What do you do the first day of class?


By Keumjae Park
Center for Teaching Excellence

Even though I have been teaching a rotation of the same 6-7 courses over the past ten years, the first class of the semester makes me more nervous than it makes me excited. The thought of walking into a room with a group of strangers who are dead silent is not what I consider a wonderful daydream. It is painfully clear that the students are in no mood to help me out in breaking the ice. It will be all up to my performance to chase away the thick silence pressing down the room. When I was less experienced, I made the first day of class “the syllabus day” for this reason. I go in, say a couple of things about myself with an awkward smile, read through the syllabus, and ask if they have any questions. I usually get a few questions about the tests and assignments. After quick clarifications of those matters, I can make the students happy, and myself relieved, by letting them go early. After all, there was nothing much I could do when they had not read anything. But over the years, I have discovered that most experts advise against this approach. The reason is clear to me: I am not making any impression at all! I have also learned that by lecturing on the syllabus on the first day, I was allowing the students not to even bother to read the syllabus.

The first day “sets the tone for the rest of the course,” writes Maryellen Weimer, editor of the Teaching Professor Blog (www.facultyfocus.com). I would imagine there are several ways in which the first class may “set the tone.” First, your relationship with the students; the way you present yourself and position yourself vis-à-vis students is likely to shape your relations with the class. Second, expected behaviors/performances in the class; students often pick up cues about your teaching style, and how demanding and rigorous a teacher you will be by observing what is done on the first day. Last but not the least, the first class could be a sneak preview of the class contents; you want to make them leave the room thinking that they signed up for something interesting.

Whether or not you actually decide to teach the course material on the first day, I believe, still depends on your personal preference and I think either way can work. But in case this helps you to make more informed decision on your first day class plan, I would like to provide some information CTE has gathered from various sources. Teaching support centers at most universities highlight some key objectives of the first day of class. Based on a reading of a dozen teacher support websites, the following objectives seem beneficial for the first class.

Make Connections:

  • Making connections with your class: “Rather than spending 50 minutes telling students what they can and cannot do in your class, spend time getting to know one another,” writes Jessica Smith of Teaching, Learning, and Technology (www.tltgroup.org). According to Smith, if you spend most time on the “dos and don’ts,” students don’t get to know you, but your rules. A good story to tell about yourself may be how you felt in love with your discipline or your research topic; or about an undergraduate experience of yours with which they can identify. You can tell them about your teaching philosophy. Whichever story you choose, it would be nice to show that you have a passion for the things they will learn about. Of course, you will still have to be careful not to get too casual, as it may undermine your authority.
  • Connecting students to one another: I am discovering that some students may go for weeks without talking to anyone in class unless opportunities are given by the teacher. Icebreaker games and activities are wonderful ways to begin to transform the aggregate of unrelated students into a community of peers. Since the class roster fluctuates until the drop/add period is over, it would be a good idea to have short icebreakers, or group works, built into the first few classes. Icebreaker activities also allow students to introduce themselves to the teacher. Students appreciate if the teacher knows their names, though I understand this is often very challenging, if not impossible.
  • Connecting students to the course contents: Of course, they are not prepared for the class the first day. However, you can create a short class activity (i.e., discussions, problem-solving, writing, a game) that links students’ experiences to a concept. Students should have a taste of the class on the first day. If students leave the class with some lingering questions to think about, you already have prepared them half-way for the next class.

Establish Your Credibility and Be Authentic

  • Many writers recommend going to the first class early to greet the incoming students. I think it is an excellent idea. It will allow the teacher to avoid walking into the awkward silence, if for nothing else.
  • Students today seem to have difficulty understanding who professors are. A recent article by Rob Jenkins emphasizes the importance of clarifying your relationship with students and what is expected from each party in this relationship (“Defining Relationship: I’m Not Your Boss, Your Parent, or Your BFF. I’m Your Professor and Here is What That Means.” The Chronical of Higher Education. August 8th, 2016. )
  • As the Teaching@CSU (Colorado State University) website recommends, letting students know about your professional background and expertise could be helpful in establishing this relationship.
    “Your students deserve to know your professional background. Depending on the class you’re teaching, this may be assumed—your credibility a given—but not always: don't take it for granted. Inform your students about your prior experience: work, travel, research, publication credits, and anything else that might be important. You want to instill in them a sense of confidence in the idea that you know what you’re talking about.” (http://teaching.colostate.edu/tips/tip.cfm?tipid=93)
  • At the same time, stay true to your own personal style.
  • Most importantly, let them see your commitment to their learning.

