First Day of Class

The first day of class is important because it provides the preview for the course. It affords you the opportunity to introduce yourself and the course, get a sense of your students, and set the tone for the semester.  It also gives students a chance to try the course out by getting a sense of who you are, what your expectations are, and what your course will be like.  Carefully plan the first class session so you are sure to cover everything intended and set the impression you want to maintain as the semester continues.

Remember. . .

  • First impressions are lasting so make the most of the first day
  • Success is dependent upon planning. Your efforts will pay off with a more satisfying first day for your students, which will set the tone for the entire semester.

Plan your first day objectives

Prepare to meet your needs and the needs of your students by planning ahead:

Making a first impression: You have only one chance to create a positive first impression. You can do this by introducing yourself in a positive and friendly tone and clarifying class goals and expectations to reduce misconceptions.

  • Introducing yourself: At the beginning of the first class, introduce yourself to establish your chosen level of familiarity. Tell students what to call you (Professor, Doctor, Joe) and decide whether to tell them anything about yourself.
  • Introducing your course: Students may need basic course information to determine if the course is right for them; the sooner students understand course expectations, the more informed they’ll be to make speedy schedule changes, if necessary, within the add/drop time frame. You should give a course content overview (or even a mini-lecture) that provides a broad look at the subject. This gives students an idea of what to expect from the content of the course.

Connecting with students: You can also start connecting with students by making them feel welcomed to the course and excited about the topic. Students have many questions about how the class will meet their needs and how competent, caring, and fair the instructor appears. You should strive to establish a give-and-take atmosphere the first day by asking questions of the students.  Give students a chance to ask questions and make their own connections on the first day too so students will be more at ease and that comfort will continue into subsequent classes.

To provide a comfortable and welcoming environment for all students, try to not assume the gender identities of others based on their names or physical appearance. If you are unsure, you can use gender neutral pronouns, such as "they." For more guidance on gender etiquette, please refer to the Rainbow Center's etiquette guide.

If the class is small, acknowledge and attempt to learn students’ names.  The Student Administration System includes students’ pictures with the roster. This tool can help you put a face to a name.

Why and how to learn student names??

Although it takes effort on your part, learning your students’ names can prove beneficial in creating the classroom environment you desire. By knowing student names, the course is more organized, has increased discussion, and has increased student-instructor rapport and trust.

Techniques:

  • Utilized pictures from the Student Administration System (PeopleSoft)
  • Have required visits to your office to pick up assignments or test results
  • Ask students their name when they raise their hand
  • Have students hand in exams to you when completed or assignments as they walk in door and look at the name then greet them by name
  • While students are working in groups, circulate the room to learn names in these groups
  • Utilize ice breakers, particularly those that allow you to link name to something or someone you can easily remember (funny fact, superhero, favorite author)
  • Many students sit in the same seats for every session so create a seating chart
  • Quiz yourself on student names while you are proctoring an exam or during group work

Ice Breakers Ideas

Individual or Paired Activities

  • Introductions. Have students interview each other with a list of pre-developed questions and then introduce their partners to the class.

Small Group Activities

  • Ask the Instructor. In groups of 3-4 students, have the students introduce themselves to each other, develop a question they would like the instructor to answer, and then write the question on a note card. Collect the note cards and answer each question.
  • Common Ground. In small groups, have students come up with six things that they all have in common, then have each group share their lists with the rest of the class.
  • Venn Diagram. In groups of 3-4 students, give each group a large sheet of paper and a different color marker for each person, then have them draw a Venn diagram with an oval for each student. The students in each group should diagram their similarities and differences.

