Over the years, I’ve written a few blog posts about using the first day of class more effectively. But since it’s been a while and a new semester is upon us, I thought I’d revisit this topic. So here are a few ideas to spice up that first day (or first week) of class:
Don’t let students 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, 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.
Introduce yourself as a human being
If students are so inclined, they can look up your bio on the department’s webpage. They can Google you. So instead of telling your academic story, consider telling a more personal story. Share your hobbies and passions or something students would never guess based on their first impressions of you. This is more than being personable; it’s about being authentic. When I introduce myself to the class, I share quirks and pet peeves. These usually get a chuckle and make me seem like a human being rather than a lecturing and grading robot. I once had a professor who played a piece of music he wrote as a way to introduce himself. I still remember him vividly 12 years later.
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.
Focus the first class on making connections instead of giving directions
Rather than spending 50 or 75 minutes telling students what they can and cannot do in your class, spend time getting to know one another. That first day tells students a lot about who you are and what kind of teacher you will be. If you spend it giving them “do’s and don’ts” they won’t learn much about you except you like rules. According to Joe Kreizinger from Northwest Missouri State University, focus the first class on:
- connecting students to instructor: put your teaching philosophy into student-friendly language and explain how you approach classroom management and student learning.
- connecting students to content: explain why this class matters and how it applies to your students’ current and future lives.
- connecting instructor to content: tell students the story of how you discovered your discipline. How did you know it was the field for you?
- connecting students to students: icebreakers can be corny, but they are also effective at forcing students to talk to one another rather than stare at their cell phones.
Build icebreakers into the entire first week, even beyond
Most professors include some type of “getting to know you” activity on the 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.
Showcase course content
Some of you may disagree with me on this point as well, but sometimes we have to convince students to buy what we’re selling. The first day is all about introductions and the course content should be included. But rather than provide a regurgitation of the course catalog description, pitch the course as something students will find exciting and, yes, applicable to their lives. And just as important, tell students why this is content you love and why this is a course you want to teach. Enthusiasm is contagious. I also recommend you start teaching the first day. Students may look at you with incredulity, but it communicates that you take the course and their learning seriously. In contrast, if you let them go after ten minutes, it communicates the course isn’t important. So use this time to jump in and provide an outline of the fantastic content you’ll be sharing.
The first day of class is ripe with possibilities. Make the most of it and it will set you up for a successful and enjoyable semester!