Collect Some Data:
The first day gives you the extra time to collect information from your students.

  • You can collect some data on who your students are, what related courses they may have taken, what themes they are interested in, what they want to get out of the class, whether they expect any particular challenges this semester, and so on. This will allow you to understand your class better.
  • Conduct any pre-test for baseline knowledge on the course material. This will be very useful for assessment purposes.
  • You may have them write a short essay to collect writing samples. This will also help you learn students’ names much more quickly, because you can easily connect the story to the student.

Well, the Syllabus:
Obviously, the syllabus is a highly prominent part of the first class. We should spend some time on the first day discussing the syllabus.

  • How does your syllabus sound? How long is it? Weimer offers some excellent advice on syllabus writing.
    (http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/what-does-your-syllabus-say-about-you-and-your-course/) A syllabus is treated as “the contract” and the convention is that it is. Nevertheless, it doesn’t have to sound like a dreadful legal document. I imagine we can make it sound more personable and friendly, and also carry some enthusiasm about the course in the syllabus.
  • Highlighting only some main aspects of the syllabus would be helpful on the first day. Most sources recommend you avoid reading the whole syllabus aloud. (If yours is very long like mine, this is already destined to fail). Keep in mind that you may have to repeat many of the deadlines and policies throughout the semester. Saying everything the first day doesn’t mean that students get it all the first day.
  • Though you are unlikely to talk about every single item of the policies, you may still want to spell out some on the first day because they are important to set the tone. They may include:
    attendance and punctuality
    preparation for classes
    academic integrity
    submission of tests and assignments
    cellphone and electronic devices in class
    seeking help when needed
  • Some people recommend a “syllabus quiz” to help student remember the most important items in the syllabus. This can be administered on the first day as an individual quiz or as a group quiz doubling as an icebreaker.

Icebreaker Activities:
Icebreaker activities help the first class to be friendly, memorable, and connecting. Here are a few activities I found interesting.

  • Best and Worst Classes Exercise (Weimer. nd. “First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning.” From http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/first-day-of-class-activities-that-create-a-climate-for-learning/)
    “On one section of the blackboard I write: “The best class I’ve ever had” and underneath it “What the teacher did” and below that “What the students did.” On another section I write “The worst class I’ve ever had” (well, actually I write, “The class from hell”) and then the same two items beneath. I ask students to share their experiences, without naming the course, department or teacher, and I begin filling in the grid based on what they call out. If there’s a lull or not many comments about what the students did in these classes, I add some descriptors based on my experience with some of my best and worst classes. In 10 minutes or less, two very different class portraits emerge. I move to the best class section of the board and tell students that this is the class I want to teach, but I can’t do it alone. Together we have the power to make this one of those ‘best class’ experiences.”
  • Common Sense Inventory (From Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center website: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/firstday.html)
    “Nilson (2003) describes a ‘Common Sense Inventory’ where students need to determine whether 15 statements related to the course content are true or false (e.g., in a social psychology course, ‘Suicide is more likely among women than men,’ or ‘Over half of all marriages occur between persons who live within 20 blocks of each other’). After paired or small group discussions, you can reveal the right answer. This works particularly well in courses where students bring in a lot of misconceptions (e.g., Introductory Physics).”
  • The M & M Breaker (Lansing Community College (MI) website has a collection of fun icebreakers including this. http://www.lcc.edu/cte/resources/teachingettes/icebreakers.aspx)
    “When students enter the classroom, they take an M & M. When they introduce themselves, what they share is dependent on the color of their M & M. For example, a red one might mean they share what they hope to get out of the course. On the lighter side, a red one might mean they share a recent accomplishment or success.”
  • Familiar & Unique
    “Break the class into groups of four (ideally by counting off). Each small group must come up with four things they have in common (all working full-time, all single parents, etc.). Then they are asked to share something unique about themselves individually. The group shares their familiar and unique features with the rest of the class. A master list can be made on the board for the class to look at and discuss if appropriate.”
    (From: Victoria Meyers at Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan quoted in http://www.lcc.edu/cte/resources/teachingettes/icebreakers.aspx)