by Kathleen Bortolin

In my earlier days of teaching, I dreaded the first class of the semester.  At the beginning of term there was so much nervous energy—mostly mine.  These nerves always threw me, so I did what made the most sense: hand out the syllabus, say a couple of things, and send them on their way; we’d start in earnest the next time we met.  Procrastination wins again! Over the years, I’ve learned that the first class is an opportunity not to be wasted and when I used that time well, it made a difference to classroom dynamics and the energy of the term.

There are endless possible ways to structure one’s first class of the semester, but I like to frame my first class around four key topics: building a little community, engaging in a little bit of (awesome!) learning, co-creating expectations and handing out the syllabus.  I see this framework as an achievable way to conceptualize capitalizing on the first day of class.  Boxes I can tick, because I like that sort of thing.

  1. Build a little community: Introduce students and yourself

You’re probably a little nervous on the first day of class.  There is often that little voice in the back of your head wondering if they are going to throw tomatoes at you, call you a phoney, and stage a revolt. At least this is what goes through my head early semester. But remember, that’s never happened to you before, and probably never will.  Students are also nervous that first week of class, listening to their own inner monologues around fear and self-doubt.  Spending sometime in class engaging in low-stakes, easy-peasy, and if possible, fun, introductions and get-to-know-one-another ice-breakers can help everyone feel less isolated and hopefully more connected.  Here are a few ideas:

Line-up: Depending on the number of students (this doesn’t always work so well with super large classes), have students line up according to some criteria.  I like to use low-stakes criteria like distance from campus, place of birth, birth month, etc.  Students have to move, organize themselves, share a little information, and end up learning a little bit about their classmates (“I was also born in Flin Flon!”).

The boring interview: You can always have students partner up and engage in structured, non-structured or semi-structured interviews where they collect a little information about one another and share it out, but a variation of this has students sharing the most boring details of themselves.  (I stole this from @drrachelbrenner from Twitter).  The answers are fun, and sometimes not even that boring. Next time I might try: tell your partner one interesting thing about you, one boring thing about you, and what you’re most interested in learning this semester.

Tent cards: I struggle with student names so I often have them make name cards to help me out.  Sometimes I have them interview one another and then create the name card for their partners, including a design or graphic on the name card that represents their partner. And they have to explain it.   It’s a bit artsy-craftsy, but it builds connections and helps with remembering names.

Find Someone Who: This is like a human bingo game where students are given a bingo sheet and have to collect positive answers from around the room.  Students may have to find someone who… “works part-time;” “knows what a moraine is;” “has the same birth month as you.”  In this way students mill about the class finding out information about their classmates.  I like to blend personal and course-specific questions in this activity and then debrief afterwards in order to learn a little more about my students, and which ones know what a moraine is.

Speed-dating: Students partner up with one person for a quick-fire round of chit-chat.  The chit-chat could be social or related to course content, or both (!) as long as it’s low-stakes and fun.  In a geology class, for example, students could be given a picture of a rock or a mineral and have to try to describe it to their partner so that they guess it.  The key here is to have students rotate around with a bit of a purpose, and to engage with as a many people as keeps the activity engaging (I like 4-5).  A whistle or a gong goes a long way here.

Introduce yourself: Students will want to know a little bit about you.  The question to ask yourself is what would you like them to know about you?  What information is helpful?  I like to make the argument on the first day that I’m somehow credible to teach the class.  So I’ll talk a little bit about how I came to be standing in front of them.  I like to tell stories, and sometimes I share one funny story of how I failed epically as a student or a teacher.  They seem to like these, but it’s a balance to tell the story in a way that doesn’t intimidate them or embarrass me.  For anyone who struggles with how to share or what to share, there is always two truths and a lie.  In this activity, you list three facts about yourself.  Two are true and one is a lie.  Students try to determine which one is a lie.  You can model this for them using yourself, and then have students partner up and do it again with each other.

2.Engage in a little bit of super-fun learning

Once introductions are complete, and hopefully students are warmed up and a little less nervous, I like to capitalize on that energy and do a little bit of learning. To me it never felt right to dive right into course content.  No one is in the right head space for that, especially me.  But at the same time, the first class is a chance to engage students in the concepts of the class in a light, engaging, and thought-provoking way.  For first day classes, I like to design an activity that is going to get the students curious and interested in the concepts or the content, but is still low-stakes.  Is there a way that I can get them to muddle over a problem and discover something that they didn’t know or a way to make them curious about the class? One example from a history context is to show students 3 or 4 examples of artwork from various points in history.  Students work with a partner or two to try to describe what is happening and what historical period the artwork is from, and maybe what it is trying to represent historically. This is not for marks and won’t end up on test (make sure to stress this!).  Student work together trying to predict what is happening in the picture or its historical significance, bringing their ideas and thoughts to the discussion.  The instructor can then facilitate a discussion and “reveal” what the artwork represents, making ties to between the artwork shown, the students’ predictions and the context of the class. This is just one example, but any activity that gets students thinking and predicting and discovering would work. And if you can surprise them a little, and peak their curiosity, even better.

3. Communicate (or co-create!) expectations

I have expectations.  I just do.  There are certain actions and behaviours that I like to promote in my class because I’ve been teaching long enough to know that if certain conditions (like active listening and respectful disagreeing) are met then my class is going to chug along nicely with a good vibe and meaningful learning.  But I don’t like the authoritarian school-marm approach of telling my students what they need to do.  Don’t even get me started on the all-caps, bold print in course syllabi that reads like a probation report. I like to set expectations with my students, inviting them into the process of co-creating the general rules and regulations of the class.  Right off the bat I invite the students into the course as co-designers, shifting away from a traditional top down approach to more of a shared-power, bottom-up approach.  In my experience, students have a lot to offer and often end up citing many of my own expectations.  Turns out students in general also don’t love late-comers, cellphone addicts, or disrespectful know-it-alls.  But because they have come up with these rules and regulations I have their buy-in from the get-go.  To facilitate this, I put students in small groups (2-3 students) and ask them to brainstorm and write down (anonymously) a list of expectations they have for the class.  I sometimes will put headings on the board if necessary to give the activity structure (late assignments, feedback, cell phones, discussions, etc.).  Students brainstorm a flurry of post-its that they can then stick under the headings.  I go over them as a class, and group like-minded ones together.  At the end of class, I collect the post-its and use them to make a list, but more often a rubric, that works as a self-assessment 1-2 times throughout the semester. 

3. Handout the syllabus

The syllabus is the road map for students.  It should communicate learning outcomes, assignments (including rationale and weight), due dates, resources like texts, and general expectations around communicating with instructors and academic integrity.  There are a slew of other items that you can include in a syllabus but these are my baseline.  Some instructors have students partner up and do a seek-and-find to uncover certain information on the syllabus that they want to draw their students’ attention to.  As long as students have a digital or hard copy, and an opportunity to ask questions I think you can check this box. 

To summarize, you can structure your first class around four main check boxes:

  • Building a little community through introductions of students and instructor
  • A little bit of engaging, low-stakes, super-fun learning
  • Co-creating expectations
  • Going over the syllabus

Check, check, check, check.  And you’re done. Until the next class.