First Shot Impressions for the Active Learning Professor: Higher Ed Activity Stations

Teacher waving with headphones and computer

First impressions matter. Students often arrive to the first day of a college course full of anticipation with some anxiety and many questions, some of these questions spoken but most frequently unspoken. Thus, faculty navigate a desire to know their students and for students to value their course. This is often communicated in quietly received monologues through syllabus review, grading, and deadline policies. According to Merritt (2008), students form a lasting impression of teachers within five minutes, even without the benefit of a syllabus preview.  It is therefore essential to find compelling ways to load the first day impact with intentional messages.

Angelina Murphy wrote an article entitled, “Using Learning Stations to Kick Off the Year.” While written for K–12 educators, many of her station ideas can expand to suit higher education. By incorporating technology, activity stations can become a dynamic first day experience applicable for face-to-face or online. The use of stations can facilitate multiple goals for the first day of a course.

Activity stations

For higher education faculty who subscribe to active learning, students immediately encounter immersion into an active learning format. Further, with careful design, activity stations present engaging opportunities for clarifying course expectations, organizing technological tools, building community, and exploring the relevance of course content to future professions.

To prepare for activity stations provide students with the syllabus and a brief pre-reading on the core conceptual tenets of the course prior to the first class. Take that early opportunity to share an introductory video of yourself. Include that the success of their first day is contingent on their preparation.

Here are some activity station ideas you can implement face-to-face or online. The purpose for each activity is provided for the reader. Station tasks are written in assignment format, as for students.

Introductory station: Get to know your students

Station activity purpose:

  • Learn student names quickly with a visual format
  • Learn correct pronunciation of student names
  • Learn what students believe they need in order to learn
  • Acclimate students to a course technology

Whether face-to-face or online, this activity station’s media approach allows educators challenged with quickly learning student names to expeditiously match names with faces. Further, it allows educators to honor students by learning how to accurately pronounce their names and to demonstrate genuine curiosity about a significant part of their identity.

As educators, we know the importance of meeting the academic and developmental needs of each student. Whether formally or informally, college students have been learners all of their lives. Why not ask them to indicate ways we can best support their learning?  Here, we can accomplish in minutes what might otherwise take weeks to ascertain.

Station tasks:

  1. Download and set up (insert selected video app) on an internet connected device
  2. Introduce yourself
    • Say your name. If you know, share what your name means or where it comes from
    • Whether in the classroom or out, you have been a learner all of your life. Therefore, you may know the conditions under which you learn best. Tell me:
      • What you need to succeed academically?
      • How can I support you with that need?
  3. Your expectations
    • Your expectations for this course matter. Considering the course description and the syllabus:
      • What do you expect to learn in this course?
      • What content are you most interested to learn about and why?

Effective execution tip: Select a video platform you will use throughout the course, such as Flipgrid. In addition to affording student-generated content, this platform also accommodates video or written feedback to students. If possible, respond to each student’s entry to lay the foundation for one-on-one relationship building.

Syllabus Station: Course expectations, community building*

Station activity purpose:

  • Facilitates learner discussion
  • Provides an opportunity for queries and responses about course content and design
  • Accommodates first interaction on selected LMS Discussion Board

The syllabus, most often used as a reference tool, sets the context for the way students perceive the course and the instructor (Lightner & Benander, 2018).

To facilitate the group task at this activity station, you may use the guiding questions from the individual task or generate organically derived talking points. Next, provide your individually refined responses via the school’s LMS.

Station tasks:

  1. Group task
    • Introduce yourselves
    • Have a general conversation about things that stood out to you in the syllabus. You may use the guiding questions from the individual task to structure your chat.
  2. Individual task – Guiding questions
    • In the discussion board share something about the syllabus that made you:
      • Curious
      • Nervous
      • Excited

Effective execution tip: Alternatively, students can download and set up a selected team messaging app and DM their responses to you. If you have a concern about students having your telephone number, use a team messaging service like Slack. The free version is quite adequate.

Technology station: Preparing learning tools

Station activity purpose:

  • Organize course technology tools

Station tasks:

Have students set up all technologies needed for the course. Where possible, include videos or external links to “How To” videos from the student perspective. When providing task directives, organize the tools into categories:

  • Collaboration
    • Google Drive
  • Online Whiteboard
    • Miro (an infinity whiteboard)

Effective execution tip: Identify the integration capacity of your selected platforms. This one stop ease of access eradicates the necessity to disjointedly navigate between platforms during future classes. For example, Google Drive and Miro both integrate with Slack.

Course guidelines station: Community building*

Station activity purpose:

There is much research that touts the significance of community building, whether face-to-face or online. This activity station affords students the opportunity to collaboratively craft the values of their learning environment.

Station task:

  1. In your group discuss what can be done to create a learning community that is:
    • Safe (you and your ideas matter)
    • Empowering (where you can achieve your goals)
    • Academic risk taking (where you are willing to try new things, ask questions, and share new ideas)

Another way of thinking about this is, What behaviors will occur when our learning community is safe, empowering, and willing to take academic risks?

  • Next, send ONE suggestion per concept to (indicate place).

Effective execution tip: Once you collect the student input, theme it and create an infographic using a graphic design platform like Canva. Share the final product prior to or during your second class meeting.

Professional dialogue station: Chat with professionals

Station activity purpose:

Learning context matters. This station offers the exciting prospect for students to interact with current and dynamic professionals of the discipline. Students can learn how the course content connects to careers, assists problem solving, and supports advancement of the field for the good of society.

Station task:

You have the opportunity to chat with two dynamic professionals. They will share and discuss:

  • What fascinates them about our discipline (they may want to know what it is that draws you to it)
  • Why this course matters – In other words, how the content in this course relates to what they do (they may have questions for you about why you think this course matters)
  • They will ask in what ways you think the content in this course might impact the profession’s current issues and ultimately society

Effective execution tip: Share the course objectives and an overview of course content with the invited professionals in advance so that their contribution is contextual.

Whether you use three or more of these activity stations, students are bound to leave your first class with a clear impression of your teaching style, sufficient information to commit to learning, and heightened curiosity about the course and their selected profession.

*These activity stations are adaptations of Murphy’s suggested stations.

Ru-Zelda Severin is a music and education senior lecture at Bermuda College. She is also deputy chair of the Bermuda Board of Education and Chair of the National Educators’ Institute Initiative at Bermuda College. Ru-Zelda enjoys using research-based approaches and highly creative and personalized assessments to guide her students to success.


Lightner, Robin and Benander, Ruth. 2018. “First Impressions: Student and Faculty Feedback on Four.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 30(3):443-453.

Merritt, Deborah. 2008. “Bias, the Brain, and Student Evaluations of Teaching.” St. John’s Law Review. 82:235-87.

Murphy, Angelina.  “Using Learning Stations to Kick Off the Year.” Edutopia, August 13, 2019.