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A Small Assortment of Ideas for the First Day of Class

Despite the dusting of snow on the ground in Everett this morning (and a few lingering flakes falling outside my window at this very moment), it’s officially the first day of the spring quarter here at EvCC. That means a new set of classes–and new opportunities to try out ways of engaging your students from the very first moment of class.

With that in mind, here’s a question for you to consider as you start each of your new classes this week: How do you engage students and welcome them into the intellectual and practical work of the next ten weeks?

As a student, I was always surprised at how few of my instructors used the first day of class to draw me and my classmates into the subject of the class itself, to invite us to participate actively and energetically, to see the next few months as an exciting experience to be anticipated instead of just another course to get through. Instead, many spent that first day simply reading from a syllabus (the same one we all had copies of already and were perfectly capable of reading ourselves), telling us about course policies, or listing other requirements. A few would jump right in to the topic, usually with the disclaimer that “there’s a lot to get through in this class, so we have to get started right away,” but rarely in a way that invited active participation or enthusiasm.

Thankfully, these are more pedagogically enlightened times. There’s now far greater recognition that the choices we make as teachers on the very first day of a class can influence student outlook, expectations, participation, and the general classroom environment in numerous ways. With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite tips and suggestions for ways to start the first day of class:

  1. Arrive early and make sure the room is ready. When I was a graduate student facing my first semester as a teaching assistant, with a weekly discussion session of my own, my advisor gave me this simple piece of advice: when you arrive in the room, move a piece of furniture or make some other small adjustment to the environment — rearrangeĀ  chairs, open or close the shades, something along those lines. The reason? Both to remind you that you control the space and to communicate to your students that everything you do in the classroom is intentional, the result of deliberate choices you are making to construct a learning environment.
  2. Use students’ names. Learn as many of your students’ names in advance as you can. You can use a printed copy of your course roster as an aid to your memory for the first few class sessions, or ask students to preface their comments with their names and then repeat the name back when they have finished speaking. You can be transparent about this — tell students that you’ll need some help initially, but that you’re working hard to learn their names. It may seem like a small thing but they will appreciate your effort.
  3. Preview the intellectual richness of the subject or discipline, or try to emphasize its importance or relevance. There are countless ways to do this, but the main idea is to draw students into the course by telling a story, posing interesting questions or challenges, or maybe revealing a central mystery that will be explored more deeply in the coming weeks. The idea is to inspire curiosity and to model the sorts of thinking and questioning that motivate expert practitioners in the field. This may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as telling the story of a surprising discovery related to the subject of the class, or perhaps even sharing with students your own personal enthusiasm for the subject. (Yes, this can be done for even the most esoteric subjects. I taught literature courses focused on the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, and I always found I had plenty of good material to work with when it came to establishing the relevance and value of the subject.)
  4. Give students a chance to participate actively. It’s easy to let the first day of class be a passive experience for students, in which you tell them about the course and send them on their way. Resisting the temptation to talk at your class can pay enormous dividends in the form of greater participation and engagement throughout the quarter, however. Try to work in one or more forms of active learning that you’ll continue to use throughout the course. That can be something easy and low-stakes, like a five-minute discussion with partners that is then used to prompt a whole-class discussion (e.g., a think-pair-share activity). Or it can be more involved, like a hands-on exercise, a small experiment, or a role-playing game. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that helps students start seeing themselves as active participants in the course.

If you’re looking for more tips and suggestions for the first day of class, here are a few pages worth visiting: