Teaching Vanderbilt Undergraduates

Teaching Vanderbilt undergraduates presents different opportunities and challenges from teaching undergraduates at other colleges and universities and from teaching graduate and professional students at Vanderbilt.

This page is designed for instructors who are new to teaching Vanderbilt undergraduates. It is intended to provide an introduction to Vanderbilt undergraduates, as well as relevant academic policies and procedures.

While the information in this guide can be useful in helping you understand Vanderbilt undergraduates, keep in mind that each student is unique. You are encouraged to get to know your particular students as learners. The Center for Teaching's "Office Hours," "Classroom Assessment Techniques," and "Gathering Feedback from Students" teaching guides offer ways of doing so.

See also the Center's page of resources for teaching at Vanderbilt, as well as our list of frequently asked questions about teaching resources.

Who Are Vanderbilt Undergraduates?


The following four Vanderbilt schools offer undergraduate degree programs.

School Fall 2007 Enrollment*
College of Arts and Science 3,722
School of Engineering 1,298
Peabody College of Education and Human Development 1,637
Blair School of Music 193
Total Undergraduates Enrolled 6,532

*Individual Schools' Total Fall 2007 Enrollment may include graduate students

The Vanderbilt Institutional Research Groups' Factbook provides some demographic data about the Class of 2011, including the following information. See the Factbook for more details and other data.

  • Admission and Enrollment Rates: Of the 12,911 students who applied to Vanderbilt, about 13% of them enrolled as new freshmen.

  • Gender: More women (56%) than men (44%) are in the Class of 2011.

  • Ethnicity: Of the enrolled American students, 61.8% identified themselves as White/Caucasian, 10.7% as African American, 7.0% as Asian, 6.2% as Hispanic/Latino, 0.4% as American Indian, and 0.9% as "other."

The "Vanderbilt First-Year Profile: A Pedagogical Guidepost" provides some additional demographic information on Vanderbilt undergraduates.

Housing and Residential Education

  • Current Housing Arrangements

    Most undergraduates live in on-campus housing in a variety of dormitories and residential areas spread across the campus, each of which is managed by an assistant director. Many faculty members participate in programming for these residential areas as Faculty Advisors.

    A few of the residential areas feature Living/Learning Centers where students with similar educational interests, including philosophy and the fine arts, foreign languages and cultures, and community service, live together and participate in structured programs.

  • College Halls

    In 2000, Vanderbilt began transitioning to a new residential college system called College Halls, featuring a first-year experience known as The Commons, that will connect faculty, staff and students through a first-year living and learning community. The Commons will be led by the Dean of Commons and ten Faculty Heads of House. The Commons will welcome its first class, the Class of 2012, this August.

    Connected to The Commons is Vanderbilt Visions, a one-semester, university core program that mentors first-year undergraduates as they confront the social, academic, cognitive, and cultural transitions of leaving high school and entering the complex environment of a private research university. Over 150 faculty members are involved in the Vanderbilt Visions project Faculty VUceptors.

Extracurricular Life

The typical Vanderbilt undergraduate is involved in several extracurricular activities, many of which are listed below. Undergraduates, particularly freshmen, can sometimes find it difficult to balance their academic responsibilities and the extracurricular activities. They also sometimes overextend themselves in these areas. Bear these facts in mind when discussing course activities with your students.

See the Student Services section of the CFT's Vanderbilt Resources guide for links to additional Vanderbilt units that provide resources and programs for students.

Undergraduate Course Logistics

Your Syllabus

  • Your syllabus forms a kind of contract between you and your students. A good syllabus clearly outlines what will be offered to and expected from your students. Your syllabus should be informative and specific, but not overwhelming. Keep in mind that even if something appears on your syllabus and you mention it on the first day of class, your students will need reminding of important course activities and policies throughout the semester.

  • Undergraduates often have specific expectations about the content and style of a course syllabus. Consult with other instructors in your department or program when preparing your syllabus to gain a sense of these expectations. Also, the Center for Teaching's library maintains a binder of sample syllabi from a variety of Vanderbilt courses.

  • Your syllabus should include an explanation of how the Vanderbilt Honor Code applies in your course. For more information, see the Faculty Guide to the Honor Code, especially the section on faculty responsibilities.

  • Your syllabus should also contain a statement regarding accommodations for students with disabilities. According to the "Vanderbilt First-Year Profile: A Pedagogical Guidepost," about 1 in 14 undergraduates have some kind of disability. See the Center's "Teaching Students with Disabilities" teaching guide for more information and sample statements.

  • For more information and strategies on constructing an effective syllabus, see material in the Center's "Course Design" teaching guide.

Assignments and Grading

  • Be clear to yourself and to your students about the goals for the assignments you give your students. The more closely aligned your goals, teaching activities, and assessments are, the more likely you are to achieve the learning goals you set for your students. See the Center for Teaching's "Course Design" teaching guide for more in this idea.

