August 21st, 2013

Five Things to Do on the First Day of Class


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.

  1. Showcase course content. The first day of class is the time for introductions, and the content should be among those things introduced. I recommend a bit of content show-and-tell that features a surprising fact, a question the content answers, some current issue that relates to the content, or something that illustrates, better yet, demonstrates why the content in this course matters. Establishing relevance and promoting intrigue can help motivate student learning right from the start.
  2. Get students talking. Expectations for an interactive course should be set from day one and telling students that you want them talking isn’t nearly as effective as getting them talking. They should be talking to you and talking with each other. Maybe it’s a getting-to-know you ice-breaker, or some initial exploration of a content issue of interest to students, or a student discussion of what’s on the syllabus. The goal is hearing multiple voices in the classroom or online on the first day.
  3. Be personable. Yes, you are the professor, but you are also a person. Students know that you’re the one in charge and that you’re the one who enforces the rules. I don’t agree with the idea that teachers have to come across as the big “heavy” who lightens up only if students understand and accept who has the authority. It’s much more effective to begin the course letting students know that this is a course you want to teach (fingers crossed that it is) with content you love, and that you are there to help them learn. Students want to be taught by a professor but one who acts like a person.
  4. Give students a reason to read the syllabus. In most courses teachers cover syllabus content so completely students don’t have to read it. Talking at length about the syllabus also sends the message that students can ask you rather than look up course information. How about this, distribute the syllabus and give students five minutes to review it. Then put them into groups and give the groups five minutes to answer 10 questions about the syllabus. The first group to answer all the questions correctly wins stickers that say “We’re #1,” high fives from the teacher, applause from the class, or whatever suits your style and conveys the message that the things students need to know about this course are in the syllabus and they should look there before asking you. The goal is teaching in ways that make students responsible learners.
  5. Be authentic. Yes, this relates to being personable but it’s not the same. Since the students probably don’t know you, maybe you can fool them on the first day, but they will find out and they will feel cheated. It’s about being true to your personal style right from the start. That doesn’t mean “doing what you’ve always done” on the first day. It’s good to change things up, make improvements, and step outside our comfort zones a bit. I have a good friend who is forever after me to try current fashion trends. “Try this wrap, it’ll look good on you.” I try it, it feels strange, but maybe it does look good. Then I wear it for cocktails on the neighbor’s dock and get compliments from all sides. And I’m making a fashion statement I never thought I could make. Teaching can be about discovering who you are and sharing those discoveries with students.

What are your first-day essentials? What goals do you aspire to accomplish? What are the messages about the course, the content, and learning that most need to be conveyed when you and students first meet? Please share in the comment box.

  • T. Whitehead

    The class sees me working to learn their names. I write all of their names down on a seating chart and refer to that chart- and chant it – on the first day. They can see that I want to know who they are and that their individual progress matters to me.

  • G. Wise

    On the first day of class I review the course policies, syllabus, and faculty expectations at the beginning of class. I tell my students "it is important to discuss the business of why we are here first, so we can lighten up a bit." Then we do some type of ice breaker. I always participate in the ice breaker because I want them to get to know me just as much as I want to get to them.

  • Linda

    I tried something different in my American Literature class. After an icebreaker, instead of giving out a syllabus, I asked students to complete a questionnaire in which I asked them to circle the five topics that interested them most: Native Americans, Religious freedom, Puritans, Civil War, and so on, with 15 topics plus a space to write in a topic. Then we discussed their responses. I had also asked what they liked best about a favorite class and what they disliked about a least favorite class. I also asked what sorts of assignments and class methods they preferred: individual projects, group projects, writing papers, oral reports, lecture?

    I told them at the beginning that I wanted to learn about them first and get their ideas before I made the syllabus or reading schedule. They responded very positively, talked a lot, shared past learning experiences. I asked if they felt anxious about not getting a syllabus and they said no, they liked this different beginning. I liked it too and felt great when I walked out of the first day’s class.

