It doesn’t matter how many times you teach a particular course or how many years of experience you have – everyone gets nervous on the first day of a new semester. You’ll wonder, will my students like me? Will I sound like I know what I’m talking about? And inevitably, no matter how computer savvy you are, you will end up looking like an idiot within the first ten minutes while you try to get the computer working (I practically live on my computer and this still happens to me). The attention spans of your students might be less than a minute, since many of them are still in vacation mode. All of this could add up to a potential disaster.
But it absolutely doesn’t have to be this way! As the veteran of many first days of classes, I’ve developed some effective strategies to make the day go as smoothly as possible. So in this blog post, I’m going to give you some tips and tricks to make your next first day of class an awesome day of class (was that too corny?)
Establish Your Goals
This might seem obvious, but I find that it’s always a good idea to write out exactly what I am hoping to accomplish on the first day of class. Of course, this varies tremendously from person to person and from course to course. Here are some suggestions that I think are worthwhile and important:
- Give your students the opportunity to get to know you
- Familiarize your students with the content of the course, the learning objectives or goals, the textbook or readings, the assignments/evaluation, and course and department policies
- Tell your students why the course is important and/or relevant, and what students might expect to gain from it
- Create an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere
- Get to know your students and give them the opportunity to tell you about themselves.
Let’s go through each of these at a time.
Getting To Know You…
Introducing yourself is a great way to start off a course. Of course you want to introduce yourself to your students so they have some idea who the random person at the front of the class is (especially if you sometimes get mistaken for a student, like I do…). But I would encourage you to try to go beyond this basic introduction.
While some people believe that professors should be authority figures that are removed from the students, I believe that being approachable and personable is ultimately more important. I don’t see classrooms as occasions for me to impart knowledge and wisdom so much as opportunities to facilitate learning. A great way to do this is by talking about yourself as a person and as an educator. Show your students that you are a real human being, not a robot or a talking statue. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Personal Bio
- Where are you originally from?
- Why did you move to ____?
- What are your hobbies and favourite pastimes?
- Why did you choose to go into history?
- What’s your favourite historical era, event, or person?
- Education Bio
- Where did you do your degrees?
- What’s your specific area of expertise?
- What kind of research are you working on?
- How does your research influence your teaching?
- Teaching Bio
- Why did you become a professor?
- What kinds of courses do you teach?
- How long have you been teaching?
- What do you enjoy about being in the classroom?
I also like to warn my students that I have an odd sense of humour. 😉
Syllabus, Sweet Syllabus
Going over the syllabus is pretty much standard operating procedure as far as first days of class go. But there are several different ways of doing this. I’ve never been a big fan of the “reading the syllabus” out loud option. There is just something about reading a lecture (of any kind) that puts me to sleep within 15 minutes (and it tends to put students to sleep as well).
So what else can you do? In general, I find that approaching the first day of class as if it were a normal lecture/class is the most effective approach. What do I mean by this? I present the syllabus as if it were a lecture.
Each year I prepare a special Introduction Powerpoint presentation. The presentation is essentially broken down into the following points:
- Introducing the course
- Discussing the course description as well as learning objectives
- Informing students of the format of the course (lectures, discussions, occasional films) and how each class will usually proceed
- Providing information about the textbook, if any
- Logistics: Will Powerpoint presentations and/or lecture notes be uploaded to Moodle?; When will these documents be accessible?
- Reviewing Assignments/Evaluations
- Listing and describing each of the assignments for the course
- This includes participation
- Describing the percentage value of each assignment or assessment and describing how students will be evaluated (rubrics, etc..)
- Discussing the final exam, briefly
- Listing and describing each of the assignments for the course
- Department and Instructor Policies
- Electronics policy
- Lateness policy
- Extension policy
- Email response times
- Academic dishonesty
- Providing information about the Writing Centre
- Briefly discussing the library
- Encouraging students to ask questions when they are confused.
Expert Tip: It helps if you have time before the class starts to test out the computer and projector systems. They tend to be possessed by demons that only manifest on the first day of class or during a peer evaluation. 😉 Also, don’t be afraid to call tech support if you can’t get something to work. That’s what they are there for. No one will think you are stupid for doing so. Well, your students might judge you, but they’re (often) teenagers, it’s in their job description. 😉
Some other options that you can also include are:
- Evaluating the classroom (Will the seats need to be set up a certain way? Can everyone hear you?)
- Establishing expectations both in class and outside of class
- Establishing instructor and student responsibilities (you could even make up a contract)
- Creating or showing a course concept map (I really want to try this one!)
Why Do History, Or Why Should You Care?
As depressing as it sounds, your first day of class is an opportunity to sell yourself and your course content to your students. This is particularly true for sessionals, since our continued employment depends on course enrolment numbers as well as high teaching evaluations. This is your chance to convince students why they should take your course.
I think this is especially true in survey classes, where students often have several different professors to choose from and are also more likely to be taking the course as a requirement. You should talk about what your students have to gain from taking your course and what makes you different from other professors. Do you have a unique approach? Do you tackle a known subject in a different way? Do you teach any skills that will help students in other programs/courses? Let them know!
