Teaching During the Summer: Challenges and Opportunities

by | Jun 6, 2017

Fall and spring semesters can go by in a flash, so summer brings the perfect opportunity for those early on in their academic careers to hone their teaching skills, or for more experienced teachers to re-imagine their course in a different context.

However, teaching over the summer is a unique experience, even for veteran instructors. Things move fast, there tends to be less institutional support, and what worked during other semesters might not resonate with students in the context of a summer course.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you approach your summer teaching and our best strategies for a creating a positive, productive educational experience as the weather warms.

Spread the word early

This advice is tried and true for many things in academia, but proves especially important when planning for and advertising your summer courses. Students often aren’t thinking about taking summer classes until the last minute, so advertising your course early and later in the semester keeps it on their radar.

Since summer courses are often electives, be sure to ask instructors of required courses in majors related to your course to spread the word to their students.

This is particularly important for adjuncts, graduate students, and other contingent faculty who might lose a much-needed summer paycheck if their course doesn’t fill in time.

Keep it moving

One of the biggest challenges of summer teaching is that the semester is significantly shorter, so you have to cover more content each session and each week than you would during other semesters.

Even (especially) when teaching a familiar course, you will have to grapple with how to get students through the material more quickly and efficiently.

It will also be particularly important for you to have an organized grading system in place to be sure students get prompt feedback on their work.

Focus on the bigger picture

Given the pacing challenges the summer semester brings, you’ll have to be more intentional about having big-picture objectives in place for your course and making sure each lesson and assignment builds toward them.

What is the most important lesson, skill, or content you want your students to learn over the few short summer weeks? It isn’t merely a simple question of condensing what you cover, but of thinking strategically about what each lesson plan is designed to do.

With this goal in mind, take a fresh look at your curriculum to determine not just what to keep and what leave out, but what the biggest lessons you’d like students to take away from your course are.

Be intentional about building community

The best educational experiences are shaped by a sense of community in the classroom, but this can be particularly difficult to establish during the summer semester. You have less time with your students, and the summer semester tends to be a time when more academically diverse groups of students—from high schoolers looking for college credit to students from other majors looking to quickly fulfill elective requirements—enroll in courses.

So how can you build community in such a short span of time and among students who are not necessarily already a part of your university community? Make time, from the start, for students to share both who they are and why they are taking the course.

Open up this space to them without judgment; it’s okay If they are there to fulfill a requirement. The point is to get your students talking to you and to one another, and to connect honestly in the short time you share together.

Use the space to your advantage

One of the best things about teaching during the summer is that it offers many more opportunities to work outside! It may take a bit more work to coordinate, but finding an unexpected or sunny place to congregate on campus goes far in building community among your students and keeping class dynamic.

This can also be a meaningful way for students coming from off-campus to get to know your school and start to feel more at home.

Dynamic assignments matter more than ever

Knowing how to foster dynamic class discussions is an important skill in any semester, but goes a long way during the summer. Since you are working on a condensed schedule, you want to make the most of each period of class time, so getting students to engage quickly with the material in dynamic ways is crucial.

Also, a shorter semester means longer individual class sessions and a higher likelihood of students (and you) tiring out after a few hours. Building in small-group activities, presentations, debates, and other involved assignments keeps long blocks of class time interesting. Conversely, turning to digital media tools such as a class blog or Facebook page can keep students immersed in the material beyond class time, and help you move from session to session more efficiently.

Summer classes can be wonderful learning opportunities and give you the chance to try out new pedagogies you might not be able to during the regular school year. Approach them with a mindset of experimentation to ensure the best experience possible for both you and your students.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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