The First Day of Class
The first day of class always creates some nervousness for faculty, even for seasoned instructors. It helps to have a plan for your first day!
To start, write the course code and name of the course on the board before students enter. This way students will know if they are in the correct class or not before the class begins.
The first day of class should be used for two fundamental purposes:
- To give students an understanding of who you are as a teacher, what the course is about and what they can expect to learn in the course.
- To give you an understanding of who is taking your course, what their expectations are and what their prior experiences are.
To accomplish the above two purposes, these objectives should be considered:
- Plan for positive first impressions of you and the course
- Introduce yourself effectively
- Clarify learning outcomes and objectives
- Build community in the classroom by having students get to know one another
- Set the tone for the course
- Collect diagnostic data on students’ knowledge, prior experiences and motivation for taking the course
- Generate interest in the course
- Inform students of course requirements & logistics
First impressions can be long-lasting. Before you even start teaching, your students will have already made some decisions about you, so it is important to understand what those impressions are based on and how to manage them.
- Your attire. Research shows that clothing affects several kinds of judgments people make, including but not limited to, credibility, likability, dominance, kindness, and empathy (Raiscot, 1986; Morris et al., 1996). More formal attire communicates expertise and confidence, less formal attire communicates approachability. Usually, it is easier to relax a more formal impression into a more relaxed one than the other way around. These considerations are likely to be particularly relevant for young instructors who are concerned about establishing themselves as authoritative.
- The physical environment. Students can make decisions about what kind of course yours will be by the way the chairs are arranged. Rows signify a more formal environment, while circles or u-shapes imply a more informal atmosphere, with more expectations of student participation. The words on the board also indicate how interesting the course is likely to be. In addition to the course information, consider having a thought-provoking question displayed as they arrive.
- Your use of the few minutes before class. Greeting the students as they enter the classroom communicates approachability. Franticly arriving right on time or even late communicates disorganization, and so on.
Your introduction should be brief, but make sure to cover certain key areas. These questions should help you decide what to say:
- What characteristics do you want to convey about yourself? Among other things, you probably want the students to get a sense of your qualifications for teaching the course, how formal/informal you want to be, and how available you will be to the students.
- What will you need to say to convey those characteristics? Consider talking about your research interests or work experience as they relate to the course, in order to establish yourself as an authority, and to make the course more relevant. Talk about the best ways to reach you (e.g., phone, email) and your office hour preferences (e.g., set hours, open door, make an appointment).
- What do you think students are trying to figure out about you? In addition to the categories above, students are likely trying to determine whether you are a harsh or easy grader, and how flexible you will be with deadlines. You don’t need to cater to their agenda, but you might want to say something about your policies (more on this in the next objective).
- What should you be careful not to say? Students do not need to know everything about you. In particular, it is not helpful to say you’ve never taught the course before, or that it is your least favourite course to teach, or to disclose any irrelevant personal information that can undermine you in the eyes of your students.
Clearly laying out expectations starts to orient students toward the kind of effort, learning, performance and classroom behaviours you expect from them, and it helps them use their time productively.
- Highlight main aspects of the course outline and syllabus. If you followed the backwards design process, you should have an effective structure for the course. Communicate that structure to the students so they will understand the decisions you made for the course and the reasons why you made them. In particular, make sure to highlight the learning outcomes, the alignment with the assessments – including the grading criteria – and the instructional strategies, the course policies, and the rationale for the structure and the policies, and the reasons for choosing the textbook or other resources.
- Consider a quiz or ‘scavenger hunt’ on the course outline and syllabus documents. To reinforce the point that understanding expectations is crucial for success in the course some professors require students to take a quiz on the course outline and syllabus. Students must get all answers right before they go on with the course content. Moodle can be used for that purpose.
- Explain your expectations for student behaviour including expectations for:
- Punctuality and absences
- Seeking help when needed
- Offering feedback when appropriate
- Communicate your commitment to the students’ learning experience. Share some advice for success in your course (e.g., attendance, participation, keeping up with the readings) and let them know you are confident in their success as long as they put in the required effort.
The classroom is a social environment, so it is helpful to start the social dynamics in a productive way.
- Icebreakers raise the energy levels and get students comfortable so that they will be ready to focus on the material, especially if you want to foster a collaborative environment where students will have to work in groups or dialogue with each other.
- Make sure that the icebreaker is appropriate for the course.
- Icebreakers work even better when they allow students to get to know each other in the context of the course material.
- Have students participate in an activity introducing the big ideas in your course so they are able to introduce themselves to one another but still remain engaged in the course content.
The way you engage students on the first day sends powerful messages about the level of involvement and interaction you expect from them. Inexperienced instructors sometimes make the mistake of lecturing at the students for a few weeks, then try to have a discussion when the first big unit of the course is finished, only to be surprised at the lack of student participation. This is because students have already been conditioned to just listen in the course.
