Small Teaching Tip #12: Spice Up Your First Day of Classes

Take a moment and envision the first day of classes.

Does it resemble the following?

  1. introduce yourself
  2. hand out your syllabus
  3. tell students which textbook to buy
  4. ask them to introduce themselves
  5. call it a day

Many faculty do just this, letting a golden opportunity pass them by.

I get it.  The first day of classes can be tough.  With department retreats, meetings, and Convocation, you may have run out of time to put the finishing touches on your course.  Plus, students may be hounding you to get into your class, while others are dropping like flies, so your class roster changes by the minute.  And let’s admit it, icebreakers can be incredibly corny, even painful to introverted students (and professors).

But, despite these challenges, it has become my annual tradition to encourage you to “spice up” your first day of classes.  So here is my advice:

Don’t let them go after five minutes.  What’s the point of meeting if nothing is going to be accomplished the first day?  I used to think students would perceive me as “cool” if I let them go after only a couple minutes.  Not so.  Most students felt their time was completely wasted.  Put yourself in their shoes.  If you were asked by a colleague to come to campus for a meeting then, after just a couple minutes, they said “Eh, let’s just continue this conversation later,” you’d likely be frustrated.  Take advantage of the opportunities the first day presents to build connections and start forming a supportive learning environment.

Don’t make the first day of class “Syllabus Day.”  Avoid reading the entire syllabus to students.  This is a waste of everyone’s time.  Students who care about their learning will read the syllabus on their own.  If you’re wary of putting that onus on students, ask them to sign a syllabus contract or include a syllabus quiz the first week (which is very easy to accomplish using the OAKS quizzing tool).  Perhaps more importantly, write a syllabus that students might want to read rather than one that looks like a Terms of Service agreement.  David Gooblar, lecturer at the University of Iowa, recently wrote about this in Chronicle Vitae: “Your Syllabus Doesn’t Have to Look Like a Contract.”  If interested, this rubric (bit.do/syllabusrubric) may help you critically examine your syllabi.

Establish intentions.  Rather than spending time listing policy after policy, consider setting intentions for the semester and involving your students in this process.  What do you hope they accomplish and what do they want to learn?  What do you expect from them and what can they expect from you?  Is there a way both parties can be satisfied?  Here are some ideas I have tried in my own classes:

  • Ask students to think about their favorite classes and the classes they hated.  Then (without revealing identifiable characteristics), ask them to generate lists of qualities that made the classes awesome or terrible.  Students love this activity and it always results in a fruitful discussion of expectations.  It also provides fantastic insight into the minds of both students and professors, which leads to better understanding and empathy.
  • I also ask students to compile a list of what they would like from me.  Punctuality, availability, and fairness are usually mentioned and these are qualities that I already deem important.  But because students composed the list themselves, it gives them the sense that I’m willing to share my power and that I’m open to their perspectives.
  • Consider establishing a classroom code of conduct.  Some of you may find this infantile, but I believe it’s one of the best and easiest ways to establish a respectful classroom culture.  When students generate the rules, they’re more likely to own them.

Google search results for icebreakers that aren't lame

Build icebreakers into the entire first week, even beyond.  Most professors include some type of “getting to know you” activity on that first day.  But the class roster doesn’t solidify until after the add/drop deadline.  Therefore, I suggest icebreakers are even more important during the third and fourth class periods.  This doesn’t have to take much time.  I typically incorporate self-introductions into roll call, asking students silly questions to make them chuckle.  I’m consistently surprised by the number of times students find unexpected connections: “Seamus Finnigan is my favorite Harry Potter character too!!!”  Some students may be grumpy about icebreakers, which is understandable considering they do them in every class, but that encourages me to find new ones each semester.  For example, I’ve had them do “speed dating,” play 6 degrees of separation, and go on scavenger hunts.  There are so many possibilities!  Google “icebreakers that aren’t lame” or ask your colleagues how they facilitate introductions.

While the first day of classes arrives too quickly and many of us feel underprepared, it is still ripe with opportunity.  Make the most of it and it will set you up for a successful and enjoyable semester!


This post is part of a series which presents low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

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