Class Chemistry Matters- the First Day

The Chemistry in your classroom can create a magic potion for learning or it can blow up in your face.

Magic!magic potion                           Misery!


I have updated this post from the original posted last year. Enjoy!

What is class chemistry? The elements:

  • Students: how many, how prepared they are, how willing they are to participate in class
  • You: Your ability to connect with your students as individuals, to get to know them, your genuine interest in being in the classroom with them
  • Time of day: This does matter
  • The room

Think of this scenario: You have an over-enrolled classroom, with 27 students for a discussion-heavy class structure. Let’s say that only two or three of them volunteer to say things, the rest would prefer to just sit there, take notes and listen. Let’s say that half of the students have never met each other, majoring in different subjects like Environmental Studies, Biology, Biochemistry. The other half have already forged a strong community and are all majoring in Neuroscience. They have had multiple classes together. The classroom holds 24 comfortably, with desks set up in four rows of six. There’s a raised lectern at the front of the room. Your class is scheduled for Friday morning. What can you do?

The most important factor in establishing good class chemistry is the first class session. First impressions do matter. You want the students talking to each other and to you from the get-go, preferably talking about the subject matter. You want them to laugh, too, and to feel some excitement about the semester ahead.

Sometimes on the first day of class, I have a list of questions or terms that the students should have encountered in previous courses. Almost like a pre-test. This is a good strategy to use for an intermediate or introductory-level course. I have the students count off (so, if there are five questions, they count off 1-2-3-4-5, etc. I make sure to have a number of questions that leads to equal sized groups of no more than four).

I have the groups get together and figure out the answer to the question AND I make sure that they introduce each other. For an introductory biology course, one question might be, “How is meiosis different from mitosis?” or “What is evolution by natural selection?” or “Name six different phyla.” The questions are a bit challenging for the first day of class. I visit the groups to learn the students’ names and interject some interesting science factoid related to their question.

Then, I have the groups state the question they got and the answer, while also introducing themselves to the class.

This activity gets everyone talking right away and we review a few biology concepts that they will encounter along the way.

Another activity I’ve used on the first day of class in introductory biology, particularly if there are a lot of freshmen in the class, is to organize groups according to the dorm they are in. This way, I tell them, they know who’s in their dorm and can form study groups for major assignments. I have had students thank me for doing this!

Once, I organized the class in pairs (according to dorms they lived in) and then assigned each pair a method or technique that we were going to encounter the first half of the class. I told the class to work in their pairs, investigate the method/technique using their textbook (ie. look it up in the index!) and make a poster describing the technique, due the following class session. Then, the second day, we had a poster-session. This gave each student a voice early on (they became the in-class experts when we next encountered that technique) and gave me a chance to walk around and talk with each student. Boy, did that jump-start the semester!

What are some first day activities that you have used to get a class acquainted?