The following strategies will help you set a productive tone:
- Whatever you plan to do during the semester, do it on the first day. For instance, if you plan to use discussions, have students start talking on the first day. If you plan to use groups frequently, put students in groups on the first day. If you plan to use extensive writing, have some kind of short reflective writing activity. If you want the students to be in charge of their own learning, start with an activity where they are the experts, and cannot rely on you for information. For instance, in a psychology course on myths about human behaviour, the instructor starts with a brainstorming of myths about student behaviours in dorms.
- Consider a voluntary one-on-one office hour. The assignment is simply to make an appointment with you at a convenient time, find your office and visit you there before the next class or two. This gets students to your office, breaks the ice with a short one-on-one interaction, and makes it much more likely that the students will come back for help when they need it.
- Establish a culture of feedback. Let students know you are interested in how they experience the course and in any suggestions they have. Let them know you will do formal early course evaluations, but that they should feel free to give you constructive feedback, even anonymously. You might not adopt every suggestion they have but you will listen and consider them. This starts to create a partnership in learning.
- Collect diagnostic data about prior knowledge. This can take several forms:
- Check if students have taken similar courses previously.
- Give students an ungraded pretest that assesses knowledge and skills necessary for the course.
- Allow students to submit self-reports about how confident they feel about particular knowledge and their ability to apply it.
- Have students complete a quick-write. They write everything they know about the topic in a 5-10 minute block.
- Get a sense of students’ motivation in the course. Collect data about:
- why students are taking your course
- what they expect to get out of it, and
- what challenges they anticipate
- Decide what to do about inadequate prior knowledge. Depending on how many students are lacking certain knowledge or skills, you might choose to:
- tell them how they can bridge the gap on their own
- provide students with supplemental material on Moodle
- decide to devote one or two classes to a review of important foundational material
Some instructors simply hand out the syllabus and dismiss class. However, the first day of class is a great chance to generate interest about the course and to activate relevant prior knowledge students have about the topics. Here are some suggestions for activities that orient students to the content:
- Directed reading-thinking activity. Lyons et al. (2003, p. 87) suggest the following exercise:
- On your own, list everything you can think of that might be in a book entitled [your textbook, or the name of the course if you don’t have a textbook].
- Get with a partner, share your ideas, and then put the ideas you both generated for step 1 into categories.
- Give each category a name.
- Get with another pair and together combine your ideas. Then arrange the categories as a table of contents for this book and write it on the chart paper each group has been given.
This activity gets students talking to each other, makes them realize they bring relevant knowledge, and it makes them think about a possible overarching structure for that knowledge. If that structure is appropriate, you can capitalize on that, otherwise this exercise will expose some of the misconceptions students possess, giving you a chance to correct them. The activity typically takes about half an hour.
- Collect data from the students about issues related to course content. This exercise gives you knowledge about the students and is relevant in social science courses that involve research. A statistics instructor always collects data on the first day and uses the survey and the students’ responses to illustrate points about survey sampling.
- Connect course content to current events. Bring in news links, articles, newspaper or magazine clips that relate to your course. Whenever you can connect your field to current events, or pop culture, or student interests, you demonstrate relevance, which increases student motivation.
- Common sense inventory. Nilson (2003) describes a “Common Sense Inventory” where students need to determine whether 15 statements related to the course content are true or false (e.g., in a social psychology course, “Suicide is more likely among women than men,” or “Over half of all marriages occur between persons who live within 20 blocks of each other”). After paired or small group discussions, you can reveal the right answer. This works particularly well in courses where students bring in a lot of misconceptions (e.g., Introductory Physics).
You may also want to provide information about the following:
- Student Support Services such as the Library, the Learning Centre, Information Technology, Career Centre, Athletics Centre, Glenn Crombie Centre and more.
- Dates for dropping or adding courses (aka “drop-add date”)
- Safety procedures such as in labs, nearest exit, protocols for fire and lockdown drills, etc.
- Transfer credits and PLAR process (aka “Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition”) and how to contact the Pathways office for questions regarding credit attainment through prior work and education experience.
- Other relevant administrative or logistic procedures such as how to hand in assignments, where to find course documents, how you will communicate with them, etc.
While this may seem like a lot of information to consider for one class, remember that the first day of class sets the tone for the entire course. Time upfront will pay off in the long run.
As well, it may be helpful to include most of this information on your Moodle page for your course. If you need assistance populating content on your Moodle page, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. We are happy to help!
The Hub team wishes you all the best on your first day and throughout the semester in your course!
- Eberly Center. (2016). Make the most of the first day of class. Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/firstday.html
- Lyons, R., McIntosh, M., & Kysilka, M. (2003). Teaching college in an age of accountability. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Provitera McGlynn, A. (2001.) Successful beginnings for college teaching: Engaging students from the first day. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
- Morris, T., Gorham, J., Cohen, S., & Huffman, D. (1996). “Fashion in the classroom: Effects of attire on student perceptions of instructors in college classes.” Communication Education, 45,135-148.
- Nilson, L. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
- Raiscot, J. (1986). Silent sales. Minneapolis, MN: AB Publications.