Preparing for a Class Session

“When the task is done beforehand, then it is easy. If you do it hurriedly
and carelessly, it must be hard.” (Cleary, 1989, p. 5)

There is much to be gained from preparing for a class session by meditatively
contemplating what works well, previous mistakes made, the nature and needs
of your students, and your goals for the session. This process is separate and
different from the usual content preparation. We recognize, however, that the
realities of academe often preclude this process, and we do not fault teachers
who cannot prepare before each class session, ideal as that may be. Often, faculty
have rushed from a meeting, were delayed getting to campus by family matters,
or were engrossed in writing and looked at the clock a bit late. They now have
a class to teach, and in the few minutes that remain, if any, “best”
preparation is difficult. Some teachers might think about their classes only
once a week, and others might think about them even less frequently.

To encourage and help such efforts, we present the types of preparation teachers
might do before a class session. Interestingly, we found nothing in the teaching
literature on preparation for individual class sessions.

Intellectual Content: Findings, Ideas, Theory, Methodology, People,
and the Like

Whether the class session involves a lecture, discussion, or small group work,
a teacher must be familiar with the day’s intellectual content. New teachers
often work harder at this, whereas experienced teachers may need minimal review.
Nonetheless, a close reading of the day’s lecture notes or discussion
points may illuminate nuances previously overlooked or forgotten. We recommend
this practice, regardless of the teacher’s experience level.

Equally important, we believe, are the purposes to which the content will be
put. Questions such as the following should be con-sidered and prioritized,
and decisions should be made.

  • Why am I addressing this material at this juncture of the semester? Where
    are we in the semester and in the course’s progression or mod-ule? What
    “…links, umbrellas, and frameworks…” (Gleitman, 1984, p. 425)
    can be emphasized? How will I provide transitions between this content and
    what went before and what will follow?
  • How does this day’s class help students move closer to meeting course
    goals as stated in the syllabus? What course themes might be touched on or
  • Why is this day’s content important and how will I convince students?
    Do I want to ask them about its importance, and how long should I spend doing
  • What is the single most important point I will make today? Second most important?
    How can I best communicate the importance of these ideas?
  • Is there an emotional component to the upcoming class? How do I expect
    students to feel, and how do I want to go about entering their affective world?
  • How does the class relate to students’ lives? Are there topics that
    should be especially relevant to what they and their friends, family, and
    peers experience?
  • Is this a good class in which to have students generate examples or metaphors?
    Both are powerful ways of anchoring course materials. What success have I
    had in the past in asking students to do this? How much and what kinds of
    preparation will they need to develop good examples?
  • How will I conclude the class and prepare students for the next one?

Making Class Fresh – The “In the Moment” Teacher

You will be more focused and energized if you focus on today. “…When
you think you will be on the job forever, then trouble starts” (Cleary,
1999, p. 86). Fatigue vanishes and distractions disappear when teachers are
mindful only of the present.

There is an applicable adage from psychotherapy: “If the therapist is
dead or not present psychologically, treatment does not go well.” What
can teachers do to stay fresh, focus their attention on the task at hand, and
communicate enthusiasm to their students? How many times can a teacher teach
about Milgram, Pavlov, Asch, or Erikson before going brain dead? If you are
bored, what can you expect from your students? Pretend you are a student in
your own class and that this is the first time you are exposed to today’s
material. What would you expect? What would “grab” you or confuse

