Making the First Day Count

As another academic year begins, we’ll all be in situations over the next few days that prove the truth of the old adage, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” As Sarah Rose Cavanagh points out, our students will quickly form impressions of both us and our courses—as unfair as that might sound—and those impressions can prove remarkably durable, perhaps even overshadowing much of what we do throughout the rest of the semester. Even if we aren’t teaching in a traditional classroom or course environment, even if our interactions with students involve office visits or the like, those first impressions are crucial. How can we best let students know they belong here, and that we are here to help them become successful?

A good way to approach the first day is to think about how you can use that particular space to set the tone you want for the rest of the semester. Model the tone and enthusiasm you wish to see from students. If you want the class to be driven primarily by discussion, for example, make sure you’re incorporating plenty of opportunities for discussion in your plans for the first day. For whatever we want our students to be doing throughout their learning experience, we should provide them the opportunity to get started on the first day; think of the initial class session as a microcosm of the entire semester.

Other specific tips and tricks for a successful first day include:

  • Don’t begin by immediately passing out the syllabus and reading it back to the students. While you may want to ensure that they understand everything in that document, this probably won’t set the type of tone you want. Think about introducing some course material, or doing some sort of introductory/icebreaker activity, first.
  • Learn your students’ names and begin using them regularly. Obviously, unless we’ve got a room full of students we’ve met before or have had in prior courses, we’ll not know names right off the bat. But having students introduce themselves to you and to one another helps in learning those names quickly. Moreover, student introductions let them demonstrate how their names are pronounced correctly and/or give their preferred name as well. Over and over, students tell us that one of the things that makes them feel most included is when their professors or campus staff know them by name.
  • Begin to build community by greeting students before class, or having a conversation with the students who’ve arrived early. If you’re coming straight from another class, this might be difficult, but this type of community-building is an easy practice that’s well worth the extra time, if you can spend it.

These are just a few suggestions for a thinking about a successful first day of class. The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently published a longer guide, “How to Teach a Good First Day of Class,” by James Lang, and I highly recommend it. Whichever direction you end up going with your first-day plans, I hope it’s a successful one—here’s to a great start of the academic year!

Have a question? Need some assistance? Want to check out a teaching and learning book? Come by the CETL in Rasmussen 208 or contact us to set up an appointment.

Finally, I hope your start to the semester goes more smoothly than this pup’s pursuit of…whatever it was:


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