The first day of class sets the tone for the rest of the semester. That can create anxiety, even for seasoned instructors.
“The biggest thing that makes professors nervous on day one is the expectation that they’re supposed to be the most amazing, wonderful, unassailable genius in the room,” says Dr. Kwame M. Brown, a psychology professor at Hampton University. The reality is, you don’t have to cram everything into the first day of class. Opening day activities can and should extend beyond the first sixty minutes.
To figure out what purpose the first few classes should serve, we’re sharing the strategies three professors across different disciplines use to create positive first impressions and cement student focus. These approaches demonstrate how a well-designed introductory class can set the table for a successful semester.
Ask students what they already know
James Lang, professor of English and the author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, suggests polling as a way to evaluate students’ prior knowledge, attitudes, or even just to verify that they’ve done preliminary readings.
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“Evidence suggests that whatever knowledge students bring into a course has a major influence on what they take away from it,” explains Lang. “So a sure-fire technique to improve student learning is to begin class by revisiting what they already know on the subject matter.”
Dr. Kwame M. Brown likes to use the first day to address myths in psychology by polling his students using Top Hat. He will put up true or false questions like “We only use ten percent of our brains.” Dr. Brown then uses these widespread myths as a teaser for what students can expect to learn throughout the semester.
This particular technique is helpful for faculty since it gets students’ knowledge—and misconceptions—out in the open in the first few minutes of class. “That way, whatever you plan for class that day can specifically deal with and improve upon the knowledge actually in the room, rather than the knowledge you imagine to be in the room.”
“Faculty often think about doing polling questions at the end of class or midway through,” says Lang, “but it would be very easy to start class with five quick poll questions, then using that as a way to get started and see where students are.”
Get students thinking with an activity
One of the easiest ways to spark learning is getting your students to attempt to solve a problem or answer a challenging question they will face throughout the course.
Don’t start the class by delving straight into the course syllabus, says Blake Regan, a math professor at Ohio University. Instead, ask questions about the content first, and then demonstrate how the syllabus will satisfy that curiosity.
Regan uses Top Hat on the first day of class with hot-spot questions that ask students to click on where their attention is drawn and two one-word response questions:
1) What would you instinctively believe about a person that I called a good student?
2) What is math about?
“The point of these questions is to get students to think about what it means or takes to learn and why the course is set up in the way that it is,” explains Regan.
When teaching particularly tough courses where students are more likely to shut down because they think the course content will be dry, Dr. Brown makes a point to let his students know that they’ll be engaging in activities throughout the semester.
“I teach one of the two hardest courses in our department so I let students know that yes, this course is going to be difficult, but we’re going to have fun and play a little bit. When was the last time you played with Play-Doh? That’s an interesting question to get from your teacher on the first day. It breaks the ice and helps soften students up so they can tackle difficult information.”
Foster a sense of community
The more comfortable students feel with one another in the first few classes, the more comfortable they are participating throughout the semester. Dr. Brown always provides opportunities for students to meet and communicate with one another on day one.
“Students are sitting right beside each other for months. So one of the first things I do is ask everybody to get up and walk across the room and introduce themselves to three people and tell me something interesting about each person they meet.”
Dr. Brown also takes the time to humanize himself by asking students about the best and worst classes they’ve had to get a sense of what’s important to them: “Depending on their culture, students may not have been raised to ever discuss their expectations of an elder. That’s something I need to break through as well. I need them to know they have permission to disagree with me.”
In large class sizes, students may also be reticent to speak up so Dr. Brown uses Top Hat to take some of the pressure off: “The first thing I noticed about Top Hat’s effectiveness is that it allows students to be anonymous. So I’m able to get a wider range of feedback from students.”
This is probably one of the most important objectives for the first day. Clearly laying out expectations will orient students towards the kind of behavior and performance you expect from them.
Regan structures his course to be more useful for everyone by sharing the syllabus ahead of class: “I created my syllabus inside of Top Hat with questions to ensure students have read and understood the syllabus.” He also supplements this with a low stakes syllabus quiz to ensure students are familiar with the most important aspects of the course right away.
A practical reason for answering these questions before the first day of class is that students may decide to postpone a class if a major assignment or test conflicts with a trip or personal event. By making the syllabus available online, Regan is also able to save class time and focus on the key elements of his course: “ I always go over the grading scheme as it is very different from what most students are used to.”
Dr. Brown strongly cautions against reading the syllabus word for word on the first day of class. “I expect students to read the syllabus. Not only do I expect them to read it, but I also understand that they won’t. I’m a little mischievous. I like to expose people. So I’ll quiz them on the syllabus throughout the first couple of weeks. I’ll say ‘What does the syllabus say about x?’ And of course it’ll be crickets. So I’m like, “Okay so that means you don’t know, right? That means you’re in trouble, right? So why don’t we find out right now.”
Dr. Brown frames these expectations as his way of preparing students to be job-ready. “I’m here to equip them because out there, people operate on deadlines. Out there, people expect a product, they expect results, they expect you to help them with something. And if you can’t do that, you’re not going to make money for very long and you’re not going to be fulfilled.”
After the first day
Since Blake Regan restructured his course with Top Hat, he’s noticed that students are more engaged and willing to accept the challenges he presents throughout the semester.
“One of the biggest things I try to convey is that getting answers correct means nothing without understanding. Mathematics is largely thought of as a procedural subject that must be practiced to perfection. I attempt throughout the semester to transition students to see that calculators are procedural while mathematicians are strategic pattern exploiters and make decisions throughout a problem (while continually evaluating those decisions). Setting the tone on day one that thought and discourse is expected has greatly improved this transition for most students.”
A model for the first day
To see how these principles are put into practice, here is Dr. Kwame M. Brown’s model for conducting the first day of class. He teaches all levels, and his class sizes can range from seventy students to graduate classes with just three students.
Dr. Brown doesn’t expect to hit all of these activities in the first class of the semester: “I do all of the following over the first two to three days, not just the first day. I have no problem waiting to get to the content. The tone and expectations are everything.”
1) Ask students their “why” – why are they in school, why are they taking the course.
2) I get them talking to each other. They have to learn one interesting thing about three other people. My classes have a fair amount of “flipping” and interaction combined with didactic and Socratic approaches, so the peer relationships are as important as their relationships with me and the material.
3) Begin a discussion about expectations, beginning with theirs. Use this conversation to discuss the syllabus (I have also used interactive tech to do this)
4) Connect requirements in class to soft skills – but lead by asking them what they think they will need to be able to do when they graduate. Connect ways in which the class can help them with that. Be specific.
5) Use Top Hat to quiz them on myths about the subject matter. That’s easy for me as a psychology professor – there are lots of myths. I then use the answers for the myths as teasers for what’s to come in the semester.
6) I outline both soft and hard skills that the course will help them with. I think students today are looking for value, not knowledge. The trick is to set the tone on the first day—communicating ways in which knowledge and practice provides that value.