Preparing for the First Day of Class

As I review my evaluations from the Fall semester, and prepare my syllabi for the Spring semester, I am starting to feel the first day jitters coming. It happens to me every semester, and for every class, no matter how many times I have taught it before. The best way for me to deal with these jitters, and to get the semester off to a good start, is to have a well-thought out strategy for the first day of class. Most students (and some Professors) view the first day as a formality… a time when you get the syllabus, but nothing really important happens. In fact, students usually expect to get out early, because how long can it take to pass out the syllabus?

I view the first day of class as one of the most important days. It provides the opportunity for you to explain the expectations and requirements of the course, but it also provides an opportunity to: 1) set the tone for the semester, 2) start to build rapport with your students, 3) introduce your students to the topic, 4) give your students a real sense of your teaching style and approach to the topic, and 5) start to build a classroom environment that is conducive to learning (and not just focused on grades). At a recent teaching conference I attended a session on this topic, and one presenter explained that the first day should mirror the entire semester. If you are going to ask students to be active and involved, then you need to give them the chance to do that on the first day. If you are going to lecture, then you need to do that on the first day. If you emphasize small group activities, then you need to do that on the first day.

So how can you “do it all” on the first day? You can’t, really, but this is the approach I have used in the past for my Adolescence classes (which I hope gives you some ideas).  First, I do introductions. I introduce myself, including my background in teaching and studying adolescence, my general teaching philosophy, and why I love teaching about adolescent development. I also share with the class a “quirk” about myself that I think may help them feel comfortable in my classroom. In my case, I usually share with the class that I have a “thinking face”—that is, when I am thinking (or attentively listening) I tend to make a face that includes a furrowed brow, and downturned lips. This face is somewhat ambiguous, but can be interpreted in negative ways. Letting the students know that this face just means that I am thinking about what they are saying at the beginning of the semester saves them a little time in figuring it out, and helps them to feel more comfortable sharing in class. I then ask them to individually introduce themselves, and share their own quirk with the class. This not only encourages everyone to share something with the class (e.g., special talents, areas of expertise, interesting experiences, etc.), but is also helps the class as a whole to understand the other members of their learning community. Students sometimes share things that directly impact the classroom environment (e.g., severe allergies), or indirectly add to classroom discussion (e.g., that they have an identical twin). These quirks also help me to remember each student’s name, and build rapport (I often refer back to their quirk in conversation later in the semester).

Second, I give an overview of the course, and have a brief question and answer session about the syllabus. I don’t go over everything in the syllabus, but I mention a few highlights, and give them a few minutes to look it over before asking for their questions. If I am met with silence, I ask probing questions like “what do you MOST want to know about this class?” or “can you turn written work in late?” I also encourage them to read the syllabus more carefully on their own, and bring additional questions to the second class.

Third, I have the students do a small group activity. I have them get into groups of 3-4, and discuss things that: 1) contribute to an optimal learning environment, and 2) distract/detract from an optimal learning environment. After they have had time to discuss these questions, I ask that each group share with the class, and draft three possible class “rules” that will help us to maintain an optimal learning environment for everyone. I then compile these “rules,” and we use them as a guide throughout the semester. I have found this to be an effective way to deal with issues like texting in class, use of lap tops, distracting side conversations, etc. If the students generate the guidelines, and explain their rationale for doing so (e.g., “when other students’ phones buzz or vibrate I find it distracting, and lose my train of thought”), they are more likely to follow them, and encourage their classmates to do so as well.

Fourth, I give a mini-lecture of the history of the study of adolescence. I give them a sense of where the field has been, where it is now, and where it might be going. I introduce some interesting topics that we will discuss throughout the semester (e.g., how do you know you are an adolescent? an adult?), and get them interested in the material.

Finally, I conclude with an individual writing activity. Some semesters I have asked them to write down the one thing that they really hope to learn in my course (and then I refer back to those throughout the semester as appropriate). Other semesters I have asked them to look over my course objectives and goals, and to draft goals for themselves for the semester. I encourage them to think about how they learn best, specific strategies they may use to enhance their learning, and areas they feel they can improve on (e.g., a “shy” student may have the goal to contribute to class once a week). I also ask them to make goals that are clear, achievable, and measureable—because I have them revisit these goals mid-semester to gauge their progress, and make any adjustments.

This first-day strategy has helped me to build rapport with students, show them that I expect them to be active participants in their learning, and give them a sense of what types of things they will be doing throughout the semester. Feel free to share some of your first-day strategies in the comments!

By Renee Paltz Dennison

Image by Rob/AdobeStock

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