A Successful Start to the Semester

Other than speed-dating, I can’t think of an occasion where initial impressions matter more than the first day of a semester’s class. Even if we’re teaching a course in which students might not have been highly motivated to enroll, and do so only because it’s part of their Core or major requirements, we still have an opportunity to change their perceptions. For students who are anxious about our course–perhaps it’s a difficult prerequisite, or they’ve been unsuccessful in the subject previously–we have a chance to to take the edge of that anxiety and get them thinking about how they can be successful. For any course, though, first impressions matter. There’s no other point in the semester where a short period of time can have such an outsized effect on the course.

Yet, many students have been conditioned to see the first day of a course as merely “syllabus day”; they show up, get the syllabus, listen to a few announcements, then leave after 15 minutes. Instructors who keep their classes the full period on the first day are often met with quizzical looks and eye-rolls from students who think they’ve violated some sort of sacred cultural norm. The expectation of an abbreviated “syllabus day,” though, deserves to fade into obscurity. We have such a limited amount of face-to-face time with our students as it is (between 40 and 45 hours for the entire semester, and even fewer for blended courses); there’s no need to take even more of it away. But more importantly, it’s difficult to set the right tone for a class when the first session is nothing more than a perfunctory set of announcements and an early dismissal. It would be difficult to expect students to take our courses seriously after a beginning like that. 

A good rule of thumb for a successful first day is to let our students experience everything they’ll be asked to do during the semester in microcosm. If I plan for my course to include ample amounts of discussion and collaboration, then my first class session should include a good dose of discussion and an opportunity to collaborate on some small task with one another. But most of all, in addition to the necessary opening-of-semester business, teaching something should be at the heart of our first day of class plans. It can be easy to lose track of course material in the hustle and bustle of logistics and syllabi and required texts, but getting our students engaged in it quickly can pay large dividends. What are the “big questions” of the course? What kind of problems will our students be asked to solve? How does the course fit into the larger framework of our program, or of the core? The answers to this line of questioning might be the nucleus for a good first-day plan.

In that spirit, this week’s links are to resources that can help us get our semesters off to a successful start:

There are number of specific things we can do with our students to create an “inviting classroom”; this excellent set of suggestions from Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching provides a good starting point.

This set of insights from Stanford University professors offers a nice mix of practical hints (arrive early to greet students) and pedagogical suggestions (show your students what attracted you to the subject).

Carnegie-Mellon’s Eberle Center is a nice repository of teaching resources; this collection on the first day of class is particularly useful.

Finally, I like this page from the University of Nebraska, because it extends the conversation into the first three weeks of the semester, and also has a number of just-in-time, quick-hit suggestions for activities that come in handy on the days I have brain lock.

As we begin the semester, remember that Grand View requires syllabi to be submitted to department chairs and archived. If you want to do a last-minute tune-up, or make sure you have everything you need in your syllabi, visit the Syllabus Creation Resources page on MyView (MyView menu > administration > office of the provost > syllabus creation). If you are looking for instructions for the technology in your classroom, you can download a set by clicking HERE. If you’re in a Panopto-enabled classroom, or wish to use the software to record videos or screencasts, you can find information and directions HERE.

CETL has a full slate of professional development opportunities available this semester, and we hope to see you at one or more of our workshops. You can find the full calendar of events on the Resources and Programming page of this site, or you can use the calendar to search for individual events.

Remember that CETL staff are available for consultation, troubleshooting, or any other teaching and learning-related questions you might have. Just call, come by, or use the contact form on this site to get in touch with us. We hope you have a great start to the semester!

Finally, may all of your students be as happy to start the semester as this dog is to be shopping at Target.


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