The University of Iowa

Tips for Instructors

Tips & Suggestions for Instructors


Creating Titles and Course Descriptions

Course descriptions should be written with a high school senior audience in mind. Students may not, for example, have the sophistication to understand technical terms. Especially good course descriptions help students connect the theme of the class to their academic aspirations and lives. Writing for an 18-year-old who has not yet arrived on campus is an art.

The list below contains some suggestions on creating course titles and descriptions that make sense to people outside of your field of study and that are readable by a high school graduate. 

  1. The subtitle should be enticing, but also reflect the course content. With over 100 offerings, students will sort by title first.
  2. Students are perusing many different offerings, and long descriptions are not necessarily better.
  3. High school students aren’t necessarily familiar with field-specific jargon. Using terms that mean something to someone in the field won’t always resonate with a newly-minted high school graduate.
  4. A catchy lead-off sentence is useful. Here are some examples:
  • “Since 1999, Billy Beane has steered the Oakland Athletics to five playoff appearances despite having one of the lowest payrolls in all of major league baseball,” in course titled “Sports Analytics.”
  • “On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, burned for 36 hours, and then sank in the Gulf of Mexico unleashing the largest accidental marine oil spill in history,” in course on the causes and consequences of the BP oil disaster.
  • “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read,” in a course on human-canine relationships.
  • “Improvisation: it’s a word that can strike terror into many hearts.” In a course on theater improvisation.


FYS Student Perceptions

“It's a great opportunity to get to know a professor at their finest. These are subjects that they are passionate about and love teaching.  You'll really get to see their best side.  Also it helps students to realize that professors are real people: You can talk to them.”

FYS Survey responses from previous years have indicated that the majority of students by far greatly appreciate their FYS experience, especially because of the opportunity to learn more about their instructors’ areas of expertise and because of the genuine interest that instructors show in helping their students learn.  Many students also report that they highly value the opportunity to meet other students who share their interest in the FYS topic. 

To learn more about student perceptions of the FYS experience, you can view a summary of 2012 FYS Survey Responses and slides from a presentation on What Students Value Most in a First-Year Seminar on the Assessment website.


FYS Instructor Observations

Tips from previous FYS instructors include:

  • The experience of many instructors has been that first-year students do not know how to read or study intensely or efficiently. Keeping this in mind, instructors should gauge course work on the "two hours of study for one hour of credit" model.
  • In a one semester hour First-Year Seminar, the outside assignments should be based on how much a student can prepare if the student devotes two hours to the task. This may be as little as 15 pages of material per week or may be substantially more depending on the materials and the particular ability of the students.
  • Instructors should introduce students to the appropriate methods of reading, writing, and studying the materials of the course.



The Center for Teaching in the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology has multiple resources available for instructors who might need assistance with developing rubrics that are appropriate for first year students and, in particular, First-Year Seminars. Center for Teaching staff are also available to meet with instructors to further discuss their courses.


Writing Assignments

Ideas from past FYS instructors for appropriate writing assignments:

  • Simple, regular writing assignments are preferred.  Not all writing needs to be graded, although regular instructor feedback is important
  • Simple small writings due at the end of each class (not more than 1-2 paragraphs) that establish attendance and show what was learned or discussed that day
  • Small-group oral presentations that are equivalent to a final exam
  • Short (1-2 page) papers that are due every-other-week; regular and immediate feedback from instructors to students
  • In-class writings (approximately 1-2 paragraphs) that are passed from one student- or group of students- to another, who add to the piece; these writings can then be shared with the class.
  • Cartooning or drawing simple figures with dialogue boxes; can be observations, analyses, critiques, reflections  
  • Assignments that help students to develop analytical skills, which can then be used during an in-class mock board meeting or committee  meeting
  • Teams of students prepare an issues list (possibly with annotated resources) or brief proposals related to community issues; students submit to community or governmental group
  • Create an ethical flow chart or similar writing that can be used by a mock organ donor selection committee (idea can formatted to fit different course topics)
  • Writings that are similar to a lab report, showing observations, hypothesis identification
  • Some topics and disciplines lend themselves more to other forms of communication, such as student presentations. Regardless of the form, communication is an important skill to be developed through First-Year Seminars.
  • Concept Maps may be effective options to help students organize and communicate their critical thinking.

How much writing should students be asked to complete outside of class?

  • Approximately 1 page/week
  • Keep in mind the 2:1 ratio- two hours of work out-of-class for each hour in class.
  • Although they can be assigned, students tend to become more frustrated with longer high-stakes writing assignments; shorter low-stakes writing with feedback (not necessarily graded)  is valued more by students


Reading Assignments

Reading assignments should be appropriate for students who are new to the academic study of the topic.  Readings generally do not include articles from academic journals, unless there is additional guidance and coaching on how to work with this type of material (see below).

Ideas from past FYS instructors for appropriate reading assignments:

  • Assign a few journal articles but keep in mind that most students will not have previous experience with this type of reading material; focus mainly on the overview and summary sections.
  • Assign short readings or articles with a progressive level of difficulty; help students learn how to manage challenging reading assignments. 
  • Assign books or articles written by leading authors in the field, but written for lay audiences.
  • See the ITS-Teaching, Learning & Technology web site for ideas about how to help students read more effectively.