The first day of class is as important as the first 5 minutes of a movie or the first chapter of a book: If the tone is not set right, who will feel motivated to read on, watch the movie until its end, or stay for the entire course? Unfortunately in many cases the first lecture or presentation of a course is reduced to sharing the course description in details and jumping right into the course content, sometimes even letting students leave early.
As Prof. Keating does in this excerpt from Dead Poets Society, it’s a good idea to use the first day of class –and now with technology even the time before the first day– to get to know your students, and to let them know more about you. Before the first day, ask them by email to fill in an information sheet they can download on the course website for example, in addition to indicating in that same email all the details about where they can find what information regarding your course. Listen to this podcast for an account on how to organize such a first interaction with students and what to ask them about on that sheet. Have them upload a photo of themselves if the university’s system does not do that already. You’ll need to know their names in order to be able to relate to them as persons, and here are 27 strategies on how you could do that!
If the Learning Management System at your university has a blog or forum feature, use it perhaps instead of emails to start establishing the community of the classroom. Ask each student to introduce him/herself in a few words and to highlight one thing about themselves that is out of the ordinary. You can do the same about yourself and invite everybody to comment on each other’s post. Any other person interacting with the students during the course like the teaching assistants should be joining the forum as well. Plus it’ll be helpful to digest the information if there are more than 50 students!
Now, on the actual first day, here’s a 4-minute long video with good advice on what to focus on. During that first class period, you should organize simple activities to continue the dialogue started via the discussion board before the first day. Get the students to vote by show of hands for example, or have some class discussion, and start learning to put the names on some of your students’ faces in the process. Choose some activities which already reflect the way you like to teach, and use that also as an opportunity to explain to your students how you expect them to behave and respond as a result. Remember, some teaching strategies might be completely foreign to most of them. So for example if you’ve decided to use clickers, explain why you use clickers and find a way to use them right away on that first day, like with opinion polls.
These activities should be centered around the really important informations about your course, such as some guidelines for studying, for passing the exam at the end of the course, for the use of smart phones during class time, etc. Be bold –or open, rather!– and ask students what they think about your policies. Offer to modify them according to their opinions.
These and other tips –see for example here and here– will help ensure your course is set on the right trajectory from the outset. In the following classes, don’t forget to keep spending some time to practice knowing the names of your students and to reiterate the benefits of your chosen teaching strategy until the students are familiar with your methods. These efforts will help them feel your commitment to their learning, and they’ll remember you for it, in addition to remembering what you taught them!