanford. And, indeed, they can be a source of essential feedback to teachers on how a course has gone and how it might be strengthened. However, a vast literature on student evaluations of teaching also indicates that these evaluations in and of themselves—while generally valid and reliable in their data—do not necessarily lead to improved teaching. Alone, the questionnaire data do not seem to motivate teachers to change. Instead, change is more likely to occur if teachers discuss their evaluations with a sympathetic and knowledgeable colleague or teaching consultant. At Stanford, the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning will provide you with a consultation.

Moreover, there are other often more timely ways to evaluate how well your course is going. You can arrange some of these methods yourself; others are available through the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.

• Midquarter, pass out your own carefully thought-out questionnaire for students to fill out anonymously. Focus on those issues that are of most interest or concern to you. Follow up on the students’ feedback; consider discussing the feedback in class and letting the students know what changes you will be making.

• Talk to some students informally after class or during your office hours about how the class is going. Ask them what’s gone well and what hasn’t worked. Choose students who you think will be comfortable giving you feedback. Even then you will have to be careful that they don’t feel “on the spot.”

• Ask a friend, a colleague, or a consultant from the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning to observe your class. VPTL has trained consultants who have learned specific observational techniques and have considerable teaching experience. If you invite a friend or colleague in, brief them carefully on what specifically you would like them to look for. Colleagues, especially, tend to focus exclusively on content unless you also ask them to attend to how ideas are presented and how students respond.

• Be videorecorded. This is the only evaluation method that lets you see your teaching more or less as your students do. Although teachers generally feel great anxiety about having it done, most feel reassured and motivated when they go over the recording with a consultant afterward. You can arrange free videorecording and consultation through the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.

• Have a small-group feedback session (SGFS) conducted by VPTL. At your request, VPTL will send a consultant to your class during the last twenty minutes of the period. Once you have left, the consultant will divide your students into groups of six (or fewer if it is a small class). Each group is given ten minutes to select a spokesperson and agree on what they value about your course, what areas need improvement, and what specific suggestions they would make for change. At the end of the allotted time, the consultant canvasses each group and makes a record of their comments. He or she then summarizes the results, identifying patterns of agreement and clarifying areas of disagreement. The information is given to you later in a private consultation.

Evaluating Students

When we assign a grade to a student, what are we evaluating? Teachers vary in what they consider “fair game” for grading, but most often a grade represents a combined assessment of each student’s learning achievement (testing what the student knows or knows how to do), general performance (the quality of work that the student produces for the course), and effort (how hard the student worked in the course). To reduce the amount of time and energy you and your students spend worrying about, or negotiating, grades, it is vital that you provide clear grading guidelines and enforce them fairly.

Academic Honesty and Dishonesty

Academic honesty and dishonesty are both moral and administrative concerns for a teacher at Stanford. Stanford University’s Office of Community Standards administers the student judicial process for Stanford and works toward an honest and responsible community. Under the process, students are held accountable for adhering to established community standards including Stanford’s Fundamental Standard and the Honor Code. The Fundamental Standard states:

Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the University such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens. Failure to do this will be sufficient cause for removal from the University.


Spend some class time at the beginning of the quarter discussing the code, as well as the broader topic of academic honesty; clarify expectations and answer any questions students have.

If you are TAing, you should discuss the Honor Code and academic honesty with the faculty member in charge of the course at the beginning of the quarter. Make sure your interpretations are compatible and you agree on what to do if violations occur. This will ensure that all students in a course are treated fairly.

Three main points should be emphasized in discussing the Honor Code with students:

  1. The Honor Code was not imposed upon the students by the administration or faculty. The students originally assumed its responsibilities at their own request.
  2. Those who suffer most from students’ academic dishonesty are not administrators or faculty but the honorable and conscientious students. Hence it is in their interest to make individual and collective efforts to see that the highest standards of honesty are always maintained.
  3. For questions about appropriate procedures in particular cases or ambiguous areas, the Judicial Advisor may be consulted. TAs, students, and faculty are all encouraged to use the services of the Judicial Advisor with regard to the Honor Code.