  • Many Vanderbilt undergraduates expect to see fairly close alignment among the components of a course. For instance, if class readings are not discussed regularly in class, students are likely to stop doing the readings since they do not appear connected to the rest of the class. Likewise, if you include material on an exam that was covered in the readings, but not discussed in class, students are likely to be surprised and frustrated. This isn't to say that you need to "spoon-feed" your students, but rather that students expect that the various components of a course are well-integrated and serve clear purposes.

  • Different groups of students (freshmen, upperclassmen, majors, non-majors, etc.) have different learning backgrounds, styles, and needs. Ask colleagues from your department or program who have taught students similar to yours for advice on structuring your class specifically for your students.

  • Students, particularly freshmen, can have very different study habits. For instance, according to the "Vanderbilt First-Year Profile: A Pedagogical Guidepost," about 18% of Vanderbilt freshmen report having spent 2 or fewer hours per week studying in their last year of high school; however, another 17% reported spending more than 15 hours per week. On the other hand, about 92% reported having studied with other students outside of class their senior year, so Vanderbilt undergraduates are typically comfortable with some level of collaborative learning approaches. See the Center's "Cooperative Learning" teaching guide for information on these approaches.

  • Most Vanderbilt students want to do as well as they possibly can on the assignments you give them. This unfortunately leads some students to focus more on grades than on learning. Following are some implications of this attitude.

    • One implication is that if you do not assign points to an assignment in your grading scheme, some students may not do the assignment. They undoubtedly have graded assignments for other classes that will take precedence during their studying time. This has an upside, however: If you assign points to an activity, then students are more likely to complete it.

    • Students highly motivated by grades typically want to know very explicitly what is required of them to do well on exams and other assignments. If you are clear about your expectations for student work, then your students will often work hard to meet your expectations. If students are confused about your expectations or about how they should prepare for exams and other assignments, then they will often become frustrated when they do not score as well as they would like.

    • See the Center's "Motivating Students" teaching guide for more on the connections between motivation and grading.

  • It is important to note certain conditions that lead to this attitude. Many Vanderbilt students plan to pursue graduate degrees and careers in which undergraduate grades play important gate-keeping functions. For instance, according to the "Vanderbilt First-Year Profile: A Pedagogical Guidepost," about 19% of Vanderbilt freshmen intend to go to medical school, and many medical schools have very competitive admissions processes. See that document for more information on Vanderbilt student career goals.

  • For more advice on grading, please see the Center's "Grading Student Work" teaching guide.

Rhythms of the Semester

  • Academic Calendars

    Since classes in various schools and programs begin and end on different dates, instructors should check the Office of the University Registrar's Academic Calendar carefully as they plan their courses. Keep in mind holidays such as Fall Break, Thanksgiving Break, Winter Break, and Spring Break. Some schools have restrictions on the kinds of assignments that can be made during the final week of classes. Consult your school's academic regulations for more information.

  • Student Activities

    Since events outside the classroom can have an impact on teaching and learning, it can be useful to be familiar with the student activities calendar when scheduling course-related activities. For a listing of these and other upcoming events, consult the University Calendar. The following are some events that involve many Vanderbilt undergraduates.

  • Religious Holidays

    When scheduling course activities, be mindful of Vanderbilt's policy on religious holidays as well as this list of religious holy days.

  • Midterms

    Many undergraduate courses have a single exam in the middle of the semester (a "midterm"). This can make for a large workload for students, who may have three or four exams within the same week. One alternative is to administer less comprehensive, more frequent tests during the semester. This has the additional benefit of providing you and your students with more frequent feedback on their understanding of the course material.

  • Final Exams

    If you choose to give a final exam, a date and time for the exam will be assigned to you. See the Registrar's final exam schedule. Instructors typically have the option of offering an alternate final exam time, but that time is also set by the Registrar. See your school's academic regulations for more information on final exams and alternate forms of summative assessment.

Textbooks and Readings

  • Textbooks

    Textbooks may be ordered through the Vanderbilt Bookstore. Be cognizant of the cost of the books and materials you select; some undergraduates may not be able to afford a large number of expensive texts. Make sure that the materials are not out of print or extremely rare.

    When assigning readings from your textbooks, be as explicit as you can about which chapters, sections, and pages you want your students to read before class. Since students are novices in your discipline, they often have difficult sorting through and organizing information in course readings. The more guidance you can provide them in navigating your readings, the more likely they are to learn from the readings. For more on the differences between expert and novices, see the Center's "How People Learn" teaching guide.

  • ClassPaks and Electronic Reserves

    Students typically appreciate it if you provide course readings (book chapters, articles, essays, etc.) in a ClassPak, a bound copy of your readings printed by Campus Copy. As mentioned above, students appreciate it when you make it very explicit what they should read for class. Making the readings available via a ClassPak is one way of doing so.

    A paper-saving alternative to ClassPaks is to make your readings available online through the Vanderbilt Library's electronic reserves system. Library staff will digitally scan your readings and make them available through Vanderbilt's password-protected course management system, OAK (powered by Blackboard).

You may also place books and other readings on reserve in the various Vanderbilt libraries (See course reserve information). However, many Vanderbilt students prefer that you make readings available via OAK for ClassPaks. Given the ease of placing readings on OAK in particular, students often question why they need to walk across campus to a library to access a particular reading.

