First Class Strategies

Getting Your Course Off to a Good Start

McKeachie, in his book McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, suggests some goals for the first day of class:

By the end of the first day, students will have:

  1. A sense of where they’re going and how they’ll get there
  2. A feeling that the other members of the class are not strangers, that you and they are forming a group in which it’s safe to participate
  3. An awareness that you care about their teaching
  4. An expectation that the class will be both valuable and fun

McKeachie, 2006, p. 28

The following are strategies that can help you meet each of these goals in your first class session.

PRIOR TO THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS

  • Visit your classroom prior to the first day; familiarize yourself with the room and equipment. Walk around the room to assess the physical space, sightlines and acoustics.
  • Ensure that your course outlines are prepared, photocopied and ready to hand out at the first class, and, if relevant, uploaded to the Learning Portal or the course website.
  • Ensure that required texts have been ordered or placed on reserve in the appropriate library. If you have an opportunity, check that they’re appropriately placed and labeled at the bookstore. Put items on course reserve in the Library.
  • Obtain an up-to-date copy of the class list from your department or from Blackboard.
  • Familiarize yourself with administrative policy regarding prerequisites, waiting lists, late enrollment, and add/drop dates. Students often have questions about these policies on the first day of class.
  • Meet with your TA or lab assistant to go over the course content, your expectations for their work, office hours, and other relevant issues (also see Course Instructor – Teaching Assistant Relationship).
  • If you’ve included a research assignment in your course, consider contacting the liaison librarian for your subject area.  He/she can tell you about various services the library offers to support teaching, and arrange support for your course at your request.

THE FIRST DAY – SETTING THE TONE
The first day is an important opportunity to model how you hope and expect that classes will proceed throughout the semester or year, and to get students immediately engaged in course topics. To set a tone that will support success throughout the course, you might:

  • Plan to use all of the time in your first class.  This will communicate that you take class sessions and your students’ learning seriously.
  • Build a sense of community through active participation. Plan an activity that allows students to get to know you and each other or to solve problems (see some suggestions in “Building a Classroom Community” below).
  • Describe how class time will be structured, and what kinds of learning activities (lecture, discussion, small-group work, etc.) students can expect to experience during class sessions.
  • Clarify, via a handout or discussion, your expectations for students, including those for in-class behaviour and participation, preparation for class, assignments, and interaction with you and the TAs.
  • Explain your organization of the course, including your selection of texts and materials.
  • Contextualize academic regulations and standards (such as those regarding academic integrity) within the broader goals and outcomes of advanced education in the field and within the academic community.
  • Provide a brief overview or review of the material students must have already mastered in order to succeed in the course.
  • Introduce the subject matter of the course. You can provide a brief overview of course topics, identify key questions you will address, or introduce a key concept in an engaging manner (for example you might, stage a provocative demonstration, work through a case study, or pose a controversial question). See below for one such example from a U of T instructor:

Strategies from U of T instructors
You might consider using your first class to introduce students to the big questions the course will consider.  According to award-winning U of T English professor Nick Mount, the first class is an opportunity to model scholarly curiosity in your discipline – perhaps through a specific example that would allow you to move from the particular to the general.  For instance:

A professor of physics enters class and displays a tennis ball.  He claims that, in 20 minutes, he will throw the tennis ball through the wall. He spends 20 minutes providing a lecture that details specific concepts from   physics that prove that it is indeed possible to throw an object through a solid wall.  At the end of 20 minutes, he throws the tennis ball at the wall.  It does not, of course, go through – but in that 20 minutes, he has described some of the counter-intuitive and mysterious properties of matter, an idea that will help to frame students’ understanding of course topics throughout the semester.

THE FIRST DAY – INTRODUCING COURSE DETAILS, POLICIES AND RESOURCES
The first day is also an opportunity to draw student attention to course details, expectations, and policies, and to the resources that can help them succeed.  At some point during the first class, it is usually beneficial to:

  • Provide some information about yourself, including your professional background and academic interests, as well as the best ways to contact you.
  • Introduce the syllabus and ensure students have time to read and discuss it. Share reasons for your approaches and expectations and respond to questions and students’ contributions. Make modifications if necessary.

