Starting off on the right foot

Welcome back! It’s been a wonderful summer. I hope you got the chance to recharge, refresh and renew. I hope that you tune in to this blog on Tuesdays for ideas about teaching and about life as a college professor/teacher. I would love to hear from you, dear readers, so please try to comment now and then!

As we plan for our new academic year, take a moment to think about those first few minutes with your new students. The first class session is really important for getting the semester off to a great start. Think about your course goals and how you might use the first day of class to get things off on the right foot.

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So often we begin a new class by taking attendance, followed by remarks about the syllabus and course goals. These are important tasks for the first day, of course, but I think they don’t set the right tone for the class. Already, during the attendance, students tune out. They listen for their name and then just zone out. Maybe they are thinking about where they are sitting in the room, or whether they know anyone else in the class, or what class they have next, or when they will get to have their next meal or whether they’ve gotten any text messages. Don’t you really want them thinking about the class material?

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Rather than begin class by taking attendance, try out these ideas. Be sure to be flexible in case you have some students hoping to add your class- who aren’t on your roster.

1. Do a “speed-dating” style question set about concepts related to the course material. Basically, this gets everyone moving, talking and thinking about the course material. After this class activity, each student will have met half of the class. In the follow-up after the activity, you could take attendance by calling on student groups. I frequently use this activity as both an ice-breaker and as a way to let the class know that I expect them to participate actively. Check out my post from Feb. 4, 2014 for details on how to do this activity.

2. Sit in a circle (if your class isn’t larger than about 25 students) and do a name/where’re you from activity. Sometimes I also ask each student to say why he/she is taking the course or what they expect to get out of the course. Or, sometimes, I have each student mention a favorite factoid related to the course material. For example, if the course is introductory biology, I might ask that each student mention a favorite “bio-fact.”

3. Start out with groups of four students and have the groups create a concept map about what they think the course will be about. Share maps out loud at the board or in place. With today’s technology, we can take a picture with a cell phone and then project the image on a screen. Then, at the end, make a class “map” of the consensus and discuss this in context with your class goals/syllabus. This works best on a chalkboard, but a smartboard works too.

4. Treat the syllabus like a document and have groups or pairs work on questions that probe the syllabus content. You could have the groups compete or take turns discovering answers within the syllabus. This is a more productive way to go over the syllabus.

5. If your class will be writing-intensive, have them do a short “minute” paper about their goals for the course, or a subtopic they would like to learn about and why, or about why they are taking the course. You can have them do this at the end of class, or earlier and have them volunteer to share what they wrote.

6. Design an activity that focuses on learning styles and education strategies. Make explicit the role of learning in the classroom. You could poll the class about ways they study, or ways they learn, or their favorite classroom experiences. You can link this to where they went to high school or why they chose your college.

These are all ways to introduce the students to each other and to you. Ways to get them talking and interacting and building a classroom community. Give one or more a try and share your experiences and ideas with this blog community!


4 thoughts on “Starting off on the right foot

  1. Great advice! Thanks for the reminder! My Principle, Mr. Brooks, used to always say to do just this on the first day (teach!). Of course, in high school, attendance is mandatory, but it can be done quickly. I then get right down to some content. We discuss the summer reading, “Survival of the Sickest” in the 2 circles game. It is fun! I have picture prompts on the smartboard or questions and the inner and outer circle face each other and discuss their prompt. We then move randomly (e.g., inner right 7, outer left 3) and we move to the next prompt. Often I will call out a group to discuss what they were talking about. The game gets them moving, gets them discussing some content relevant to the course and it gets them to begin to know each other. It is fun for them and for me! I think it is a lot like your speed dating idea.

    • Thanks so much for the great comment and additional idea!! I can’t wait to try it.

  2. This is great advice for workshops and training sessions on almost any topic, which can bore your socks off if mechanically introduced (I attended one on understanding financial statements recently). I suppose you think the main goal is to get students thinking about what they want to learn?

    • Thanks for the comment! Yes- get them thinking about the course in a constructive way, and getting psyched up for a “participating” semester.

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