The first day of class is a chance to set the tone for a successful learning experience. We are often concerned with our students motivation and study habits, and the first day of class is an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a successful academic term.
There are many things that can and probably should take place on the first day:
- Get to know each other. Of course you want to know your students and have them know each other. Depending on the size of your class, you might have each student introduce themselves by sharing something relevant to your content, or use small groups to discuss a problem or concept you will be exploring. You might use a questionnaire to get a better sense of their interests and prior knowledge.
- Set the tone. If you want student participation in a course, it’s easier when you get them talking from the beginning. If you are going to regularly incorporate groups, you can start with an introductory group activity. Asking students to share what they already know about your content area, and what questions they hope to answer, is an easy way to find out about their preconceptions and get them participating.
- Set expectations. The first day is also an ideal time to start talking to students about what it takes for them to be successful in your course. Don’t presume that they know how to study and learn in your course. You might spend some time asking them and explaining what good study habits look like for your course.
- Review the course structure. Many students do not read the syllabus because they think the instructor will review the important parts for them on the first day of class. Why not give a syllabus quiz instead of using class time to review the syllabus? Or, only address specific questions from students. This also sets the precedent that they are responsible for their share of the work.
- Motivate students. You are likely teaching your course because you are passionate and excited about your content area. Your students may not walk in the door with the same level of excitement. It’s a good idea to let students know what they will get out of the course, and to start right off the bat with an exciting experiment or an exciting topic.
- Start learning. In a 10-week quarter system especially, you don’t want to waste the first day of class. Students are always hesitant to get started but you don’t want them leaving your class without having felt that they learned something.
Easing Students into Your Class
It is often difficult to remember what it was like to be a newcomer to your discipline. Yet students walk in the door to our classrooms each quarter as newcomers, with very little prior knowledge about our subject matter. Research about information processing and learning indicates that new information is retained better if it is tied to existing knowledge. When we learn new information, we fit it into a structure of knowledge that already exists in our heads. If there is little or no structure, it is difficult to correctly retain that information.
Consider beginning your class in a way that allows students to begin to develop a structure, however simple, upon which to ‘fit’ the information they will learn during the quarter. You might ask questions about what students already know, discuss a common misconception, demonstrate an everyday example, or refresh their memory about concepts and knowledge from prior coursework. Whatever you do, help ease students into your course the first few weeks by providing a conceptual structure they can build upon.