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.