Reimagining Syllabus Day 

Made with Firefly: Hand holding magnifying glass with paint splatter and light bulb

One of the most important days of the semester is the first day of class. Reimagining the traditional “syllabus day” to an engaged “preview day” provides an opportunity to set a desired tone for the semester. To prepare for this important day, the usual course preparation and design is required, including an easy-to-digest syllabus, a comprehensive semester plan with a detailed overview of assessments, and inclusive policies and procedures. At the same time, I find it important to pre-engage with students by studying their pictures and names (including practicing pronunciation) and sending a welcome email several days before the first class as a brief introduction along with logistical elements of the first day. 

During the first day of class, I like to arrive 15 minutes early so I can play some learning, mood music in the background (when in doubt, lo-fi is a great option). In these 15 minutes, I introduce myself to students when they enter the room and chat about student interests and experiences. When class starts, I ask students to introduce themselves to the folks sitting near them as they will be collaborating during the class session. The collaboration consists of exploring future course content through think/pair/share exercises (sometimes writing a response on a small white board and holding it up) or responding to mini-research prompts. This is done to provide exposure of what we will be learning in the semester and to bridge connections from previously learned content. At the same time, I intentionally sprinkle discussions where I can highlight the transferrable skills that we will learn and reinforce in the course; this includes a vast offering of career opportunities that go along with the transferrable skills or content. In the final 20 minutes of class, I tend to shift focus to the syllabus. Here, we discuss all things course-related while reflecting on the activity we just completed and examine how our discussion introduces, reinforces, or masters content.  

After the first class ends, I like to ask my students to complete one additional task to round out “preview day,” which is to answer several questions in the learning management system. These questions reside in a discussion board so all students can see responses. I ask three groupings of questions, including basic questions (name, pronouns, pronunciation, hometown, major, and career goals), course-related questions (why they enrolled in the course, their thoughts of the course after the first day, and classes they have found both favorable and those they have not found as favorable), and advanced questions (midlife crisis idea, favorite food, how an ideal weekend would be spent, and a silly question). Samples of silly questions include: “What is your petty presidential promise?” or “If you are walking out on a stage, what background music is playing?” 

Since I reimagined “syllabus day” to “preview day,” I have seen some positive outcomes. First, students quickly become accustomed to my knack for active learning techniques. In fact, several of my colleagues who have been invited to my class as a teaching effectiveness peer-evaluator have commented on how quickly students get to work when they have a task and that they sense a strong understanding of the course expectations. Next, students reported feeling more engaged in and out of class, which I suspect is due to integrating their interests (via the LMS questionnaire) in lecture and assignments along with discussing the transferrable skills and other notions inside the “hidden curriculum.” Finally, I have noticed stronger class cohesion with students actively volunteering, responding to questions, and actively engaging in group work. It is clear to me that setting expectations during the first day and week as a reimagined “preview day” models the curiosity and openness that I expect from my students as an instructor.   

Anthony Lacina, DHSc, is an assistant professor of health sciences at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He is also the program director of the BS Health Sciences and Doctor of Health Sciences Programs.