It’s true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Whether you’re teaching a large introductory-level course or a smaller senior-level seminar, the beginning of the semester is important. Many students will make up their minds early whether they like the course, its contents, the instructor and their peers. When students make up their minds too early, engagement can dip. So, too, can attendance.

Here, we offer suggestions, tips and first day of school activities to help you start the semester off right. New instructors may be learning the ropes in the first week of college, while those who are more experienced may be looking to liven up their routine. Here are some helpful tactics to ensure your first week of school activities is engaging and welcoming to students.

Table of Contents

  1. Help your students transition to the new term
  2. Get students’ attention
  3. Provide support early and often
  4. The first week of school checklist
  5. Welcome your students
  6. Review rules and routines
  7. Keep it light
  8. How to make it happen with Top Hat

Help your students transition into the new term

1. Create an engaging syllabus: Your syllabus should be the foundation of your course. Adding in visual components, like images, graphics and charts, can help students better understand the different elements of your course. 

Tip: Consider distributing your syllabus a few days before the first day of class so your students can come prepared with their questions. You could also have students annotate your syllabus online with questions and comments. This promotes a closer reading of the syllabus and helps students understand this isn’t a static document and it can change according to their needs.

2. Schedule ahead: Stay on track throughout the term, automate the distribution of new assignments and set class expectations by scheduling all the assignments and readings at the very beginning. If you assign a textbook or readings for your course in Top Hat, you can schedule all of your chapters in advance, making them available to view and based on dates in your course syllabus. You can even pre-set assignments to stay available in review status after the due date, so students can keep practicing the concepts to prepare for midterms and exams (without necessarily earning extra points).

3. Set up clear communication strategies: Ensure you’re clear with students on how and when they can reach you and their TAs. This can include office hours, netiquette for email communications and course expectations for in-class behavior.

Tip: Joel Stake, lecturer of biological sciences at Louisiana Tech University, starts each new term with an introductory video on his course LMS page to briefly overview course policies. He then follows up with weekly short videos highlighting what’s on deck for the week and sharing personal updates.

4. Conduct a student interest inventory: A student interest inventory is a brief questionnaire that helps you gain a more holistic understanding of your students, their academic backgrounds, hobbies and interests. Consider asking questions like: 

  • Why did you register for the course and do you have any particular areas of interest?
  • What are you looking to get out of the course and how might it help you reach your post-graduation goals?
  • Consider posing a handful of questions to students about any accommodations you should know about. Learning styles, home life situations, connectivity concerns and other responsibilities are useful for you to know as the instructor in order for your class to be as flexible and accommodating to students as possible.
  • Fun questions that can help to get to know students better, such as: If you could have any superpower, what would it be? What’s something that would surprise the class about you?

5. Accommodate student needs: You can also account for students who may need more time or alternative due dates to complete assignments — making it easier for you to run an equitable and accessible course online. With our new assign flow, you can simultaneously assign the same item to different students with different schedules. You can also clearly see the details of all assignments that have been set to make sure your automated course is running the way it should be.

Get students’ attention

6. Share some information about yourself: Share a brief overview of your academic career and provide students with a personal anecdote about why you chose your discipline or a funny story from your undergraduate experience. This way, you can break down barriers with your students from the very beginning, to foster an open, inclusive environment for learning.

Tip: You can also share your teaching philosophy statement with students. A teaching philosophy statement is unique to each instructor and can provide students with more insights into your discipline, influential mentors, personal educational experiences, type of teaching (graduate vs. undergraduate, large vs. small classes, etc.) and program-related teaching requirements (i.e. case-based learning). 

7. Give your course a little structure: Use folders to organize your online or hybrid course and determine the summary grades in your gradebook. Not only are folders an excellent tool for organizing all of your course materials in a digital platform, but in Top Hat, you can also use them to determine the way grading information is presented to students in their gradebook.

For example, you can organize your assignments into folders based on chapters, if you want to clearly see how students are doing on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Your students will get the same view summary view by each chapter on their end, preventing confusion and saving you time.

→ Download Now: 50 Free Icebreaker Activities

8. Consider starting with a diagnostic assessment: These short assessments help instructors better understand what students already know. This can be an exit ticket, minute paper or a short, ungraded quiz.

Tip: Frank Spors, professor of optometry at Western Health Sciences University, uses these short assessments every week of his course to check in with students and see what questions they have before each class.

9. Take breaks: By interspersing lecture blocks with opportunities for students to take control of the class, you keep them on their toes.

Tip: After reviewing the syllabus and rules for respectful discussions in the classroom, consider asking students to complete a think-pair-share exercise to come up with what they think classroom rules should look like. This builds on a learning science principle known as retrieval practice. Retrieval practice is the act of recalling facts from memory. You can implement this practice by incorporating quick checks throughout the assigned readings. After students read or watch a video, ask them to answer a simple question about that concept.

10. Set your key preferences as defaults: Save time while writing questions by setting your default Top Hat course grading to your preferred correctness/participation point split. If you use Pages, you can also determine grading by setting the total points that can be earned for a full textbook chapter or assignment, and allow Top Hat to do the work of breaking that total down question-by-question.

