Start (and end) the term with student questions

On the first day of class, I ask students to submit three questions they have about the class topic. Reviewing questions helps me gauge the background knowledge and interests of students. I type up the questions to save for later. Then, on the last day of class, I distribute questions to small groups and ask students to answer them. Typically, students can answer most of the questions, demonstrating how much they learned over the course of a term. If the question is one that we did not directly address though the class, I ask them to review their notes, readings, etc. to look for relevant information that could build towards an answer with more research. In this way, the exercise also serves as a review for the final exam.

(This tip was anonymously submitted.)

Make the back row off limits

Nicole Matos, College of DuPage

Before students arrive on the first day of class, use yellow “Caution” tape (available at any big-box office supply store) to block off the back row seats. After students arrive and sit elsewhere (it will be fun to note their reactions: many “get it” right away), use this device to discuss issues of student engagement and attention. Ask how many students would have elected those back row seats if they had been available, and discuss why. Reiterate your desire to have all students active and engaged—no hiding!—regardless of where they sit.

My experience using this strategy is that it usually generates two useful outcomes. First, it tends to elicit students’ worries and fears about the class. Quiet students sometimes admit to a fear of being called on in a predatory caught-you manner while others might explain that they fear the subject matter. Having these worries expressed openly from the outset allows me to soothe the nervous and explain my true reasons for seeking full participation.

Second, students who might otherwise have been troublesome are often the first to admit boldly, with a smile, that they would have chosen the back corner to be lazy and go unnoticed. Getting these students to immediately engage with me as an instructor, learning their names, and setting the precedent that they do indeed talk in class, is often the first step to winning them onto my side and, in the end, better assuring their success.

Get students to read the syllabus with Jeopardy

Lake Mathison, Rutgers University

The most well-crafted, engaging, comprehensive syllabus on the planet isn't of much use if the students never read it. Putting a contract at the end might help, but it's too easy to just sign without actually reading (like we all click "Accept" on the "Terms and Conditions" page of a download). Rather than a monotone recitation of something they all could (but won't) read on their own time, turn key syllabus points into a game of Jeopardy ("answer in the form of a question" optional). Divide the class into teams and give them a time limit to confer (or look up the answer). This helps break the ice and satisfies the modern student's craving for competition and gaming. More importantly, having the students comb through the syllabus in search of information makes them more likely to remember where to find it in the future. This idea could also be expanded to include important resources contained in the course website, if there is one.

There are free programs and templates online for designing Jeopardy games, or go old-school and write the grid on the chalkboard.

Make change visible with word clouds

 Steve Hunsaker, Brigham Young University - Idaho

In courses intended to produce a change of perspective, I have found it very helpful to use an activity that makes change visible. 

On the first day of the semester, even before taking time for names, I ask the class to write the first three words that come to mind when they think of the topic (the Spanish-speaking world, Pakistan) on a slip of paper. I collect the papers and after class, I go to or and create a word cloud from their lists. I post it in the LMS and use it to start a discussion on perceptions for the next day's class. 

At the end of the semester, we repeat the activity and compare the two images. It has always been a great way to make apparent the change from naive and trite terms to lists that show sophistication and awareness of complexity. I think that the students enjoy seeing the obvious growth even more than I do.

A questionnaire and a quiz to start the term

An anonymous tip: 

On the first day of small undergrad seminar-type classes, I hand out a questionnaire with the usual stuff (name, major/minor, why are you taking this class?), plus a query about language background (since I teach literature in a minority/lesser-taught language), and a chance for the student to self-disclose about learning styles, preparation or lack thereof, disposition or disability ("What do I need to know about you to teach you better?"), as well as a question about favorite texts related to the course topic and a final, open-ended "Where are you from and where do you hope to end up?". Then, in the next class I hand out a "quiz" using that information and the answers to all the questions are one or more names of others in the class ("Who's from Florida? Who knows what "ausgezeichnet" means? Who loves sonnets?), and they have to try and find the people whose names fit (and there are multiple questions for each person). This helps them learn everyone else's name and feel more comfortable in class as they find some commonalities with their classmates. I also throw in some random questions that apply to me and perhaps also to them, just for fun.

