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Three Tips for the First Day of Class

Posted by on Friday, August 2, 2013 in Commentary.

It’s that time of year again: the first day of classes is upon us! At the CFT we often hear the same questions around this time of year:

“What should I do on the first day of class?”

“Do I delve into course content or just review the syllabus?”

“How do I break the ice and get my students talking?”

While many teachers do use the first day to simply hand out the syllabus, you are right to suspect that class time can be used in a more productive way.  Furthermore, by letting students out right away on the first day of class, you are only deferring your anxiety about your new students.  That first class period represents an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a successful class, and that can be done in a multitude of ways.  Here, former Graduate Teaching Fellow Adam Wilsman suggests that the first day can be a time to discuss expectations and goals, to set the tone for classroom participation, and to assess student knowledge.

1. Discussing expectations and goals

While handing out the course syllabus should not be the only thing that you do on the first day of class, it is important that you distribute and discuss that document in some depth.  Students tend to be particularly interested in grading procedures, workload, and the teacher’s availability outside of the classroom, and discussing these things can ease a great deal of student anxiety.  The first class period is also a chance to explain how class time will be structured.  Are there discussion or lab sections?  If so, how do these sections fit into the broader course?  How ought students to prepare for each class section?  Finally, be sure to give students space to ask questions about your teaching, the syllabus, and the course more broadly.

2. Setting the tone for classroom participation

What kind of course do you envision?  The first day of class represents the perfect opportunity to set the tone for the kind of classroom that you want to cultivate.  Do you envision a classroom of active participators with frequent discussion and group activities?  Then, you ought to integrate those kinds of activities into the first day of class.  You can do this through icebreakers, or a classroom discussion that enables you to gauge student interests, expectations, and goals.  This clearly conveys to students what they can expect from your course, and also acclimates them to speaking up in your class.  On a related note, try to convey your excitement for the course and material on day one!  That enthusiasm can be infectious and pique student curiosity from the very beginning.

3. Assessing student knowledge

What kinds of students have enrolled in your course this semester?  Do you have a lot of majors? or a bunch of freshman for whom this is their introduction to the discipline?  The answers to these questions ought to inform how you approach your teaching.  The first day of class is your chance to start learning the answers.  One can do this in a variety of ways.  Hopefully, you will take some time during your first class to give an overview of the course and introduce some key questions and concepts.  You can use this introduction as a springboard for a class discussion in which you gauge student knowledge.  You can distribute note cards, ask students some basic questions about their educational backgrounds, have them write their answers down, and then collect the note cards at the end of class.  You can ask students to raise their hands to indicate their years, level of experience, etc.  You can also assign a short, noncredit quiz of relevant knowledge to see where your students stand.

Handing out the syllabus and letting students out early is an approach that often short-changes students and teacher alike.  In the end, there is a lot you can do on the first day to lay the groundwork for a successful semester.

If you’d like more advice on the first day of class (or any other teaching question you have), contact us! We’d be happy to meet with you before classes begin. To schedule a consultation, call (615)322-7290 or email Julie Shadburne.

Best of luck for this new semester and have a great first day!

Some Recommended Readings

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993: 20-27

McKeachie, Wilbert J. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers.  Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002: 21-28.



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