First Day of Class
The first day of class is crucial, as it can set the tone for the rest of the course. Your demeanor, the information you provide, and the environment you cultivate all contribute to your students’ and your experience of the course. It is a wonderful opportunity to set a positive and productive tone. Below are a number of tips for a successful start to your course.
Preparing for the First Day
A successful first day depends on what you have done to prepare for that day and for the rest of the course. Well in advance of that class, you will have
- developed your course learning outcomes
- determined how you will evaluate your students’ learning
- selected and ordered your textbook and/or other readings, set your office hours
- developed your course syllabus
- started to prepare your lesson plans
- visited your classroom to familiarize yourself with the space and technology
and a host of other activities that set the stage for the term. Being well prepared will help inspire your students’ confidence in you as their teacher and may help alleviate some anxiety that you may be feeling.
Creating a Welcoming Environment
On the day itself, you may want to arrive early and have important facts, such as your name and the course number, name, and section number, projected onto the screen. This confirms for your students that they are in the right place. You also may want to greet your students as they come into the classroom. If you can start to connect with your students and perhaps begin to learn their names right from the start, this can have a powerful impact. Students may also have questions for you and this gives them an opportunity to address any concerns they have before the class even starts. Students tend to be more motivated in a course if their instructor is interested in them and takes the time to get to know them.
Start on time to set that expectation, and take time to introduce yourself. Tell students how they should address you (e.g., Dr. Kapoor or just Kareena). If you are an experienced instructor, you may want to talk about any teaching background you have that is relevant to the course. Similarly, you may want to discuss your research, if it is related to what your students will be learning. This is a great opportunity for you to convey your passion for the discipline and enthusiasm for teaching the course. On the flip side, if this is the first course you have ever taught, you may not want to share that detail since it may not instill confidence for your students. Similarly, if you dislike teaching parts of the course (or all of it), sharing that information will likely create a negative atmosphere in the course.
The first day of class is also an opportunity to help students establish a connection with each other. Icebreakers are common ways of building that connection and provide an opportunity for you to get to know more about your students. For example, you could provide a series of true and false statements related to course content, including common misconceptions, and ask your students to discuss their veracity with a partner. You can then discuss the answers as a class. This will not only help connect students with each other but also with the course content, give you an idea of their understanding of the content, and hopefully dispel a few common disciplinary misconceptions. You could also ask your students to introduce themselves to a peer and discuss why they are taking the course, and what course or disciplinary topics are of most interest to them, and why. You could then ask for volunteers to share their interests. When you call on students, be sure to ask them to indicate their names (it will help you and the rest of the class learn names).
Some students may not like talking to strangers or potentially answering content questions incorrectly. Explaining the benefits of active learning before doing an icebreaker can help you get buy-in for the icebreaker, as well as any future active learning activities you will do. Also, you can tell them that if they ever have to miss a class, they will know at least one person in the course who may be willing to share their notes. To protect students from the potential embarrassment of answering questions incorrectly, you could explain that one purpose of the course is to learn these concepts and that they are not expected to know all of the answers now.
Addressing Course Details
Naturally your students will expect you to discuss the structure and content of the course. This is an opportunity to introduce important details such as
- how to best contact you
- time and location of your office hours
- the readings; the timing and format of the assignments and examinations
- your grading policies
- the timing of other course components (e.g., labs, tutorials)
- the policies on academic integrity
- the teaching and learning methods that you will employ (e.g., lecturing, group work, problem solving)
and other relevant details. As mentioned above, to get buy-in, you may also consider explaining why you are using certain teaching methods. If the methods you use are not common in your discipline, providing a rationale for your teaching methods may also help address any student resistance to these methods.