Variations on a theme: more uses for tent cards

Two teachers have written in with additional variations to the tent card tip submitted by Anne-Marie McAllister, who uses name cards to help her take attendance, and as part of an introductory exercise. Monique Finley, of Niagara College, in Ontario, writes that she has used the name card/attendance idea for some years now with one enhancement: on the inside of the tent card where they write the date they also have spaces to give feedback about the class:

  • Stop: where they write what is happening in class that they find distracting
  • Start: where they can give suggestions for class improvement
  • Continue: where they can voice their opinion on what is working well for them

So in addition to helping the instructor with their names and taking attendance, the tent cards give the students a chance to communicate with the instructor on classroom and curriculum issues.

Similarly, Jan Oosterhof-Contant, of the University of the Fraser Valley, writes:

"I, too, provide students with a tent name card, but I invite students to put the name they prefer to use in class on the card. (We have many International students who do not go by their formal name.) I originally did this to learn the students' names (this also helped me when first returning assignments to students), but I soon noticed that students in the class also addressed other students by name and soon everyone knew each other's name. Students in my classes also pick up their name tag at the beginning of class and return it at class end. In addition to using this method to mark attendance when students are working, I use the name cards to put any handouts that have been given to students that class or marked assignments that have been returned during the class in the name card of absent students, which I then put into a separate protective sleeve in a special binder. When students come to class and see that their name tag isn't available, they know to check the binder where they will find any returned assignments or handouts for that class tucked inside their name tag. This makes it easy for students and for me because the student doesn't miss out on handouts, and I don't have to remember to take extra copies of handouts to each class. Furthermore, students can come to my office to get any missed work even when I am not available, which means they do not have to wait until the next class to get their work. If I agree to do something for a student, I attach a post-it note to the name tag to remind myself , and I return the name tag when I have followed through; if I have 'information' for the student, I put it with their name tag in the binder.

"With so many students, I also find it easy to simply mark a student away without necessarily noting how many classes have been missed; however, the binder serves as a visual reminder to follow-up with students who are chronically absent. When I have been unable to reach a student by phone or email, I can also slip a note into the plastic sleeve asking that student to meet with me. Again, this can prevent an awkward moment for a student because I do not have to try to speak to the student with others listening. These 'notes' are always out of view for other students."

Have students interview each other before introductions

Lois Lake Church, University of Connecticut, Quinnipiac University, Southern CT State U, and Charter Oak State College

 On the first day of the semester, before we do a syllabus read-through, I pair students and ask them to interview each other to find the other's name, one point of contact (nothing so simple as "he's male and I'm female"--I ask them to dig for a commonality), and one distinction between them. After each student introduces her/his partner, s/he has to say the names of all students who were already introduced. I finish the introductions by reciting all the names (this impresses them). The name-reciting talk breaks the ice effectively--students are laughing at their struggles by the end of the introductions. If some say "I cheated--I wrote down the names," I tell them it's not cheating: they have good study skills. 

I make a point of using their names at every opportunity, and of learning about them from the introductory letter they write me as their first homework assignment, so they understand that I see them as individuals who have something to teach me and their classmates.

Shuffle name cards for a better discussion

 Kim Shankman, Benedictine College 

I have students write their name (the way they want to be addressed, formal or nickname) on an index card the first day of class. I use these to take attendance, but more importantly, I shuffle the cards and use them as my method for choosing students to answer questions. That way they all know that the process is random, I don't have to deal with the deer in the headlights ("please please don't call on me") looks scanning the class choosing someone to call on, and I also am not tempted to rely on the same group of "old reliables" (generally prepared students) to answer questions.

Help your students stay awake in class

Sean Heuston, writing in a recent issue of College Teaching, gives his students some simple ways to stay awake during class—surely a pressing concern for many students, and teachers. Heuston drove trucks when he was a college student, and learned a number of “trucker tips” that he now passes along to his students. These include lifting a leg three inches off the floor, or an arm three inches off the table, or merely standing up. His main point is that “muscle tension and muscle activity will keep them awake, which is why no matter how tired they are they will not fall asleep while walking to class.”

Heuston explains this concept on the first day of class, and lets students know that he understands that they are often running on very little sleep. He invites them, at any time during class throughout the term, to stand up if they feel like they are getting drowsy. He tells them he’d much prefer a class full of standing students to one full of sleeping, or even just sleepy, students.

