August 10th, 2010

Don’t Waste the First Day of Class



Despite the fact that numerous articles have been written on the importance of the first day, too many of us still use it to do little more than go over the syllabus and review basic guidelines for the course. This year I decided to try a different approach, and the results were much more dramatic than I expected. I taught real material on the first day. Despite that, there have been fewer questions about course policies, with some students actually referencing them without even a mention from me. Let me explain how I achieved these results.

On the first day (I used this approach in all my courses), I spent the majority of the time teaching content that related to the overall ideas of the course. Thus, in freshman composition, a course that focuses on experiential learning, I had the students go outside and experience a brief period of blindness. They took turns taping cotton balls over their eyes and leading each other around. We then analyzed the experience and talked about how one might craft a thesis to describe what happened. In a Western literature class, I introduced the major ideas of the Enlightenment and talked about how the interplay of reason and emotion would reoccur throughout the course.

Only after this exposure to course content did I give students a copy of the syllabus. Rather than going through it in detail, I told students that they were perfectly capable of reading it. I think we should start assuming that students ranging from developmental courses to upper-division major classes can read and understand a syllabus. Rather than treating the syllabus as something special, I decided to handle it as another reading assignment.

To prepare students for this reading assignment, I did a brief presentation (I used PowerPoint this year, which I almost never use) on the most important aspects of the syllabus: why students are taking the course, how to get in touch with me, our university’s mission statement, academic support for those with disabilities, how to access the online readings, and the overall structure of the class. I limited the presentation to 10 minutes. I have even begun to wonder if I could skip handing out the syllabus altogether and simply have students print it off themselves and read it before coming to the first day of class.

On the second day, I had students pick up note cards as they arrived for class. I asked them to write on the card any questions they had about the syllabus. In one class of just over 30 students, I answered fewer than five questions, and it took less than five minutes. Even in my largest class, which had the most questions, I was still able to respond in less than 10 minutes. Thus, my presentation of the syllabus took 15 minutes, at best, as opposed to the 40 to 50 minutes it used to take.

I also used bonus questions taken from the syllabus on my reading quizzes. This makes it clear to students who have not read the syllabus that they are losing out on extra points. I have considered giving a quiz solely on the syllabus, as I have heard some professors do, but that seems a bit petty to me. I can see, though, how that approach reinforces the idea of treating the syllabus as class material, just like any other reading assignment.

In the past few weeks since the semester started, I have had more students reference policies from the syllabus than I usually have in an entire semester. Students know how many points I deduct for late papers, and two students in one class wanted to discuss our school’s mission statement. They asked if I believed we are actually trying to live it out (we are a religious institution), something that has never happened in my eight years of teaching here.

Rather than wasting that all-important first day going over material students can read on their own, I recommend we begin by introducing students to ideas from the course. Almost all of us complain about running out of time by the end of the semester, but a better beginning can help us reclaim at least one day of it, if we use it wisely.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, November 2009.