First Class Strategies

Table of Contents

The following tips and resources are designed to support instructors as they begin a new course, in-person or online. Divisions and departments might have resources specific to their individual needs and concerns.

Getting Off to a Good Start

McKeachie’s Teaching Tips suggests by the end of the first day of class, students should have:

  • A sense of where they’re going and how they’ll get there
  • 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
  • An awareness that you care about their teaching
  • An expectation that the class will be both valuable and fun

McKeachie, 2006, p. 28

First Class Strategies

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

  • Visit your classroom prior to the first day; familiarize yourself with the room and equipment.
  • Ensure that your course outlines are prepared, photocopied and ready to hand out at the first class, and, if relevant, uploaded to Quercus or the course website.
  • Ensure that required texts have been ordered or place on course reserve in the appropriate library. If you have an opportunity, check that they’re appropriately placed and labeled at the bookstore.
  • Put items on  in the Library.
  • Obtain an up-to-date copy of the class list from your department or from Quercus.
  • 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. They can tell you about various services the library offers to support teaching, and arrange support for your course at your request.

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).

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.
  • 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. You might ask them to note any questions they still have, their goals for taking the course, the topics they are most excited  or most concerned about. 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).

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).
  • The TATP offers resources on performing Access Checks at the start of class and Community Agreements.
  • Assess students’ prior knowledge. You might poll them about previous courses in the subject, conduct a brief (anonymous) clicker or online 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.

We asked members of the University of Toronto’s Teaching Academy, “How do you ‘set the tone’ on the first day of class?”

Other Resources to Support Your First Class

Teaching Assistants' Training Program Resources

The TATP offers a number of resources concerning inclusion and accessibility as you get started in your course:

  • Access Checks allow students space to let you know if they need any accommodations.
  • Community Agreements between learners define how to work together throughout the course and can include guidelines for what it means to be respectful, expectations about turn-taking, or accessibility needs.
  • Facilitating for Equity offers strategies on how to set a standard of inclusion for your class.

Teaching Assistants' Training Program

For information on graduate student and Teaching Assistant professional development and job training, please visit the TATP for resources, events and more.

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Enroll in the SoTL Hub to access resources, share ideas and engage with your U of T community.

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