  • Pretend you are teaching today’s class for the first time. Keep in
    touch with the “wonder” of psychology. Remember the awe, satisfaction,
    hope, appreciation, and revelation you felt when you first taught. It should
    not be “work” to teach the upcoming class, nor should it be a
    problem or drudgery (Carroll, 2004). Such thoughts and feelings take away
    teachers’ purpose and resolve.
  • If you were engaging in peer review of teaching, what would you advise or
    think about today’s class period if you were the reviewer? What would
    be its strengths and weaknesses?
  • Remind yourself that in class no one can email you and there are no phone
    calls — your only obligation is to teach. It may not only be the most
    important task of the day, but it may be the most focused and the least interrupted,
    and, for a change, you will only be doing one thing at a time.
  • Vitalize yourself. Go outside, even if just to walk around your building
    for a few minutes. Aren’t you tired of your office anyway? It is amazing
    how seeing things from a different physical perspective changes one’s
    mood. If you have energy, you will bring it to your students. If time is short,
    a few brief exercises (push-ups, deep knee bends, etc.) can get your blood
    flowing before class.
  • Depending on how your day has gone, you may want to compose yourself. Turn
    off the lights in your office for a few minutes. Do some slow, deep breathing,
    meditate, and think of nothing. Luxuriate in the stillness. Teaching asks
    us to give a lot to others; we need to give something to ourselves. Try to
    be still at least once a day at work.
  • Exercise your voice, especially for a large class.

Learning From Experience

Recall your previous experiences teaching this topic and try to repeat the good

  • If the class has gone “well,” what made that happen? If you
    or the students were unhappy with the class session, what was not working?
    What might have worked?
  • Are you doing anything different today than in the past? If so, pay special
    attention to how students respond and ask several for their opinions after
  • Do you need to slow down? Are you rushing? Remember that more is not necessarily
    better and that rushed material may not provide the depth or foundation you
    hope for.
  • Have you previously experienced this classroom as depressing or ill-suited
    to your teaching? Can you be assigned a different room?

Beware of Habituation

Most teachers teach to their strengths. The entertainer tells stories and lectures
to an enthralled class; the cheerleader uses group discus-sion, moving from
group to group of students, supporting their work and urging them on; and the
perfectionist spends hours on brilliant, detailed (usually too much so) PowerPoint
slides. No matter how you teach, keep in mind that students will habituate to
your presentation method. Variety is the spice of good teaching. Change the
pace and your teaching style.

  • If you typically use PowerPoint, do something else for a class period once
    in a while.
  • If you always stand in the front center of the room, move somewhere else.
  • If you use an overhead projector, sit somewhere in the class and have one
    of your students write important points on the overhead as you get to them.
    (Students love this and a friend can take notes for them.)
  • Tell a relevant story from your own life that might evoke students’
    stories as well.
  • If you are a lecturer, mix in some group work once in a while.
  • Is it time for a demonstration, perhaps including students?
  • Seize the moment. If the weather is getting nicer and students are wearing
    shorts, does their behavior relate in any way to course content (e.g., conformity,
    hopefulness)? Once, when teaching about anorexia, one of us asked a female
    student athlete what she weighed. She would not answer. Every man in the class
    volunteered to publicly state his weight. Her refusal led to a discussion
    of the cultural pressures women experience about the power and privacy of
    weight and body measurements, making it clearer how eating disorders may arise
    and be maintained.


Classes have the tendency to blend and blur together. One class goes well, whereas
another is not as much fun to teach as usual. What often gets lost is the audience
(Gleitman, 1984): the students we are teaching, who are individuals with differing
needs, problems, and successes.

  • Which students that day may need attention? Who is a member of an athletic
    team, for example, who merits recognition for the team’s performance?
  • What students say little or nothing at all in class? Is there someone in
    particular you want to ask, “How is the semester going?” before
  • Is there an issue that must be dealt with directly (e.g., student performance
    on an exam, class attendance, students’ lack of preparation for class
    or lack of questions)?
  • Have any students come to office hours to talk about their academic performance?
    Do any of these students need feedback or support as you pass back exams or
    papers? Are kudos called for?
  • Have students approached you about personal matters — their own or
    a family member’s illness, a friend who recently attempted suicide,
    family problems, and so forth? Do you need to check on how they are doing
    and see if they need to talk with you more?
  • Have you ever gotten to class early and sat in the last row to talk with
    the students who are always the furthest away during class ses-sions? Entering
    their physical world is interesting and is often gratifying to them.
  • Do you begin the class period with course content or other matters? Do you
    need to ask the students as a whole how the course is going? Are there ways
    you could establish a sense of common purpose and “togetherness”
    in the course (i.e., a sense of community)?

