first day of class
Editor’s Note: In last week’s Teaching Professor Blog, Maryellen Weimer mentioned an article that originally appeared in the Nov. 2010 issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. Due to numerous requests from readers, we’re sharing that article here.
I was the invited outside speaker at a professional development event for schoolteachers. The day’s lunch was preceded by a public prayer that inspired me to consider parallels in “callings to serve” that can be found in both education and religion. Sometime later, I happened to read a poem in a Jewish prayer book that expressed noble intentions for a worship space. The poem didn’t reference a particular faith—it was really just a set of intentions. Immediately, I thought of what professors hope for in their classroom spaces.
As 2013 draws to a close, the editorial team at Faculty Focus looks back on some of the most popular articles of the past year. During the course of the year, we published more than 250 articles on a full range of topics of interest to today’s college educators.
I don’t know if the first day of class is the most important day of the course, but I don’t think many of us would disregard its significance. What we do and how we do it matters. There are lots of good first-day activities—we’ve shared some in this blog over the years. In this post I’d like to move our thinking in a different direction and suggest five first-day essentials that go beyond the activities. These are the goals for the first day that we can use the activities to accomplish.
The first day of class is critical. What happens on the first day, even in the first moments, sets the tone for the entire course. The impression you make will last the entire semester, and today’s students are not shy about sharing their opinions. Most students will make up their minds about the course and the instructor during that first class period.
There’s no discounting the importance of the first day of class. What happens that day sets the tone for the rest of the course. Outlined below are a few novel activities for using that first day of class to emphasize the importance of learning and the responsibility students share for shaping the classroom environment.
There is a lot to cover on the first day of class. You establish procedures and convey expectations. You review the syllabus and, if you’re teaching a lab, safety protocol. You also spend some time teaching some material. While you might not make an assignment on the first day, you still should use some time on the first day to talk about your expectations for students’ work and how you assign grades.
Fall semester is well underway at my institution. Prior to classes starting I had the opportunity to have lunch with a couple of fellow faculty members. During our lunch, we discussed many topics related to the upcoming term, but classroom management emerged as a common point of contention.
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.
I bring a box to the first day of class — especially if it’s a course with beginning students. At precisely the time class starts, I walk into the room with my box filled with random, quirky objects. I like to include a small Alf doll, a pad of Post-its, some scissors, perhaps a can of Slim-Fast, a candle, a rock, a comb, and maybe six or seven other objects indiscriminately gathered as I leave for class. As soon as I enter the room, I put the box on the table; take each article out; place it on the table; and finally, when all of them are out, return them to the box. Then I ask the students to take out a piece of paper and write down as many of the items as they can remember.
A common phrase uttered during the first day of class is: “You will be graded on class participation.” As instructors we know what we expect. But what exactly do our students think we mean by that statement? The longer I’ve taught the more I’ve come to realize that students may not really know.