Who are your students? What are their motivations for taking your course? What background knowledge and skills can you expect them to have? The success of your course will be determined not only by how well it meets your department’s goals, or even your personal teaching goals, but by how well you manage to match your course content to the goals and backgrounds of your students.
Many things influence who shows up in your classroom the first day and how they feel about being there. Some simple factors include the timing of the course (early morning versus late afternoon, fall versus spring), the subject matter and level of the course, and whether it is required or elective. To get a general sense of your likely audience, talk to students majoring in your field and instructors who have recently taught a course like yours. Also, try remembering yourself at your students’ stage in life: what your priorities were, what interests and life constraints conflicted with your academic priorities, and what you needed from an instructor. (Remember, though, that since you chose an academic career, you were not a “typical” undergraduate. Don’t rely too much on your own undergraduate experiences when judging the needs of today’s students.) By considering many factors, you can begin to imagine the needs and possible attitudes of your students.
Of these factors, the most fundamental consideration is the academic stage of your students. Are you ushering students into a field or putting the finishing touches on their professional training? Can you trust that the students in your class have at least a basic interest in the course material, or are you still trying to convince a group of ambivalent but curious students of the merits of your field? Most obviously, graduate and undergraduate students differ in motivation, background, and habits. Graduate students are animated by their career goals. As a group, they (usually) share a background of prerequisites for the field and are familiar with its vocabulary. They are used to working independently and contributing to the course. Advanced majors in your field may resemble graduate students in these attributes.
Students’ backgrounds may vary widely in early-stage courses; if this is true for you, you will need to teach the language of your field, its methods, and approaches as you go along. It may become important to become acquainted with tutoring resources at Stanford that can help individual students fill in any gaps in background knowledge and training (see Teaching Support for specific suggestions). When a group of students varies widely in motivation and background, you may also want to collect work or schedule tests more frequently, to gauge the progress of their learning.
A roomful of undergraduates provides some interesting challenges. Some students are investigating various careers; your course may influence whether someone decides to become a chemist, a linguist, or an anthropologist. In introductory and lecture courses, it is especially important to communicate the excitement of your subject and its relevance to students’ goals and the world at large. This is particularly true if students tend to view your course mainly as a stepping stone to other courses (for example, as a pre-med student might view a chemistry course). In this case, put particular effort into interesting examples and applications, and create an environment where students feel both empowered and responsible for their learning.
Assess and Keep Assessing
These predictions and generalizations may not apply to the unique set of students who walk into your classroom each quarter. Students can always surprise you! Many professors distribute a questionnaire during the first class of the quarter to find out more about their students’ backgrounds and interests. It is important, in any case, to continue assessing your audience’s needs throughout the term—you will be rewarded for your efforts with increased student motivation, interest, and performance.