Whole Class Activities

  • Assumptions and myths. Have students discuss assumptions and myths about the content area or about college courses.
  • Five-Fingers. Have each student give the following information using the five fingers on his/her/their hand as a prompt:
    • Thumb – name something you’re good at
    • Pointer – state your career goal
    • Middle – tell the others something that makes you mad
    • Ring – name someone or something special to you
    • Pinky – state something to remember you by
  • People Bingo. Do a variation of a scavenger hunt by giving students a sheet of paper with a list of activities (e.g., has studied another language, grew up in another state, born in another country, majoring in biology, has performed before an audience of at least 100, has already bought the text for this course, has 4 or more siblings). Have them match other students in the class to the activities or facts listed. Students should sign their name by the activity or fact that applies to them but each student’s name can only appear once on the sheet. The first student to fill in all the blanks or the one who has the most blanks filled in after 10-15 minutes wins.
  • How do you feel? Ask the students to write down words or phrases that describe their feelings on the first day of class on the blackboard, then ask them to write down what they think you as the teacher are feeling this first day of class. Note the parallels and briefly comment on your feelings.
  • Two True, One False. Go around the class and everyone has to say two true statements about themselves and one false. The rest of the group has to guess which one is false.

Breaking the ice: Consider using “ice breakers” to ease some of the first-day awkwardness. Ice breaker activities can help students and faculty get acquainted and establish classroom community on the first day of class, along with helping students begin to develop a support network for the class. See the list of ice breaker ideas below.

Reviewing syllabus: Consider handing out the syllabus or, if it is online, bringing it up on the overhead and reading through it with the students. This may be the only time they go over it.  Highlight your course’s student learning outcomes or objectives and expectations for class behavior.  Explain why you chose your textbook and readings, discussing how they relate to each other and to the course content. Students typically look to the syllabus for due dates, but they may not look at the rest beyond this first opportunity.  Emphasize that the syllabus is a “contract” between the instructor and the students.

Starting on course material: Depending on how long the class session lasts and all that you want to accomplish beyond housekeeping, you will need to decide on what you want to accomplish but at least part of the first session should deal with content. As part of the course overview, you can whet their appetite with video segments or provide a concept map of how the course fits together. You can help students start making connection with their prior knowledge and how it will be expanded in your course. Plan this portion carefully because it could leave a poor impression if, on the first day, you already are unable to cover all the material that you planned.

Ending the first session: At the end of the first session, you should take a few moments to allows students to reflect utilizing techniques such as a minute paper. You can also reassure students since some amount of cognitive dissonance or even a state of panic can occur following the first session.

Tips:

  • Visit the classroom before the first class session. Sit in various areas of the room, including the last row. Are you able to see the screen, white board, or monitors from all areas?
  • Be enthusiastic. Be there early to talk to students. Greet each student upon his/her entrance. Stay late to talk to students.
  • Debrief any icebreaker activities you use. Talk with students about why you spent class doing it, ensuring they understand their fellow students can be valuable resources. Ask for student opinions on the use of icebreakers and what they learned.

Additional resources:

Brent, R. & Felder, M. (1999). It’s a start. College Teaching, 47(1), 14-17.

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Erickson, B., Peters, C.B., & Strommer, D.W. (2006). Teaching first year college students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lyons, R.E., Ksilka, M.L., & Pawlas, G.E. (1999). The adjunct professor’s guide to success. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

McGlynn, A.P. (2001). Successful beginnings for college teaching: Engaging your students from the first day of class. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Meyers, S., & Smith, B. (2011). The first day of class. To Improve the Academy (Judith E. Miller & James E. Groccia, Eds), 29, 147-159. 

Silberman, M.L. (1996). Active learning. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Smith, G. (September, 2008). First-day questions for the learner-centered classroom. The National Teaching& Learning Forum, 17(5), 1-4.

Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W. J. (2010) McKeachie's teaching tips : Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

20-Minute Mentor Tips

Thanks to our institution subscription to 20-Minute Mentor you have countless teaching tip videos available at the click of a button. Here are a few related to this topic:

How can student learning begin before the first day of class?

How can I capture students’ interest in the first 5 minutes?

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The first day can be challenging so Prof. Green recommends icebreaking

Listen to Prof. Mitch Green's advice on using the entire first class

Prof. Mitch Green provides tips for what to accomplish on the first day