  • Elizabeth

    In a 2 1/2 hour class that meets once a week I hate to miss a learning opportunity, but it's unrealistic to assign reading for the first day. At the suggestion of a colleague, I handed out quotes related to the course content (from the readings as much as possible). I broke students into small groups, asked them to read their quotes aloud and ask questions about the meaning of the quote. We then discussed as a whole class some of the quotes and questions that were of most interest to them. I set the tone that the course was about inquiry and asking questions, that students had a role in that process, and that we were a learning community. I noted often that their questions would be answered during the semester, guiding them into buying into the course material. The exercise also gave me an assessment of their knowledge base and where I had to enter into a conversation with the course content.

  • Sarah

    Elizabeth- I love that idea!! I will use it when I do my next block class! I like to ask them the big questions they want/need answered in this class and we make a list that we check throughout the semester to see that we are answering them and I ask them to see if they see assignments in the syllabi related to those questions on their mind to help build that this class is relevant for them!

  • Melanie

    Awesome, thank you, this confirms that what I am doing is right on track.

  • Chris

    Great info – we include this information in our new faculty orientations and student orientations too. We tell faculty to give the students a reason to come to class, and to make sure they teach something the first day. I like G. Wise's comment they he/she participates in the icebreakers – so do we.

  • Douglas Stewart

    On the first day of class I talk with my students about their role, my role and our collaborative roles as I guide them through the term. I want them to know I am working hard and teaming with them for the best possible learning experience. It is also important to me to express my expectations so they understand they are not alone in their efforts. My philosophy is focused on the "authority" rather than "power" relationship. We are seekers together in search of new and interesting knowledge that both empowers and connects us to the "real world." This strategy has served to remove the edge from the teaching environment because we are working together for "learning" rather than meeting to achieve a grade and complete the class.

  • JDouglasStewart

    On the first day of class I talk with my students about their role, my role and our collaborative roles as I guide them through the term. I want them to know I am working hard and teaming with them for the best possible learning experience. It is also important to me to express my expectations so they understand they are not alone in their efforts. My philosophy is focused on the "authority" rather than "power" relationship. We are seekers together in search of new and interesting knowledge that both empowers and connects us to the "real world." This strategy has served to remove the edge from the teaching environment because we are working together for "learning" rather than meeting to achieve a grade and complete the class.

  • Lynn

    Can somebody post an example or two of an ice breaker they use the first day of class?

    • Cheryl

      The very simplest ice breaker is to have them each pick a partner and interview them, asking key questions: Why are you taking this course? What are your academic and/or career goals? (I teach at a CC- we focus) or others you think up. They they introduce each other – no one like to introduce themselves, but they can happily interview and introduce each other, finding common ground like majors, HS's, neighborhoods, etc.

      • Andree Faubert

        I really like the approach in an icebreaker of only having to speak to one person. Not everyone is comfortable meeting a large number of new people at once. This way, as a participant, you only have to focus on one other classmate and you get to introduce someone other than yourself. One thing that I add to the exercise is that I have the person introducing write their classmate's name on a name plate as well as drawing some things about the person. I assure them that stick persons are fine and I provide colouring crayons.

    • Hi Lynn,
      We've done a few articles on icebreakers here on Faculty Focus:

      Plus, there’s a great collection of icebreakers in Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth Barkley. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

      Good luck!

      Mary Bart
      Editor, Faculty Focus

      • Lynn

        Thank you Mary.

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  • Laurie

    Rather than explaining the syllabus to the students, I do a cooperative learning activity I call "syllabus scramble". Students are put in groups of 3 or 4, and each student gets a page or two of the syllabus and a list of 5 questions about the policies and procedures contained within the syllabus. The catch is that not all of the questions can be answered from the piece of the syllabus the student has — so they HAVE to talk to each other and share resources to find the correct answers. After everyone has answered the questions groups develop a list of questions for me to answer for clarification. Other than answering their questions I do very little talking about the syllabus. Each student receives a full intact copy of the syllabus at the conclusion of this activity.They learn that they can get information from the syllabus AND from each other, and the activity is engaging and perceived as a game rather than a boring lecture.