In addition to the basics, it can also be very helpful for your students if you to provide an estimate of roughly how much time they will need to dedicate to your course, including specific aspects of the course such as the assignments. That said, it is important to recognize that your course is likely only one of five courses your students are taking – setting a realistic workload for your students is important. Also, you could tell students how they can best be a success in your course by outlining what preparation, in-class behaviours (e.g., participation, note taking, focussed attention), and study strategies will help them succeed. Some instructors invite former students from the class to discuss what they did to succeed in the course. Of course, you would want to have an idea of what they are going to say before having them talk to your class.
It is also important that you discuss course-related expectations on the first day (or shortly thereafter). Often these expectations are around things like attendance, punctuality, turn taking in discussions, device use, and respect. You may want to discuss expectations you can reasonably have of them, but also what they can reasonably expect from you. Expectations students have of you may be around issues such as being prepared and organized, punctuality, and timeframes around responding to e-mails and returning assignments or examinations. This helps them have realistic expectation of you, but also highlights that expectations are a two-way street.
You are more likely to get buy-in from your students if you co-create course-related expectations with them. For example, you can ask them to generate three expectations you can reasonably have of them and three that they can reasonably have of you. Then, ask them to get into groups of three or four and find consensus on three expectations for themselves and three for you. Subsequently, the groups share their responses with the rest of the class. If there are unrealistic expectations (e.g., everyone gets an “A” in the course, or, you will respond to e-mail within an hour), you can address why they are not realistic. Once you have two sets of realistic expectations, you ask for agreement on the lists. The agreement is important as you can invoke this agreement later if expectations are not being met (and, of course, they can do the same if you are not meeting expectations). Having expectations that are clear to everyone can address issues that might otherwise arise later.
As mentioned above, the first day is also an opportunity to address students’ questions about the course. If students are not willing to ask their questions in class (or before class), you could ask them to write down their questions in an anonymous online forum and then address their questions at the beginning of the next class. You could also let them know you will stay late to answer questions (if that is possible). This not only serves to answer their questions but also conveys the message that you are invested in their learning.
The first day of class is an excellent opportunity to ease your students into the course, and for them to get a sample of who you are as a teacher. Taking some time, not necessarily a long time, on the first day to start teaching content can engage your students in the course topics. It also conveys the message that class time is important. You might provide some big picture context for the course such as discussing why the topics addressed in the course are important, how they are relevant to your students, how they might relate to students’ future careers, or how they connect to current events.
It is also important to display enthusiasm when you begin teaching. Depending on the content of your course, students may already have a strong foundation of knowledge and be eager to learn more about the topic, or they may be novices. Your enthusiasm can make the topic more engaging and interesting for all regardless of their background. And, of course, enthusiasm can be infectious (and wouldn’t you rather teach enthusiastic students?).
Teachers, particularly newer teachers, may put on a persona when they teach. The persona may be a reflection of a former teacher they admired or a fictional teacher from television or movies (e.g., Robin Williams in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society). This can be problematic as students can often tell right away if the persona is inauthentic, or it can become clear over time as it is difficult to maintain a persona class after class. This inauthenticity can impact your students’ trust in you. If you are new to teaching, developing your own teaching style may take time and experience. Being authentic, invested in the success of your students, and passionate about your discipline is an excellent place to start the discovery process and a superb way to start the first day of class.
Have a great class!
Anderson, D. M., Mcguire, F. A., & Cory, L. (2011). The first day: it happens only once. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(3), 293-303. doi:10.1080/13562517.2010.546526
Bennett, K. L. (2004). How to start teaching a tough course: Dry organization versus excitement on the first day of class. College Teaching, 52(3), 106.
Eison, J. (1990). Confidence in the classroom: Ten maxims for new teachers. College Teaching, 38(1), 21-25. doi:10.1080/87567555.1990.10532181
Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (Chapter 3)
McKeachie, W.J. & M. Svinicki (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed.). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company. (Chapter 3)
McLaughlin, M. S., & Peyser, S. (2004). The new encyclopedia of icebreakers. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
Perlman, B., & McCann, L. (1999). Student perspectives on the first day of class. Teaching of Psychology, 26(4), 277–279. doi:10.1207/S15328023TOP260408
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