July 6th, 2009

How to Use the First Day of Class to Set the Tone for Entire Semester


On top of everything college faculty are responsible for, there’s one that may be easy to overlook or even deem as unnecessary: Teaching students how to be students. Do so at your peril because most students need a little help understanding and practicing the skills and behaviors they need to succeed.

One of the most important things you can do as an instructor to help lay the groundwork for this is to provide clear, explicit, and consistent instructions starting with the very first day of class.

“I tell my students, you never have to wonder what I am looking for because I will always tell you what I am looking for,” says Mary C. Clement, Ed.D., associate professor of teacher education at Berry College.

In the online seminar, 10 Ways to Engage Your Students on the First Day of Class, Clement provided teaching strategies and classroom management procedures that help set the proper tone, maximize the use of class time, and establish expectations for a semester of learning.

Here’s how Clement recommends structuring your first day of class:

  1. Establish procedures – Arrive early to get the classroom set up the way you want it. Post instructions on the projector telling the students what you need them to do before class begins (e.g. pick up syllabus, introduce yourself and find a seat.)
  2. Use an entrance table – This is where student pick up the syllabus, and anything else they need to pick up or turn in throughout the semester.
  3. Learn students’ names – Have students introduce themselves as they walk in, and create a seating chart.
  4. Use focus activities – On the screen or board, write what students are to do as soon as they arrive each day to class. On the first day, this could simply be to create a name card. Later on, these focus activities could be a question about the reading.
  5. Create a “today we will” list – If you only implement one tip from this list, Clements says this is the one to do. The list should remain visible at all times so as to keep the class on track and let people know what they’re responsible for if they have to arrive late or leave early.
  6. Make proper introductions – How you do this will vary by class size, but when students know each other’s names, it builds a sense of community and students are more likely to be courteous toward each other.
  7. Use an interest inventory to get to know your students – Pass out the survey in class and ask questions ranging from name and major to favorite movie or song. Share some of your answers with the class as well.
  8. Keep the class organized – Have each student create a folder and place them alphabetically in the designated box at the entrance table. Use the folders for returning papers and other assignments.
  9. Teach a lesson – “It is critically important to teach something the first day,” says Clement, noting this could be a mini-lecture with an ungraded quiz, demonstrating a science experiment or anything that lets student leave the first class feeling they learned something.
  10. The four-step lesson plan – Never walk into a class without goals for what you want your students to learn that day. Each day’s lesson plan should include the following four parts: focus the students; present, lecture and explain new material; apply new material; and review, conclude, and assess.

“Students expect a warm, yet business-like atmosphere, says Clement. ”What you do the first day of class sets the tone for the entire semester.”

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