The idea is a good one, not least because it takes the stigma away from tired students. And by acknowledging that students may have legitimate reasons to be tired, teachers can establish a rapport between themselves and their students, laying the foundation for a pedagogical relationship that is worth staying awake for.

Source: Sean Heuston. "Trucker Tips: Helping Students Stay Awake in Class." College Teaching 61.3: 2013. 108.

Use "tent cards" to take attendance

Anne-Marie McAllister, of Georgian College in Ontario, writes in with a simple tip for reducing the time it takes to take attendance for a large class. At the beginning of term, she makes tent cards—pieces of card stock paper folded in half so they sit up like tents—and writes each student’s name on the outside of a card. These sit in a box on the her desk; when each student comes into class, he or she takes his or her name card and puts it on his or her desk. Filling out the day’s attendance is as easy as noting which cards are left in the teacher’s box. The strategy has the added benefit of helping the teacher remember the students’ names in the first weeks of class, as each student has his or her name displayed at his or her desk.

McAllister also uses the cards as part of a beginning-of-term introductory exercise. She has her students write important information about themselves on the inside of their cards, and then walks through class and shares some of what she finds with the class as a whole. At the end of the first class, after collecting the cards, she looks through them all to learn more about her students.  -DG

First day of class: Meet Your Teacher

Most teachers, I’m sure, make sure to leave time during the first class to take student questions, primarily about the syllabus and the shape of the course ahead. But it’s worth underlining the importance of student involvement right from the start, letting them know that your desire to hear their questions and concerns is not just a superficial courtesy (“Any questions? OK then…).

Here’s a way to encourage students to take ownership of the course. After a brief introduction, distribute the syllabus, and perhaps highlight a few important points. Then divide the students into groups of four and ask them to take time to review the syllabus thoroughly. Have each group come up with questions for you: about the syllabus, about the subject matter, about your qualifications to teach the course, about your expectations from them. Emphasize that a wide variety of questions relevant to the course are acceptable, not just strict matters of course policy. You can have each group choose a representative to ask their questions, if you don’t want the discussion to become a free-for-all.

The exercise, by insisting upon student questions, will encourage those students perhaps too shy or just not usually disposed to asking questions in class to speak up. It will expose any ambiguities in your course materials pretty quickly. It will, with luck, establish your classroom as a place where students are invited to speak regularly. Ideally, as well, it will signal that you care about their expectations and opinions about the course and are planning to work with them throughout the semester to create a successful course.  -DG

Source: "13. Play 'Meet Your Teacher.'" Robert Magnan, ed. 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Atwood, 1990. 5-6.

Give your students a pause button

Here’s a great, simple tip that offers a non-invasive way for your students to exercise a bit more control over the way a class proceeds. Early in the semester, tell your students that you never want to leave anyone behind, that it is important to you that students are able to keep up with your teaching. Work with the students to come up with a signal—maybe a hand raised, maybe tapping on a desk—that they can use when they want you to stop for a minute. A student might signal if she needs to catch up with her note-taking, or because she has questions about something you’ve said.

Essentially, this is an easy way to offer some control to the students. When we read, we often pause to make sense of the material. Sometimes we read a passage a second or third time. Why not offer your students something of the same control over course content? These time-outs encourage students to more actively process the material, and goes some way to ensure that they’re not just sitting there, passively receiving your words.  -DG

Source: "29. Give Your Students a Pause Button." Robert Magnan, ed. 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Atwood, 1990. 12.

Gauge student expectations with first day questions

Sarah Neville, West Virginia University 

On the first day of class, ask students to submit (in writing) answers to the following questions:

1) What grade do you anticipate receiving in this course?

2) What will you do if you discover that you are receiving a lower grade than the one you anticipated?

3) Why do you feel these strategies will work? 

Students' responses to question 2 typically vary from the reasonable ("go to the professor's office hours and ask for feedback", "visit the writing center", "complete extra-credit assignments, if there are any") to the deliberately silly ("beg, or possibly cry"). Other students use this as an opportunity to recognize that they may need to cut back on hours at their job if their schoolwork suffers, or that a failure to meet personal expectations might be signalling that they should get more sleep. 

The point of the exercise is to force students to consider their goals for the course at the outset, along with their new plan-of-attack should things not work out as they intended. I hang onto these writing assignments and bring them out when students visit my office hours; students get them back at the end of the term so they can consider how/whether they met their stated aim.