Strategies from U of T instructors
Carol Rolheiser, award-winning U of T professor and Director of the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, recommends conducting a “Say Something” exercise to introduce the syllabus to your students:

  • Distribute the syllabus and ask students to review specified portions
  • Ask students to pair with a partner to discuss the syllabus. Students may identify a question about the course or about course policies, identify sections of the course that are of particular interest to them, identify topics or assignments that they anticipate to be challenging, or make a connection to previous course work or personal interests.
  • Once students have had an opportunity to read and discuss the syllabus, provide an opportunity for students to raise questions or to comment on the course.
  • Discuss evaluation and grading approaches. Help students see the connections between evaluation methods and course goals. Provide suggestions on how to succeed in your class.
  • Describe resources that will support learning and let students know how to access these. These resources might include you as the instructor, other course staff, the course website or other course materials, or divisional or institutional student support services.  You might also show them the Library resources button in your Blackboard course (left-hand navigation), which includes library resources for your discipline. The resources listed can be modified at your request.  Contact for liaison librarian for assistance. You might also provide strategies for how students can serve as peer support for each other (through, for example, study groups, or by sharing contact information for questions).

INSTITUTIONAL RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS
Writing at the University of Toronto (www.writing.utoronto.ca/home)
University of Toronto Libraries  (https://onesearch.library.utoronto.ca/)
Academic Success Centre (St. George) (www.asc.utoronto.ca/)
Academic Integrity website (http://academicintegrity.utoronto.ca/)
Academic Skills Centre, UTM (www.utm.utoronto.ca/asc)
Centre for Teaching and Learning, UTSC (ctl.utsc.utoronto.ca/home/)

AT THE CONCLUSION OF THE FIRST CLASS

  • Leave some time to address students’ concerns & questions.
  • Request some feedback from your students about their first impressions of the course. At the end of the first class, have students complete a 2-minute anonymous written reaction to the first class session. You might ask them to note any questions they still have, their goals for taking the course, the topics they are most excited about or most concerned about, or how they see this course interacting with their personal or professional interests. This demonstrates an interest in them and their learning, and begins to build a learning climate where students have responsibilities for thinking about their learning and providing input to the instructor. You might use some of their responses to begin the next class session.
  • Before dismissing the class, briefly discuss what you will be covering at your next meeting and give them something to do before the next class (e.g. a reading or a short assignment).

BUILDING A CLASSROOM COMMUNITY
The first day is also a good opportunity to get to know the students, and to have them get to know each other, in order to pre-empt some of the challenges anonymity in the university environment can cause. Some students, especially first year students, may also have questions or concerns about your expectations or the expectations of the university environment in general. To build community and address some of these anxieties, some instructors have found success in the following strategies:

  • Ask students to fill out information cards with their name, field of study, and a memorable detail (this can take the place of attendance).
  • Use clickers or flashcards to poll students about any anxieties they have about the course or about university in general, or about their current familiarity with the topics of the course.
  • Assess students’ prior knowledge. You might poll them about previous courses in the subject, conduct a brief (anonymous) clicker quiz, or ask them about previous experience with the topic. Communicate the value of the diverse experiences that students can bring to the course.
  • Conduct an “ice breaker” activity, such as asking students to introduce themselves and share the last book they’ve read, or describe their interest in the course topic.  With a small class, everyone can participate; with a large class, you may ask students to introduce themselves to a neighbour, or give small groups of students a short problem to solve and present to the rest of the class.
  • If students are required to complete a research assignment in your course, you may consider an activity to assess their information literacy skills.  Consider talking to your liaison librarian who can suggest an appropriate assessment.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University.  (2008). First day of class.  Retrieved from: www.vanderbilt.edu/cft/resources/teaching_resources/preparing/first_day.htm

Faculty of Arts & Science, University of Toronto.  Guide for instructors of first year courses.  Retrieved from Guide to First-Year Courses