The way that I do this is in survey classes, for example, is by introducing students to the Historical Thinking Project and by providing a brief overview of the field of Canadian history. Not only does this give me an opportunity to explain why history and historical thinking are so important but I can also discuss my approach to teaching Canadian history and the overall narrative of the course.
Creating an Inclusive and Welcoming Atmosphere
The importance of creating an inclusive and welcoming environment in a classroom cannot be understated. Universities can be very intimidating places, particularly for Indigenous students, racialized students or students from ethnic minorities, LGTBQIA students, female students, and students with disabilities. I believe that it is the job of the instructor to ensure that students feel that their classroom is a safe space.
I like to do this by making it clear from the first day of class that respect for each other is the most important rule for any of my classes. This means that we all respect each other’s perspectives and opinions, even when we disagree with them. This also means that while I encourage debate, I will not permit verbal harassment or bullying of any kind.
I also like to make students feel welcome and included by allowing students to have a say in the direction and goals of the course. I do this through an activity called “First Day Graffiti.” I learned about this from a blog post on Faculty Focus. Here’s how the blog post describes the activity:
First Day Graffiti – This is an adaptation of an activity proposed by Barbara Goza in the Journal of Management Education in 1993. Flip charts with markers beneath are placed around the classroom. Each chart has a different sentence stem. Here are a few examples:
“I learn best in classes where the teacher ___”
“Students in courses help me learn when they ___”
“I am most likely to participate in classes when ___”
“Here’s something that makes it hard to learn in a course: ___”
“Here’s something that makes it easy to learn in a course: ___”
Students are invited to walk around the room and write responses, chatting with each other and the teacher as they do. After there are comments on every flip chart, the teacher walks to each one and talks a bit about one or two of the responses. If you run out of time, you can conduct the debriefing during the next session.
I have modified this activity in two ways. First, most of the classrooms where I’ve taught don’t have flip boards. So instead, I make up a Word document with the list of questions, one per page. Then I print the document out, and bring it to class. I position the papers evenly across the room, and then run the activity.
Second, before I hand out the papers, I tell students that I will use the responses to make up a statement of intent or a contract for the course. This will be a document, unique to each section, where I list out the student’s intentions or expectations for the course. This is a way for the students to participate in a meaningful way in the overall design of the course.
Once, the students have completed answering the questions, I gather up all of the printed pages. I then read each one of the comments out loud to the entire class. Then, I summarize the points and write them out in a Word document that is projected on the screen. Once I’ve completed this for each question, I invite input from the students, before finalizing the document. It’s then saved and uploaded to the Moodle site. Over the course of the semester, I will check in with the students about the document, to make sure we’re all still on the same page.
…Getting to Know All About You
Students want to know that you actually care about them, that they aren’t just names and numbers on a page. That’s why I think it’s important for all professors to take the opportunity to get to know their students. Your ability to do this will of course vary depending on the size of your class; it’s one thing to expect you to memorize your students’ names in a class of 35 – it’s another to expect you to do the same in a class of 135 students. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still tools you can use to learn about your students.
Recently I’ve been using information surveys in my courses. Towards the end of the first day, I ask students to complete the survey in class and submit it before they leave (you’re much more likely to get answers this way that if you ask them to fill out a survey online!).
Here’s what the survey asks:
First and Last Name:
Nickname/Preferred Name if Different from Above:
Degree and Field of Study:
Reason for Taking this Course:
Questions about the Syllabus or Me:
Prior Experience on the Subject:
What You are Most Excited and/or Concerned About?
Fun Fact About Yourself:
Anything Else You’d Like Me to Know?
I’ve had really great results from the survey, and students have reported that it really made them feel like I was invested in their success. Plus, I always get a few funny or interesting stories in the “fun facts” section, including one student who did highland dance competitions for fun!
Putting It All Together
Now at this point you might be wondering how in the world I fit this all into one class? Am I a sorceress? I wish! Imagine how much easier grading would be….
There are two simple answers: first, this doesn’t actually take as long as you’d think, and two, most of the courses I’ve taught in the last few years are once-a-week classes taught in 3-hour blocks. That said, I rarely spend more than an hour and a half in class on the first day. Here’s how a usual first day will break down:
Introduction (5 minutes)
Syllabus (20 minutes)
Break (10 minutes)
Historical Thinking and Canadian History (30 minutes)
First Day Graffiti (15 minutes)
Information Survey (5 minutes)
Total: 85 minutes (1 hour, 25 minutes)
Of course, these times are all estimates and can be lengthened or shortened according to your preferences. And you don’t need to do everything that I do or, nor do you have to do it all in one class! For instance, if you teach one hour twice a week, you could use the first class as an introduction, and then discuss historical thinking and methodology in the second class. The possibilities are endless.
So there you have it, my strategies for a successful first day of class. Have you used any of these strategies before? Are there are strategies you’ve used in the past that have worked well? Let me know in the comments below! And don’t forge to check back on Sunday for a new Canadian history roundup!
- “First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning,” Faculty Focus
- “First Day of Class, Vanderbilt University Centre for Teaching
- “Avoid Chill in the Classroom: Maintaining a Welcoming and Inclusive Learning Environment,” NC State Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity
- “First Impressions: Activities for the First Day of Class,” Faculty Focus
- “Make the Most of the First Day of Class,” Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation