Preparing for a New Semester

As a new semester begins, we'd like to offer some concrete and scalable ideas on how to emphasize flexibility, clarity, and connection without making significant changes to courses. Small interventions to set clear expectations and create a strong classroom community may help students both feel supported and take agency for their learning, and make teaching more effective and less stressful.

To discuss ideas and strategies for supporting students, visit our online drop-in sessions or contact CTI to set up a consultation.

Setting Clear Expectations

Impacted by educational disruption over the past several years, our current students may have different assumptions about course expectations. Use the in-class time to clarify your course expectations, values, and norms.

The following strategies range from less to more participatory: 

Talk about expectations

On the first day of class, dedicate time to clearly explain what you expect of them and what they can expect of you and the class. 

Use class time to discuss the syllabus. Students appreciate the opportunity to go over the syllabus with the instructor, as it helps them recognize the role of the syllabus as a learning contract and see the areas that are especially important for the instructor. Consider creating an activity around reading a syllabus, e.g. a quiz or a collaborative reading activity using one of the social annotation tools.

  • University Faculty guidelines recommend that all course syllabi include a reference to the Code of Academic Integrity such as the following: “Each student in this course is expected to abide by the Cornell University Code of Academic Integrity.  Any work submitted by a student in this course for academic credit will be the student’s own work.” 
  • In class, talk to your students about the importance of academic integrity, teaching the principles relevant to your discipline and class work, and provide specific instructions about assignment requirements for compliance. 

Explain what students can expect of you. Clarify how and when you can be reached, how quickly you will respond, how office hours will work, and how students will receive feedback on their work. 

Describe what you expect of your students, and link these expectations to class success. Some possible examples include: 

  • “I’ve been teaching this class for X number of years and, in my experience, students succeed in this course when they do the following …” (i.e. attend class, engage in class discussions, complete reading, ask questions, seek help early, apply study skills, find a study partner, etc.). 
  • "In previous years, students found this topic challenging. I (or/and students from past semesters) suggest doing the following to help learn it" (i.e. practice problems, flashcards, drawing a diagram).
  • Share resources provided by the Learning Strategies Center that can help your students learn: 
  • If classroom attendance is important, be explicit about why it matters.
    • For example, "In this course, the main focus of each class session will involve continuing discussions with your colleagues. Therefore, attendance in this class is mandatory".
  • Consider a number of “free passes” allowing students flexibility before instituting penalties for missed classes. 

Discuss expectations with a think-pair-share activity

On the first day of class, engage your students in a collaborative activity around a question “What do you as students need to do to succeed in this class?” This can help students begin by seeing themselves as active learners in your class from the very beginning and can set expectations for class participation moving forward.

Co-create expectations as a Community Agreement

Organizing a discussion or activity to create class norms together can set a strong foundation for a class. While this approach may not scale for every class, it allows you to co-create a set of shared values and expectations, increase student buy-in, and return to the community agreement when challenges arise.

Collaborative contract activity. Depending on the class size and other factors, you can decide how collaborative this process can be. If you want your students to shape the community agreement, ask your class “What does a successful learning experience look like to you?”

Display what students' responses are (by writing on the board or projecting), and emphasize what’s come up more often. Then ask “How can we hold each other accountable for these values?” Summarize and add those responses into the contract.

Alternatively, in larger classes, you can start by displaying a list of values, norms, and/or expectations you want your students to vote on or consider as they discuss what’s important for them. These values may relate to classroom participation (conduct) and productive intellectual/disciplinary engagement. Students can vote using a classroom response system (e.g. Poll Everywhere), or submit their responses to a Canvas assignment (or on a feedback card). You can then use these responses to form a collaborative contract.

Creating Classroom Community 

A sense of belonging and social connectedness are directly linked to student academic achievement and course completion (Eyler, 2018). Consider some simple ways to strengthen a sense of community in your course, including using some class time for community-building and ice-breakers and planning ways to check in with your students and gather feedback.

Build in opportunities for empathetic connections

You can either use a polling question or a traditional show of hands to check in on how your students are doing. Building empathetic connections with and among your students will help them feel a part of the classroom community.

  • Poll Everywhere word cloud question: "Type in one word to describe how you are feeling about class today."
  • Ask students to check in with the student(s) next to them in the minutes before class, and ask how they are doing. Small group discussions can help students connect and build their own network of study partners and support.

Learn about your students with a pre-course survey

If you want to learn more about your incoming class, consider sharing a pre-course survey to ask about students’ background knowledge, preparation, and motivations for taking your class.

Check in with your students

Offer various ways for students to share how they are doing:

  • Discussion boards like Ed Discussion allow instructors to create subtopics, like “Q&A” for students to pose (anonymous) content questions to their instructor and peers, “Peer Learning” to find a study partner, and “Social” to connect about social and campus events. 
  • Normalize seeking help early as an academic success strategy; encourage students to attend office hours; clarify what students can get help with during office hours. Share the resource on Using office hours from the Learning Strategies Center.
  • The Classroom assessment technique is an effective way to gather student feedback on learning and catch potential classroom dynamics issues. Ask questions like "What one thing did you learn today? What surprised you? What question remains unanswered? "
  • Mid-Semester Feedback Program is a powerful tool to help you understand where students are a few weeks into the semester and ask for their advice.

Prepare for the Unexpected

The ability to adjust teaching approaches, deliver classes and process grades in a timely and effective way can be impacted by many different types of events, including unexpected illness, closures, and other unforeseen disruptions.

Taking some steps early in the semester, including through effective use of teaching technology, can help to minimize the impact of these disruptions. 

Here are some suggestions for ensuring continuity when faced with unexpected disruptions:

  • Ensure that the instructor of record has continuous access to student grades from the beginning of the semester and throughout. We recommend that faculty:
    • Use the Canvas Gradebook to track student grades throughout the semester, so that TAs can work on assigned grading while ensuring everyone with an instructor or admin role in the course can access the grades.
    • Consider using Gradescope to track grades. If this tool is set up through Canvas, the instructor or a course admin would have access to the grades across multiple sections of a course.
    • If you have questions about how best to set up grading, please check out these FAQs or reach out to CTI for a consultation.
  • If possible, reduce the need for students to turn in hard copies of their completed work to ensure access to their work and lessen the risk of lost work.  We recommend: 
    • Having students submit all digital assignments through Canvas.
    • Scanning hard-copy assignments and uploading to Canvas or Gradescope.
  • Consider adding a department administrator to all Canvas course sites, for ease of access to grades and Canvas functionalities should the instructor of record become unavailable.


Columbia University. Supporting learning when students can’t make it to class. Resource guide. (Accessed on Aug 17, 2022)

Chipchase, L., Davidson, M., Blackstock, F., Bye, R., Clothier, P., Klupp, N., Nickson, W., Turner, D., Williams, M. Conceptualizing and measuring student disengagement in higher education: a synthesis of the literature. (2017). International Journal of Higher Education, 6(2). (Accessed on July 26, 2022).

Eyler, J. R. How humans learn: the science and stories behind effective college teaching. (2018). Morgantown, VA: West Virginia University Press.

How to solve the student disengagement crisis. (2022). The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Accessed on July 25, 2022).

McMurtrie, B. A “stunning” level of student disconnection. (2022). Chronicle of Higher Education. (Accessed on July 24, 2022).

Mintz, S. An epidemic of student disengagement. (2022). Inside Higher Ed. (Accessed on July 26, 2022).