First day of class

…because there are always classes starting somewhere or other…

Ever wondered what a good practice for your first day of class might be? I started talking about this with colleagues prompted by a video on the coursera course on evidence-based undergraduate #STEMTeaching (which, btw, I recommend you put on your watch-list and take it as soon as it becomes available again! It was really that good!). The video showed a dramatization of a not-very-good first-day-of-class speech, and my colleagues and I used it as a starting point to come up with a good practice list of what should (and should not!) be included in such a speech.

It turned out that we came up with a very long list, and many of the items on that list were a bit know-your-audience. But then I came across a document by L.D. Fink (1999): First day of class: What can/should we do? and it provides a really nice summary of things I personally think are important. Below is my own take on their points:

  1. Involve students quickly. This way, students know that they are expected to actively participate in this specific course (even if not in other courses). Also for many people, it is pretty important to hear your own voice in a new setting fairly early on in order to not build up a threshold of “I haven’t spoken until now, so what if I start now – how will people react?”. Have them speak to their neighbors if the class is too large for everybody to introduce themselves in front of the whole class, but make them talk.
  2. Identify the value and importance of the subject. Even though you yourself know that your course is the most fascinating course on the most fascinating topic one could possibly imagine, many students might be in your class because it’s a requirement. So it is a good idea point out the relevance of the subject early on. And it’s an even better idea to have them figure it out themselves, for example by asking them to draw mind maps, for example on what they might need to know about your subject in order to solve a specific problem. You can then for example take up the topics they come up with, cluster them and relate them to your curriculum.
  3. Set expectations. It will be very hard to get students to actively participate once they have come to expect that your class is one where one can largely sit and listen. Also respectful behavior is a lot more likely if it is modeled and lived from the get-go rather than reinforced later on. Let students know what your class will be like, what the rules are, how much participation you expect, these kinds of things.
  4. Establish rapport. Let them know they can approach you if problems manifest. Let them see you as a human being.
  5. Reveal something about yourself. This point was contested in my discussion group mentioned above, but I think it is a very important one. Get your students to see you as a person with interests and dedicated to the subject. I like to talk about what led me to stand in front of them – why I got interested in the topic, how I pursued that interest, what interesting things happened along the way.
  6. Establish your own credibility. For me, this is strongly linked to the previous point. As you talk about your own path, students learn about previous positions you held, achievements, research cruises, all those things that establish your own credibility.
  7. Establish the “climate” for the class. This ties back to earlier points, too. You should know what kind of climate you want in your class: Will it be relaxed or intense? Funny or serious? Personal or distant? By starting out your course in a certain climate, it is easier to ensure that this is the climate that will dominate the class for the rest of the semester, than trying to change climate once you’ve got going.
  8. Provide administrative information. This is kind of a no-brainer – after all, this is what most first classes are all about. What are the requirements? Deadlines? Formats? Where is your office, what are your contact details, this kind of thing.
  9. Introduce the subject matter. This is a point I feel strongly about: No matter how good a job you do on all the other points: You need to get going with content right from the start, or, in line with what I wrote above about setting the tone, nobody will expect that this class is actually about content if you only talk about admin info during all of the first class.

The document closes with a final note:

“Remember that it is imperative that you do on the first day whatever it is you want the class to do the rest of the semester. If you want them to discuss, discuss on the first day. If you want them to work in small groups, find something for them to do in small groups on the first day.”

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