Getting to know each other and the course

Your students come to class that first day hoping they will like the course and you. They also come hoping to hear what will be expected of them to earn an A. If your course is an elective for them, they will be evaluating that first day and deciding whether or not to stay in your course, or drop it and find a different course. If your course is required for them, they are trying to predict the nature of their experience. Will the class be filled with hard assignments? Will they find the material boring? Will they connect with your teaching style?

You and your course, if you have taught it before, will already have a reputation. You may not know what that reputation is, but your students likely do and are comparing their first day experience with what they’ve heard through the grapevine. Maybe you are known as a harsh grader. Maybe your quirky sense of humor is considered a plus. Maybe your course is thought to be almost excessively challenging. The reputation that precedes you into the classroom the first day plays a huge part in setting the tone for the semester. And you may have no idea what that reputation is.

You, on the other hand, have reflected on the last time you taught this course and have revamped it, changed the format, altered your own expectations, likely in response to the course evaluations your previous students filled out. Maybe your students thought your assignments were too hard. Maybe your students disliked working in small groups. Maybe your class dynamic last time didn’t foster a collaborative and supportive learning environment. You hope that this group of students is different. Or, you hope that the changes you have made to your course plan this time, reflected in the syllabus you are about to hand out, will work better.

Whether student or faculty, that first day of class is loaded with hope, expectation, curiosity and a good measure of anxiety.

To reduce some of that anxiety, many of us plan ice-breaker activities for the first day.

A common first day plan is to hand out the syllabus, talk a little about class goals and format. Then, we introduce ourselves and talk about our excitement for the course material. Oftentimes after that we try to get our students to start building a class community, while at the same time trying to get to know some of the new names and faces. But, I wonder,  is this a typical kind of day in your class? Can students figure out from this first class whether they want to stay in the class or whether the class will live up to the preconceived ideas they had when they walked into the classroom? Probably not. The following class period will probably be more typical, so many students hang in there a few days, postponing their decision of whether to drop the course or stay in. Many wait for the first assignment to be graded and handed back.

I think it’s important to devise a first day ice-breaker that will reflect some of the expectations you have of the class. Here’s what I’m planning on doing for my first day of class. I am teaching a content-heavy course in physiology. Lots of content. Lots of integration. Lots of problem-solving.

The class will be larger than I have taught in a while, with two combined laboratory sections in a single “lecture” room. I plan to form groups of four students and will give each group a large index card with the name of a physiological organ system or process. The list of these systems/processes will be on the board so the entire class knows what’s on the cards. Each group will prepare responses to four questions about their system/process:

What is one essential function provided by this system/process?

Describe a key cell type involved in this system/process. What tissues/organs comprise this system/process?

What is one question you’d like to explore about this system/process?

Describe one interaction between your system/process and another from the list.

The groups will introduce each other, discuss the questions and prepare a short presentation, come to the front to address the full class and will also write that “interaction” on the board.

This activity, I hope, will get everyone talking about physiology. It will also acknowledge that the students already know something about physiology and will help me gauge their background, but also the kinds of things they are interested in learning. Finally, the activity strongly reflects the expectations I have for the course.

What are you doing the first day?