Similarly, using a timer on the questions you ask in class is an effective way of keeping track of precious class time. Just as with grading, expectations will be set so your students will get used to responding in a specific amount of time.

Provide support early and often

11. Repeat yourself: Students have different ways of absorbing and processing information. Try repeating key pieces of course information, like office hour times, key dates and your contact information, in a number of different places. Consider keeping a discussion forum open in your LMS or Top Hat available for students to ask informal questions that can be answered by TAs and peers at any point.

12. Share campus resources: Students may be unsure of where to go if they’re in need of extra support. Consider sharing academic support, financial aid, mental health resources and campus housing information with students through your online course platform or include them in your syllabus.

13. Encourage reflection: By including journal prompts in your class, you can encourage students to monitor and reflect on their progress in your course. This practice can also leave them with a study aid at the end of the course that they’re able to build on throughout the semester.

Tip: On the first day of class, you can ask students to take five minutes at the end of your lecture to jot down their expectations for the course. You can then ask them to look back on these reflections on the last day of class to see how far they’ve come.

→ Download Now: 50 Free Icebreaker Activities

The first week of school checklist

They say you never get a second chance to make a good first impression in the first week of class. We know that the first week of a new term can be stressful—and even experienced educators may feel apprehensive about facing students. Just take a deep breath, double-check your syllabus and remind yourself of all the effort you’ve put in to get the semester off to a successful start. This back to school checklist for teachers explores community building, classroom rules and fun icebreakers that will help you make a positive first-day-of-class impression, with helpful first day of school activities.

1. Welcome your students

On your very first day of class, use your allotted time to welcome students to the classroom. Before you begin covering course content, try to establish a rapport.

Arrive early: Consider opening the doors to your learning environment—in-person or virtual—a few minutes before class starts. This way, you can greet students as they join. Consider playing music, prompt discussion with an icebreaker question or encourage students to draw on virtual whiteboards while they wait for class to begin.

Help students get to know you: Consider sharing some personal photos and a few anecdotes about your path to your current position. Encourage teaching assistants to do the same. By letting students get to know you beyond simply what you teach, you encourage them to get comfortable with sharing in this new learning environment.

2. Review rules and routines

Once students are comfortable, it’s time to start reviewing your syllabus and the logistics of your course. Set aside ample time to answer questions, particularly in online courses, where students may not be familiar with the tools or platforms you plan to use in your course.

Review the syllabus: Distribute the syllabus through email or as an LMS announcement a few days before the beginning of the semester so students can come to the first day of class prepared with their questions about due dates, instructions and tech tools that you’re using in your classroom.

Hold space for questions: Place students into small groups and ask them to put their questions about your course in a Google Doc or worksheet. Distribute the syllabus after each group has prepared their questions and have students find answers to their questions using this document. Reconvene as a group and give students an opportunity to ask any further questions that couldn’t be answered from the syllabus. 

Provide a resource overview: Highlight resources that may help students be successful in your course, such as your Campus IT Center, CTL, Library and Research Database Center, Peer Support Centers, Campus Housing Services, Financial Aid Information and Mental Health Resources.

Help orient your students: Consider leading a quick tour of where support services and resources are located on campus. This way, you can also share tips and tricks with students about where your favorite place to get coffee on campus is, any shortcuts to get to classes and where some good study spots might be.

3. Keep it light

To wrap up your first week, try easing students into the learning environment with a few hands-on exercises. Weaving course content together with community-building activities is a great way to start your course on a positive note.

Use an icebreaker activity: Effective icebreakers start discussions and allow students to feel welcomed in your classroom. These activities may even strengthen camaraderie and team-building amongst students for the duration of the semester and beyond.

  • What’s in front of you: For online courses, have students take a photo of something that’s in front of their workspace. Perhaps it’s a wall of photos with their closest friends or their pet that keeps them company during online courses.
  • Two truths and a lie: Divide the class into small groups and have each participant share three statements with their group; one is a lie and two are true. The other students in the group take turns guessing which is the lie. 
  • When I grow up: Have students share what they wanted to be when they grew up as a child and contrast that with their current goals for their future career.

Try a think-pair-share strategy: Think-pair-share gets students out of listening mode and into talking mode. Processing information verbally helps create new pathways for learning. After presenting introductory course material in class, pause the lecture for a moment and ask students to pair up with a partner and ask them to discuss the material they just learned. Once they’ve had some time to discuss with their classmates, students can take turns presenting their observations to the rest of the class, or in an online discussion thread for an asynchronous class.

How to make it happen with Top Hat

Read more about how to use Top Hat’s extensive course administration features in the Top Hat Success Center, our comprehensive knowledge base:

More suggestions on how to get the best out of Top Hat:

The first week of classes can be nerve-wracking for professors and their students. But holding space for questions and discussions helps create an open and supportive environment. By setting the stage for dialogue and transparency from day one, you’ll be able to equip yourself and your students for success this semester, wherever your class is taking place.

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