Not only should you inform students about the Honor Code and procedures in regard to violations, you should also try to create a learning environment that will reduce the temptation to cheat:

  • Make sure students know your grading criteria, what kinds of exams they will be given, and what materials they are responsible for.
  • If you assign any term papers, you ensure higher quality work if you regularly check on students’ progress on their papers during the quarter. You may ask them to submit their first draft early on or to turn in rough copies along with the finished version. This reduces the likelihood of receiving “file” or purchased papers.
  • The issue of plagiarism should be discussed in some detail, particularly in introductory or writing-in-the-major courses, since not all forms of plagiarism are understood and recognized by students.

Effective learning does not occur in an atmosphere of suspicion. You have an obligation under the Honor Code not to proctor exams or to take unusual measures to prevent cheating, and to treat students as if they are honest, until proven otherwise.

Assessing Student Learning

How do you know if your students are achieving your specific learning goals for a course? Class evaluations and observations provide excellent feedback about student satisfaction and teaching style, but they don’t provide the important detail of how much your students are learning. Changing the way you assess student learning can dramatically improve your teaching effectiveness, as it provides immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t.


Traditionally, many teachers have evaluated their students’ knowledge by giving examinations and papers, often only at the middle and end of the quarter. As a result, a professor lecturing to a large introductory class might not recognize until final exams are finished that students consistently confused two important and closely related ideas.

Other professors, who track their students’ work more regularly—through problem sets, for example— might assume that such written homework is helping achieve a major goal of the course, such as to develop students’ general problem-solving ability. Yet students who do well on homework might be unable to apply their knowledge to the novel situations created for exams; they’ve learned how to follow the textbook examples without understanding larger principles of problem solving.

In-course assessment techniques systematize the process of getting useful and timely feedback on student learning.


Because in-course assessment techniques are designed to gauge the effectiveness of the teaching and the quality of the learning taking place (and not simply to see who is or isn’t studying), they are usually anonymous. These anonymous assignments typically can be completed quickly, and focus on three areas:

  1. students’ academic skills and intellectual development (e.g., do students have sufficient background knowledge or academic skills to move onto the next topic?)
  2. students’ assessments of their own learning skills (e.g., do students feel prepared to learn new material from the textbook, without classroom review?)
  3. students’ reactions to various teaching methods, materials, and assignments (e.g., do students believe the exams fairly cover the material stressed in class?).

Based on this feedback, faculty can adjust their teaching to help students learn. The following are some examples of assessment techniques you might consider using:

Documented Problem Solution

Rather than simply requiring students to do a number of problems for homework, the instructor asks students to solve a problem and also to write down step-by-step what they were thinking at each stage of the problem-solving process. Reading through these solutions gives an instructor a sense of how well the students are developing their problem-solving skills and can help the instructor determine how much class or section time should focus on improving this academic skill.

Studies of Time Spent Learning

This technique asks students to estimate, check, document, and reflect on how well they use study time. Using one assignment or activity, students estimate how much time it should take to finish the task and then monitor themselves as they complete the assignment. Afterward they write a brief account of the process and the results. In reading these accounts, teachers can gain a sense of how well students use their time and whether students’ learning skills are developed sufficiently to handle the course load. Students become much more aware of their habits regarding study time and this awareness usually encourages them to use their study time more effectively.

One-minute Papers

The teacher ends class a few minutes early and asks one or two questions that students answer, on index cards or notebook paper, and hand in. Questions often asked are, “What were the main points of today’s class?” or “What point or example in today’s lecture would you like to see reviewed or clarified?” Even in a large class, reading through student responses takes relatively little time. At the next class session, teachers can address questions or problems students have raised.

In short, good assessment techniques both assess and teach; the time spent doing these assignments helps students learn more effectively and efficiently. When students are encouraged to take the time to gauge what they know and how well developed their learning and academic skills are, they begin to recognize the importance of learning how to learn, as well as the importance of course content.