Teach Within the Rhythms of the Semester (Duffy & Jones,

Semesters may be likened to military campaigns. “At the beginning …morale
is high, after a while it begins to flag, and in the end it is gone” (Tzu,
2003, p. 65). Semesters also are like a musical composition. They have different
rhythms and energy throughout their course. If you can stay attuned to a semester’s
rhythms, you can conduct your teaching accordingly. For example:

• If you are tired, then your students probably are as well. Is there
something you can do that day that is especially fun or requires less in-tellective
work, what Duffy and Jones (1995) call “beating the doldrums” (p.

• If the weather is gorgeous, especially when that is unusual (e.g.,
spring semester in Wisconsin, when it sometimes snows until the last week of
the semester), then respond to a beautiful day. Call class off early (remember,
content after a certain point may be the biggest road block to good teaching),
hold class outside, bring each student a flower, open the classroom windows
wide (assuming you have them and they can be opened!), or acknowledge the day
in some other way.

• Attend to how you have designed your course. Is the most important
material presented when students are at their lowest ebb? Move something around
or make a note that something has to be changed for the next semester.

• Is this the right day to seek the student feedback (e.g., one-minute
paper) you had planned? If students are anxious about an upcoming exam, perhaps
you should talk about the exam and their preparation instead, saving something
you had planned for another day.

The Details Are Important

For all of the emphasis on content, presence, emotion, seizing the moment, and
the like, good teaching also lies in the details. These minu-tia are best attended
to directly before class. Consider and pay attention to the following:

• Do not forget to take fluids with you to ease a dry throat while speaking.
• Remember your flash drive, extra batteries, and other technological

• Always bring extra copies of the course syllabus, assignment descriptions,
and other handouts. It is much easier to give one to a student than to remember
to email them one later or to bring it to the next class.

• Bring a small pad of lined paper to every class. Consider it a “real-time
list” on which you keep track of 1) things to bring students (e.g., journal
articles, books); 2) students who came for office hours or spoke about needing
a tutor, wanting to do better in the course, or missing an exam; and 3) a host
of other requests and information about and from students. Reviewing this real-time
list before class allows you to talk with students about their studies, week,
semester, and lives. Even in a large class of hundreds of students, teachers
can achieve a more personal relationship and can better care for their students.

• Get to class early to check that your technology is working and to
talk with the students.


Preparation for class sessions is a habit worth cultivating. We hope it serves
you as well as it has served us.

References and Recommended Readings

Carroll, M. (2004). Awake at work: Facing the challenges of life on the job.
Boston: Shambhala.

Cleary, T. (Translator). (1989). Zen lessons: The art of leadership. Boston:

Cleary, T. (Translator). (1999). Code of the Samurai: A modern translation of
the Bushido Shoshinshu of Taira Shigesuke. Boston: Tuttle Publishing.

Duffy, D. K., & Jones, J. W. (1995). Teaching within the rhythms of the
semester. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gleitman, H. (1984). Introductory psychology. American

Psychologist, 39, 429–437.

Prégent, R. (1994). Charting your course: How to prepare to

teach more effectively. Madison, WI: Magna Publications.

Tzu, S. (2003). The art of war. San Francisco: Long River Press.

Barry Perlman is a Rosebush and University Professor in the
Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin- Oshkosh. He has taught
for 31 years and has edited Teaching Tips for 13. He is enthralled by that which
teachers do often and regularly that receives little research or narra-tive
attention in the literature.

Lee I. McCann is a Rosebush and University Professor at the
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where he has taught for 40 years. He is the
coauthor of Recruiting Good College Faculty: Practical Advice for a Successful
(1996, Anker) and coeditor of Lessons Learned: Practical Advice
for the Teaching of Psychology
(1999, Association for Psychological Science),
Lessons Learned: Practical Advice for the Teaching of Psychology. Vol. 2
(2004, Association for Psychological Science), Voices of Experience: Memorable
Talks from the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology
Association for Psychological Science), and the Teaching Tips column in the
APS Observer.

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