Getting Started in Teaching

Below are the best practices for the different elements of teaching. This page is designed for faculty and student instructors who are starting to teach; it gives an introduction to each topic. We invite you to jump to the sections that are relevant to your role. For each section, there is a short introduction and additional worksheets for you to reference.

For additional resources, see other parts of the CRLT and CRLT-Engin websites, attend a workshop, schedule a one-on-one consultation, or send us an email.

Resources for Teaching at U-M in 2021-2022
College of Engineering’s page on teaching for this year
U-M page on the University’s plans due to COVID-19

Planning a Course

Planning a Course

Creating an outline for your course is a valuable initial planning step. An outline is an internal planning document to help you 1) organize the order of topics/contents from week to week; 2) ensure all of your goals, activities and assessments are aligned; and 3) list all of the “products” (lectures, problem sets, prompts, rubrics, exams, etc.) you will need to develop for the course. For each week of the course, the outline should include the topic, the learning objectives, and thoughts about how to deliver content and assess student learning of content.

PDF: More Details About Planning a Course

CRLT websiteCourse Design and Planning

Creating a Syllabus

A syllabus is a tool to communicate with students about how to engage with a course. In addition to providing a basic overview of course content, assignments, grading, and generally policies, the syllabus provides an opportunity to begin to share your teaching style, approach to the subject, and personality with your students. It is also an opportunity to generate interest among your students and to prepare them for what’s to come.

PDF: Checklist for Creating a Syllabus

PDF: Adapting a Syllabus for Hybrid and Online Teaching

PDF: Syllabus Statements/Course Policies

Coordinating with Your Instructional Team

Establishing clear team guidelines and routine communication patterns early in the term can help build productive collaborations from the start. The goal is to strike a productive balance between professorial control and student instructor autonomy. While specifics may vary based on the size of the course / instructional team and graduate student instructors’ experience as teachers, all teams will benefit from 1) regular contact; 2) the faculty member’s commitment to mentoring graduate students as future professionals; and 3) frequent communication about the class that includes student input about instruction, whether through student instructor feedback, faculty observation, or facilitated student feedback sessions (available upon request through CRLT-Engin).

CRLT Occasional Papers on co-teaching:

Resources for student instructors:

Resources for faculty:

Teaching a Class


Lecturing is one of the oldest and most enduring modes of teaching. An effective lecture can help motivate students and provide clear explanations for difficult concepts. By breaking up lectures with active learning activities that help to reinforce concepts, students are able to gain a better understanding of class concepts and engage in higher-order thinking. The tips found here (PDF) help make lectures more engaging and effective. These additional resources for delivering lectures (PDF) and using icebreakers (PDF) can support your instructional practices.

Active Learning resources:

Teaching a Lab

Adapted from CRLT’s Getting Started With a Laboratory Course

Every laboratory class has goals that may be particular to that course, and it is important to find out those goals before classes begin. A general goal that pertains to most labs is to make a connection between the theoretical elements of a discipline and the practical aspects of the technical performance. Most laboratory instruction addresses these three common objectives:

  • The practice and mastery of specific technical skills (such as using a microscope, setting up an apparatus for measuring mass changes in a chemical reaction, determining voltage changes across a circuit, or generating code to run a device).
  • The mastery of the skills of the scientific process (such as observation, classification, inference, hypothesizing, and designing methods of investigation).
  • Experiencing abstract concepts in a concrete manner (such as measuring and understanding free energy or angular momentum).

All of the elements of a lab (such as experiencing abstract ideas in a concrete manner, practicing scientific inquiry, and participating in cooperative teamwork) are goals that help promote a positive and exciting learning environment.

Experimental Labs

Experimental labs come in many formats across the various engineering disciplines. However, they all involve some type of hands-on experience for students, which is an invaluable chance to engage in deeper learning. Each experimental lab involves its own equipment (which needs to be in working order), supplies (which need to be available) and safety considerations (which both you and your student need to be aware of). Offering remote experimental labs brings a new challenge.

PDF: Tips on Teaching an Experimental Lab

Computational Labs

Computational labs involve some unique challenges not found in experimental labs. Students are often working with a computer to manipulate code, instead of with physical equipment that they can manipulate or chemical processes they observe. While all the suggestions for successful lab instruction hold for computational labs as well, helping students learn how to debug software is a key role of a computational lab instructor.

PDF: Tips on Teaching a Computational Lab

Leading a Discussion Section

Discussion sections connect lecture content to additional examples and complementary explanations, and they provide opportunities for further practice. A discussion section allows students to practice and apply their knowledge by further engaging with fellow students and a member of the instructional team. The following tips will help instructors adequately prepare for their first discussion section by identifying key topics for the instructional team to discuss and guiding them to consider some best practices for teaching discussions.

PDFChecklist for Leading a Discussion Section

Hosting Office Hours

Engaging students in office hours provides instructors the opportunity to meet the specific needs of individual students in a less formal, more interpersonal setting. Whether working with students on a one-on-one or small group basis, instructors can leverage alternative explanations and real-world examples to complement content described in lecture. Additionally, instructors can implement guiding questions to assist students with the development of their problem solving skills. The following tips describe best practices for scheduling, preparing, and facilitating office hours.

PDFChecklist for Hosting Office Hours

Creating Homework, Exams & Other Assessments

Creating Assessments

Once you have completed the challenging task of identifying and articulating measurable course goals and learning objectives, the next step is to consider what methods you will use to evaluate student learning. You can use quizzes, written assignments, multiple choice exams, presentations, lab demonstrations, etc. The guiding question to reflect on is: What would provide acceptable evidence of students learning the objectives?