    • Bob

      Laurie, Good idea regarding syllabus. I have a class of over 100 students, two consecutive semesters (two different courses). I think I am going to handout syllabus, use student groups to review, talk to each other and ask about certain policies/procedures.

  • Robert S. Rawding

    You have the order of items very skewed. 1) Be personable means also being authentic FIRST. I make fun of myself on the first day. 2) Force them to read the syllabus as a CONTRACT and sign off on it – my last page has a two – part tear off slip, the bottom of which they must sign and return to the next class. That also covers your butt without question – none of them can say "I didn't know that was in the syllabus." 3) Showcase the course from your course management software – showing them how to navigate the course, how to submit through the digital dropbox, how to download materials, and what are the PRECISE kinds of documents that are acceptable – including the only acceptable file formats, and the penalty if the document is corrupted or unreadable (students my try to submit "electronic rust" and tell you they "thought" it was okay). 4) Specify exactly what constitutes academic dishonesty. 5) Be exquisitely clear about evaluation and assessments – point values, grade weights [if you use them], review materials, and so on. 6) DO NOT get them talking on the first day – that's a form of bullying when they are in an uncomfortable situation to begin with.

    • James M

      You Sir, I would love to have as an educator. I'm the type who has a bit of over nervous thing, which I can't really start giving out my name and life history on the first day of class, it bothers me so much on how it is forced upon us to Get up in front of dozens of strangers and just speak out, especially when you have an accent and is a bit self conscious about it, you could say.. kuddos on #6

  • Dr. Nancy

    To set the tone for the first day of class, I send the students a welcome email introducing myself, providing info about course materials, and attaching the syllabus with instructions to read it! I do address to a minimal degree some of the syllabus items on the first day (e.g., the graded components) but leave the details to their reading. I always have students do some team activities the first day and am experimenting this fall with having the teams already assigned so they meet their teammates on day 1. This is a sophomore accounting course. I believe setting expectations early and talking about success motivates students to do what they need to do through the semester. It is important for students to see that starting on day 1 your course and attending your classes will add value every single day.

  • Pamela

    Most ice breakers are for classes of 30-40-students. What do you use when it is a class of 75-100 students?

    • willwong1234

      Still, ask them to introduce themselves using one or two sentences (about 20 seconds each, a total of 30 minutes for a class of 100). This way, you know their names and other people can associate themselves with people from similar (or even different) background as well.

  • Victoria

    Asking students to recall one of their best classes– what the teacher did and what the students did–and one of their worst classes–what the teacher did and what the students did. (not name specific, of course) Put these comments and characteristics on the board. Let them know that we want this to be one of the best ones, and what needs to happen–from them and from you–to make that occur.

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  • willwong1234

    With the collaboration feature in Google Drive, we can now solicit comments from the students right from the first day of class. Open a Document page in Google Drive called Comment Page, share the page and give edit privilege to all students. Good or bad, comments will flow in to let us know what they understood or did not understand after every class. Complaints and disagreements will be minimized if they have a channel to vent their frustration or post compliments about every class they attended.

  • Angela Harrinanan

    My class consists of 56 students. I ask them to make name tents and bring it to each class because it is difficult for me to remember their names. Then I cover the key points in the sylabus,student handbook and class schedule. Later on in the class I get them to form groups to work on a project. It helps them to interact and introduce each other. I find these group exercises with my facilitation augment their collaboration and learning.

  • Mike

    Whether or not there is a need for any ice-breaking procedures and harping on the syllabus will depend greatly on the stage the students are at. If the students are not in first year, chances are that they will know both each other and the routine. In my third and fourth year classes, I spend 5 minutes on organizational stuff, followed by a brief Q&A, and then get down to business. I do not waste time on discussing file formats and such in class; this kind of tripe doesn't deserve to take up valuable class time.

    • Robert S. Rawding

      "I do not waste time on discussing file formats and such in class; this kind of tripe doesn't deserve to take up valuable class time."

