I’ve been teaching for a while now (technically almost 20 years). Some of you may know that I also have a Master’s in College Student Personnel, which incorporates a lot of educational theory. Combining these experiences with my doctoral work, I’ve heard and tried a lot of theories and best practices for the first class day, and thankfully, finally, whittled down to what works best for me. As most of us are heading back to the classroom right now, I thought I’d share what my trials and errors have led me to do.
Message students the day before the first class. I used to send an email, but now post an announcement to Canvas, our campus-run online course site. The main point is to welcome them to class, and to note that all students registered for the class by the time it starts on the first day are expected to be there.
Have students complete a personal questionnaire. I’ve gone back and forth on this, but decided to go back to it this year. I ask students to complete a questionnaire, partly for me, partly for them. For me, it gives a good overview of student backgrounds and an early heads up for any possible concerns. For them, I always include this: “Is there anything else you would like to let me know about you, especially in relationship to your performance in this class?”. That gives students the opportunity to disclose anything else personal they like. This information ranges widely, although it most often involves disabilities and trans issues. Particularly for trans issues, I know that many teachers begin the semester asking students to state their pronouns. While I support the intent behind the idea, I find–like this New York Times post–that such an activity more often puts students on the spot in ways that might not make them feel comfortable and safe in the class. This way, students have the power to disclose concerns with some power over how they’re revealed and handled. If student has a concern, I email to set up an individual meeting and follow up on how they’d like to manage it with me and in the class.
Run a (fairly painless) icebreaker. Having worked in Student Affairs, I’ve seen my share of icebreakers, and I’m not a big fan of most. The one I’ve settled on hits all my first day needs, managing initial introductions but preparing us to get to know each other more deeply with time. I call it “Connections,” and it basically involves giving all the typical first day info–name (on record and preferred), hometown, academic year, major, reason for taking the class–along with one more personal detail, usually last favorite pop culture experience (e.g. movie, book, etc.). However, instead of going down rows, the order goes by connections between students, so after one goes, the next to speak up (and they have to be the ones to speak up) must have a connection to the previous person based on their information. I find it’s a little livelier than the typical “down the row” scenario, and it sets the stage for the students to take some initiative, get to know each other, and find some personal investment in the class, without being too complicated or high stakes.
Examine the syllabus. I’ve taken other approaches, including giving a very general overview and requiring students to read it on their own, primarily to emphasize the students’ responsibility for the class. Spoiler: in my experience, the students never read enough of the syllabus on their own, and it always led to later frustration for all of us. So now I do the obvious and go over the syllabus thoroughly with them on the first day. I’ve found it just makes everything easier down the line. I try not to read every single word, but do go over each part, and explain more in my own words and on PowerPoint when needed (see more on PowerPoint below). Here’s a link to my Spring 2017 class syllabus, for anyone curious.
Give a snapshot on the class topic. I know many people who like to start out with lecture and/or screening on the first day. I’ve done that in the past and had trouble with it for a few reasons: 1) most students weren’t prepared to take in that information on the first day, 2) it was hard to duplicate that class for late adds and arrivals (see more below), and 3) there was too much other basic business to cover. However, I still try to give the students a taste of what we might cover through a brief, simple example. In the past, I’ve shown a music video, noted a quick connection to the class, and allowed students to share what they see as important in the video and how it might relate to the class. This semester I’m showing these two recent pop culture items, Curvy Kate’s lingerie campaign and Maui’s size in Moana. I’ll give a quick overview, then let the students briefly discuss. It’s not much, but gives them a sense of what we might cover and how those topics may be addressed.
Post the first day PowerPoint but none after. I often augment syllabus information or add details on the class–like my theory behind the class structure–to a PowerPoint because you can never include everything you want on the syllabus. When putting together the PowerPoint, I ask myself three questions: 1) what needs to be most emphasized from the syllabus, 2) what needs to be explained further in the syllabus, and 3) what do I not want to have to discuss or repeat later in the semester. Those become focused items with more detail. The plan for this PowerPoint is to not only use it on the first day, but also post it to Canvas. I don’t normally post PowerPoints, but I like to provide it as a reference for students, especially late adds and arrivals (see below).
Prepare students for work in Week 2. I don’t normally assign any out-of-class reading or screening work in the first week. Past experience has taught me that students are still getting their bearings–buying texts, figuring out their other classes, deciding on work schedules–so assigning work that first week is not so effective. However, I let them know the first day that because there’s no out-of-class work the first week, there’s a bit more required in the second week: I usually have an assignment and an extra reading due on the third class meeting, often involving a screening from the second day of class. This helps the students to gear up for the work of the semester. They’re still doing some work the first few days, just ramping up to more over several class meetings.
Prepare for late adds and arrivals. I’ve never had a class where everyone registered showed up on the first day, and/or no one added after the first day. On our campus it’s not unusual for students to add until the fourth class meeting. In response I prepare for those first four classes so that most of what I cover can be easily made up by anyone adding (or arriving, despite already being registered) late. For those folks, I ask them to read the syllabus with posted PowerPoint (see above), and set up a meeting with me to answer any further questions. I also require that they complete any assignments due the second week, but give them a different deadline, usually one week later. Planning with these late adds and arrivals in mind eases their transition and helps me to make sure all students are as close as I can get them to being on the same page from the start of the semester.
So there you have it. Probably not too far off from what many people do, but a tried and tested series that seems to work best for me. I’ve closed comments on my blog posts, but will share to social media and would love to see responses there and/or in others’ blogs. Good luck to everyone heading back to the classroom!