In addition to how the assessment aligns with the learning objectives, other factors to consider when choosing an assessment are:

  • What is a realistic expectation for students at the level you are teaching?
  • What point in the semester are you at? Should students be demonstrating early understanding, progress, or mastery of the learning objectives?
  • What is a realistic time commitment that you or the rest of the teaching team can make towards grading and providing students with feedback?

PDF: Guidance on Creating Assessments

Grading Assessments

Grading is a complex process and often time consuming. To the student, a grade communicates the value of their work and performance. Therefore, you want to be as fair and accurate as possible when you assign grades. More importantly, grades provide students with feedback about their learning. As you grade student work, make sure that student learning is your primary goal. To be effective in your grading,

  • Use a set of standards and grading criteria (a rubric): Outline acceptable answers and a way to score them.
  • Focus your feedback around the goals of that assignment: Provide specific feedback that helps students progress towards mastering those goals.
  • Distribute your time effectively without overthinking it: Make thoughtful, professional judgements with reasonable consistency; then move on.

As you fulfill your grading duties, keep in mind the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects the privacy and accuracy of educational records, and the Engineering Honor Code, which guides academic integrity at the College.

PDF: Tips for Grading and Rubrics

Teaching Remotely

We live in unprecedented times. Campus closures aimed at containing the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated the adoption of online and hybrid learning. While the circumstances are very unfortunate, this type of teaching offers many advantages. For example, online lessons provide flexibility and convenience for both instructors and students. In addition, technological tools can be used to increase engagement and grading efficiency. Learning about remote teaching will not only prepare you in case of another emergency campus closure, but it also enhances your teaching portfolio.

U-M Remote Teaching Resources:

Terms Used for Remote Teaching at U-M

If you are new to remote teaching, the jargon may be overwhelming. A few commonly used terms used in this context at U-M are:

  • Asynchronous Instruction – class activities that don’t take place in real time and students can complete at a time when it’s convenient for them. Students may still interact with the instructor or one another, but their responses are not immediate.
  • Blended Course* – a course with some sections fully online (distance) and some sections fully in-person.
  • Distance Section – a course section in which all students receive instruction online all the time. Students and instructors are never in the same physical location.
  • Hybrid Section^ – a course section with both in-person and virtual students attending class at the same time, or with some synchronous classes online and some in-person.
  • Hybrid-Flexible Course (HyFlex) – a hybrid class that offers equivalent online and in-person activities for each learning objective, so that spatially-dispersed students receive the same quality of instruction regardless of their location.
  • Learning management system (LMS) – an online platform that includes communication, content delivery, and assessment tools to facilitate the teaching-and-learning process. At the University of Michigan we use Canvas.
  • Lecture Capture – an automated, easy-to-use option for recording lectures in classrooms at the College of Engineering. Video and audio of the instructor is recorded, along with any slides or other content being projected. The Lecture Capture System integrates with Canvas. The videos are automatically uploaded so that remote students can watch them later. Note that Lecture Capture doesn’t support synchronous delivery to remote students.
  • Multi-modal Course – a course taught using a variety of delivery formats (e.g. asynchronous Canvas modules, video-conferencing synchronous sessions and hybrid face-to-face classes).
  • Videoconferencing – the holding of a class synchronously with students and instructors at different locations by means of transmitted audio and video signals. The most popular software used for this purpose at U-M is Zoom.

*Outside U of M, the term “blended” is more general, and it refers to courses that use any combination of online and in-person instruction.

^Outside U of M, the term “hybrid” is typically used for the first definition: both in-person and virtual students attend class at the same time.

Thinking Through Online Modalities

Online teaching offers many options for content delivery, assignments and student engagement. These include:

  • Video conferencing (synchronous, high bandwidth): You can meet with students virtually in real time to answer questions or clarify misconceptions. Students can also work in groups using this option.
  • Recorded video/audio (asynchronous, high bandwidth): Students can view content videos or produce their own as an assignment. Instructors can also record audio or video feedback using Canvas Speedgrader.
  • Collaborative documents (synchronous, low bandwidth): Students may work together on a Google document, spreadsheet, or jamboard.
  • Text/images (asynchronous, low bandwidth): Students may read web pages or participate in other Canvas features like discussions, assignments, peer reviews, and quizzes.

The technologies we use can impact on how inclusive and effective our teaching is. While video conferencing may seem like the ideal choice to replicate the in-person experience, varying modes of instruction can help more students stay engaged. In addition, requiring students to be online at exactly the same time sacrifices flexibility and low-immediacy (the benefit of having extra time to think before responding to questions from instructors and peers).

Consider creating weekly assignments and activities that use multiple modes of instruction, especially asynchronous and lower bandwidth, since these are the most flexible and inclusive. (Think of students in different time zones and those without reliable internet.) Reserve videoconferencing to engage with students when they truly need to see and hear you and each other in real time.

PDF: For more details, see the Thinking Through Online Modalities document.

Supporting Remote Students

In-person classes afford inherent social and logistical support, because students interact with instructors and peers on a regular basis in a physical space. This support needs to be purposely planned and provided in an online setting. Compared to in-person students, remote students need:

  • More explicit guidance and transparency
  • More structure and regular check-ins
  • More intentional community-building

PDF: Find more details and examples in this Building Your Online Learning Community resource.

PDF: Find more strategies in this, Teaching Inclusively in Remote Settings, resource.

Best Practices (Minimum Quality Standards)

In order to help guide instructors in their online course development, Nexus (the center for online and professional education at U-M College of Engineering) has prepared Minimum Quality Standards for Remote Teaching. This contains a collection of best practices for remote instruction and is organized around the following three themes:

PDF: See the full Minimum Quality Standards for Remote Teaching document.