Why you should have a “real” class on the first day

There is a tendency among some teachers, perhaps fewer and fewer, to use the first day of class to pass out the syllabus and then let the students go. There are good reasons for this tendency: the students probably have five new courses to adjust to, and bombarding them with course content may seem like overkill. In addition, many colleges and universities have lengthy add-drop periods, and you may not want to “waste” a proper class period on students who may drop the course. But many teaching specialists suggest resisting this urge, instead aiming for a more constructive first meeting, even if you end up letting the students out a few minutes early.

The main reason to avoid simply giving students the necessary information and calling it a day, James Lang points out, is that this “sends a message that the course meetings are a requirement that you both would rather not fulfill: you’ll meet when you have to, but at every opportunity to cut things short (first and last days, or days before a break), you’re as eager to avoid seeing them as they are to avoid seeing you.” Indeed, setting expectations, signalling what kind of relationship you’d like to have with the students, and showing enthusiasm for the course are all important parts of a valuable first meeting.

Marilla Svinivki and Wilbert McKeachie advise that teachers should try to capitalize on the excitement and anxiety that often accompanies the first day of class (on the part of both teacher and student) to hook the students, to channel their excitement toward the course material. Similarly, Pat Ashton recommends that teachers go out of their way to show passion and excitement for the course, for the simple reason that “if students see that you are looking forward to teaching this course, then they are likely to look forward to the course.” All of this is difficult to do if you merely read through the syllabus, ask for questions, and dismiss the class.

Lastly, the first day of class is an opportunity to set expectations for the whole term. If you are hoping for plenty of student participation for the course, begin by instigating a discussion on day one. If you are planning to emphasize collaborative learning, why not introduce students to those concepts right away? If your style of lecturing includes plenty of entertaining (but pedagogically sound, of course) multimedia, let students see what they have to look forward to. A successful first meeting with students can pay off throughout the length of your time together.  -DG

Sources: James Lang.  On Course.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. 24-6.

Marilla Svinivki and Wilbert J. McKeachie. McKeachie's Teaching Tips.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011. 21.

Pat Ashton. "The First Class: Making an Impression." Rosanne M. Cordell, Betsy Lucal, and Robin Morgan, eds. Quick Hits for New Faculty. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2004. 39-40. 39.

Gauge student misconceptions early on

Students begin your course with a whole host of prior knowledge about the topic—some of it incorrect or poorly understood. James Lang advises trying to figure out just what your students know—or think they know—early on in the term, in the first or second class period. As Lang notes, much learning research suggests that students will use whatever previous knowledge they have to process the information and ideas you present to them. It's worth knowing, as you begin your course, what ideas the students already have.

Lang suggests making up student information sheets that you distribute to the class. Each student must fill out his or her name, major or possible major, and email address (though you may very well already have these). In addition, "ask each student to write a short paragraph in response to two or three substantive questions about their past experiences with the course topic, or about their understanding of their ideas you will be presenting over the course of the semester." 

In the short term, you can use the exercise to generate a first-day-of-class discussion on the course's subject matter and the students' misconceptions going in. More importantly, you can use the students' answers to help tailor your teaching in the weeks that follow to the specific group of students in front of you.  -DG

Source: James M. Lang. On Course: A Week-By-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. 31-35.

First day of class introductions

Creating a friendly and supportive community among your class's students is a worthwhile goal, but it is one that is difficult to achieve quickly. Here, from David Royse, are some "warm-up techniques" to try on the first day of class, to encourage the students to relax with, interact with, and learn from each other.

"Each student: 

  • Interviews a fellow student and prepares a 45-second introduction of the person on his or her right or left.
  • Informs the class of something very few people would know (e.g., once shook hands with the President). 
  • Describes the unique cultural experience or community in which he or she was raised. 
  • Shares a wish, hope, or fear about the class. 
  • Says, 'To know me, you would have to be familiar with the book ______'. 
  • Lists three adjectives that best describe him or her. 
  • Jots down a pet peeve or myth.
  • Describes any relevant events or experiences that might make him or her an 'expert' on some area (e.g., lived in Belize for two years in conjunction with Peace Corps assignment; spent last four years working midnight to dawn in a bakery)."  -DG

Source: David Royse. Teaching Tips for College and University Instructors: A Practical Guide.  Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001. 59.