First Day of Class

The First Day Matters

What you do on the first day of class makes a difference. We may know this intuitively, but there is also quite a bit of research showing that teacher behavior correlates with student attitudes, motivation, and performance (Wilson, 2007).  No class period is more critical to forming students’ attitudes towards learning than the first day of the term.

The first day of classes can be stressful for both faculty and students. Taking a sociological view, Dorn (1987) characterizes this class period as an encounter between strangers who are not yet part of a group. This is especially true for first-year students, for whom everything and everyone is new. The following ideas will help you manage first day jitters (both yours and your students') while meeting other important goals for the start of your course.

Introduce and Engage Students

Benefits/Rationale

  • Learn each other’s names.
  • Reduce anxiety.
  • Create positive first impressions.
  • Establish community.
  • Begin to create commitment to the group.
  • Break down barriers.
  • Challenge implicit bias.

How To

  • Use an ice breaker. As the expression connotes, an ice breaker warms up a group and gets conversation flowing. This webpage from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching provides examples of different ice breakers and guidance for using them.
  • Learn names.  Addressing a student by their name contributes to their sense of belonging and readiness to learn. Consider these tips and strategies for learning students' names from the University of Nebraska. This article from Faculty Focus provides some additional methods to learn names in larger classes.
  • Conduct a group norm-setting process. Developing norms and participation guidelines is critical to creating an inclusive and supportive learning environment for all. This resource from the University of Massachusetts suggests a process for creating norms with your students, and examples of types of norms.
  • Create a climate for learning. This short article from Faculty Focus outlines activities that emphasize the responsibility that students share for shaping the classroom environment.
  • Get students talking. Provide a low-stakes way for students to hear their own voices in class for the first time so later participation is less daunting. Getting students talking with one another as early as possible is especially important if group discussion will be a major part of your classroom pedagogy. Here are some tips on creating discussion guidelines from Berkeley’s teaching and resource center.

Communicate Goals and Set Expectations

Benefits/Rationale

  • Activate motivation and commitment from adult learners, for whom understanding rationale matters.
  • Orient students to your expectations and the effort required for them to succeed.
  • Set the stage for student monitoring and self-assessment of learning.
  • Help students who are “course shopping” to make a decision about your course.

How To

  • Share the syllabus. Include course learning outcomes, information about your expectations and teaching philosophy, and details about your course's specific methods of teaching, learning, and assessment in your course syllabus (view the Syllabus Guide). Share your syllabus on the first day of class by reading and talking through it with your students.
  • Get creative. Alternately, present your course information in a more visual or creative way using one of these suggestions from the ProfHacker blog in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Convey your rationale. Explain the evidence that supports the various teaching and learning strategies you intend so that students understand how those methods will support their learning. This article from the National Teaching and Learning Forum demonstrates a method of sharing the rationale behind active learning strategies.

Create Connection and Demonstrate Relevance

Benefits/Rationale

  • Stimulate students' curiosity and motivation.
  • Generate student commitment.
  • Illuminate your disciplinary interests and research focus.

How

  • Share your story of entry into the field. How did you get "hooked?" From Faculty Focusthis short article conveys the power of storytelling in teaching.
  • Showcase course content. Create a short presentation that provides an overview of the subject and content of your course. Describe the big ideas of the course, and how they fit into the discipline as a whole. This article from Stanford’s Teaching Commons provides examples from faculty on how to engage students in the topic on the first day.
  • Find out what students already know. The educational psychologist David Ausubel (1968) suggested that ascertaining what students already know about course topics and adjusting the course accordingly may be the most important factor influencing student learning. This webpage from Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon offers strategies for assessing students' prior knowledge.  Faculty teaching in the sciences might consider using a concept inventory at the beginning and end of a course.

References

Ausubel, D.P. (1968). As quoted in Angelo & Cross (1993) Classroom Assessment Techniques.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  P. 117 

Dorn, D.S. (1987). The first day of class: Problems and strategies.  Teaching Sociology, 15, pp. 61-72.

Madsen, A., McKagan, S. B., & Sayre, E. C. (2017). Best practices for administering concept inventories. The Physics Teacher, 55(9), 530-536.

Wilson, J.H. &. Wilson, S.B. (2007) Methods and Techniques: The First Day of Class Affects Student Motivation: An Experimental Study, Teaching of Psychology, 34:4, 226-230.