  • Library Research

    Helping your students to develop library research skills can be an effective way of showing them how scholars in your discipline conduct their work. However, if you give your students a research assignment of any kind, it is not always safe to assume your students have advanced library research skills.

    Students can sometimes be overly reliant on web sites like Google and Wikipedia for their research assignments. (For instance, according to the "Vanderbilt First-Year Profile: A Pedagogical Guidepost," from 2004-2007 about 85% of Vanderbilt freshmen reported having used the Internet frequently for research or homework during high school.) Even though College of Arts & Science undergraduates are now required to take a Freshman Writing Seminar that includes a library orientation session, it is still important to help your students develop these skills through explicit instruction.

    Contact your subject librarian for more information on having your students do library research. See also this brochure about what librarians at Vanderbilt can do for you.

Undergraduate Course Policies

Academic Regulations

Each of the four undergraduate colleges has its own set of academic regulations addressing a wide range of issues. The regulations that may be most significant for instructors new to teaching undergraduates at Vanderbilt are the following.

  • Add / Drop

    In most cases, undergraduates have some ability to add or drop courses during the first few weeks of the semester. Because of this, you may find your course's enrollment in a fair amount of flux during this time period. Be prepared to accommodate students who join your course late.

  • Incompletes

    Undergraduates often have the ability to take an "incomplete" for a course, allowing them to complete one or more exams or assignments after the course has ended. There are rules governing this process, but they vary by school.

  • Pass / Fail

    Some students might take your class "pass / fail," meaning that they do not get a letter grade, just a mark of "pass" or "fail."

  • Midsemester Progress (or Deficiency) Reports

    You may be required by your school to submit midsemester grades on all of your students or those who are in danger of failing.

  • Grade Reports

    When and how you turn in final grades, as well as what grades are permissible to give, vary by school. Please note that in some cases, you are required to turn in final grades 48 hours after giving your final exam.

  • Advising

    You may be asked to advise students about their selection of classes, formally or informally. While requirements for degrees vary by college and program, College of Arts & Science students often refer to Achieving eXcellence in Liberal Education (AXLE), the core curriculum requirements for students in the College of Arts & Science beginning with the Class of 2009.

While there is some overlap across the schools on these regulations, there are enough significant differences that it is far best to consult the particular school's version for information on a given regulation:

Academic, Psychological and Emotional Concerns

Center for Teaching Resources


The Center provides a wide range of confidential consultation services to individuals for developmental and formative purposes. We welcome the opportunity to work with instructors on any teaching topic of interest to them. See our page of Services for Individuals for information on several types of consultations, including small group analyses, classroom observations, and videotaping services.

Workshops, Working Groups, and Orientations

The Center offers 1 to 2 hour workshops on a variety of teaching topics each semester. Consult our Workshop page for more information.

We also organizing "working groups" of faculty and graduate students who commit to meet regularly over the course of a semester to discuss common teaching interests. See our Working Groups page for more information.

The Center also conducts orientations for new faculty and new teaching assistants each August. See our Teaching at Vanderbilt: An Orientation for Incoming Faculty and TA Orientation pages for more information.

Center for Teaching Library

The Center's library has a large collection of articles, books and videos related to all aspects of teaching undergraduates (including syllabus design, assignments and exams, etc.). Below are a few of these resources that may be particularly useful in understanding Vanderbilt undergraduates. All are available for check-out. See each book's ACORN record, listed below, for call numbers and availability.

  • Levine, Arthur. When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today's College Student (1998). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [ACORN]

    This volume explores the conflicting forces of fear and hope at play in today's generation of college students, probing the causes behind these forces, as well as strategies for those who interact with students to enable them to create a meaningful experience for themselves in college.

  • Light, Richard. Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (2001). Cambridge: Harvard University. [ACORN]

    Light has spent more than a decade interviewing hundreds of college students on what most helps their learning. This volume is a compendium of many of his findings, and includes sections on mentoring and advising, connecting in-class and out-of-class experiences, demanding high standards in writing assignments, and learning from diversity on campus.

  • Perry, William. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme (1999). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [ACORN]

    Originally published in 1970, this study has formed the foundation for major research in student development that has followed it. Perry's nine-stage model shows students moving from more simplistic to more cognitively complex world views as they move through various educational experiences. His research underscores the need for instructors to pay attention to process, and not just content.

  • What Students Want: Teaching From a Student's Perspective (1992). Cambridge: Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. 24 minutes.

    This tape features the views of over forty undergraduates on what they find exciting and frustrating in the classroom, or how they believe they learn best to find out what students want of the classroom experience.

CFT/VIRG Pedagogical Profile

The "Vanderbilt First-Year Profile: A Pedagogical Guidepost" is a report written by the Center for Teaching and the Vanderbilt Institutional Research Group (VIRG) that shares data from the Institutional Research Project (CIRP), a national survey of freshmen administered locally by VIRG, useful to instructors of Vanderbilt undergraduates. The full report is available online (PDF, VUNet ID and password required).


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