      Obviously, you are a poor teacher who doesn't realize that 5 minutes of organizational stuff and brief Q&A IS tripe. A question answered by clarification at the beginning saves 10 or more problems later. File formats ARE important – if you can't read it, then there is a REAL problem, because more time and energy are wasted later. Electronic submissions save paper and can be returned more quickly – including added videos and audio clips from YOU personally back to your student. There are one-on-one office sessions that I also schedule in the first two weeks that have students eating out of my hand, because they learn then that I really care about their successes.

      You sound like a teacher that I would certainly avoid taking for your gruff demeanor and thoughtlessness.

      • Mike

        I did not say that file formats and other organizational stuff isn't important – I just said these things don't need to take up class time, and particularly not with a crop of students who have heard it all before. I simply put that kind of information on my course website and refer the students there. When I give out assignments, I include reminders in the text of the assignment. That always works for me.

        Your last sentence says more about your personal style than mine. Consider toning it down a bit if you like to be treated as an adult.

  • Sandra

    I tried out a variation of your idea about the syllabus in my first year courses during the first class of the academic quarter this week. It worked beautifully.

    After giving each student a syllabus, I paired students up and gave each pair one question about an important piece of information in the syllabus that they had to find. After a few minutes, each pair presented their findings. After introducing themselves, one student in the pair read the question and the other student shared the answer, directing classmates to the page in the syllabus where the answer was located.

    In this way, the policies, evaluation criteria, goals, etc. were stated first in their own voices. I have the impression that a greater percentage of the students have a better understanding of the course expectations than if we'd read through the syllabus. Each new pair of students prevented fatigue from setting in. Since this approach was more efficient than reading through the syllabus, I had more time and energy for course content on the first day. That this doubled as an ice breaker was a bonus!

  • Rozel

    Your first day is a bit like a brand building or brand establishment exercise. Students get a sense of who you are, what you want from them and how you interact. Within a few seconds they make between 7 and 11 assumptions about you: are you knowledgeable, friendly, successful, well-prepared, organized, approachable, etc. YOU decide what they think and how they see YOU as brand, by what you DO and what you DON't do. YOU decide how they see you and therefore how they will respond to you. So, it is good to consciously spend time thinking about the impact you want to have, and how you will achieve that result.

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  • Dr Mugalu

    First impression always lasts longer. It is important to start off a new course with focus so stimulate student learning curiosity and interest in the course. First messages are very important, including encouraging and giving reason to students to read the syllabus as they get acquainted.
    -Dr. Geoffrey Mugalu

  • James Keller

    I aspire to accomplish a genuine connection with my students from the beginning. I like to first break students into groups of 2 (or 3), depending on the number of students in the class, and have them to get acquainted with that student by asking key questions about them: Their name, hobbies/interests, expectations from our class (besides an A!), their 5 year plan, profession (f/t or p/t student also recognized under this category, if unemployed). From there, I have the pair/group stand and introduce to the class the person they got to know. Once completed, I do the same, introducing them to me, and the course objectives, plans, and expectations. I like to begin my introduction with the theme music from 70's game shows like the 100,000 Pyramid.

  • C Lemmings

    I teach air-conditioning repair and I have students of all different life experiences and skill sets. I try to ascertain their abilities and go over the syllabus. We have a safety quiz and I explain that in a world of endless warnings and caution labels that it is easy to get complacent about safety. This cannot happen; we are entering a potentially hazardous place with high voltages, temperatures and pressures. I explain that personal protective gear is not optional. The challenge for me is to convey the gravity of the shop environment without scaring them into not being able to interact with the equipment.

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  • Santa Batts

    I am excited about this semester, this is one of my favorite subjects in the field of Mental Health, I have found this article to be helpful in addressing the students.

  • C roberson

    Usually, I have the students read the first paragraph of the syllabus and then I facilitate the students discussing the most important points in the syllabus. It is a good icebreaker for my classes in the Allied Health field.