Starting the Semester
By Christopher Heard, Director of the CTE
Every semester, you get another chance to make a good first impression on a new group of students. It's altogether too easy to fritter away the first day of class on paperwork and policies. But it's so much better to engage your students in meaningful interaction with the course content. The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University offers this advice:
Whatever you plan to do during the semester, do it on the first day. For instance, if you plan to use discussions, have students start talking on the first day. If you plan to use groups frequently, put students in groups on the first day. If you plan to use extensive writing, have some kind of short reflective writing activity. If you want the students to be in charge of their own learning, start with an activity where they are the experts, and cannot rely on you for information.
James Lang, author of several excellent, practical books on teaching, offers four principles for "How to Teach a Good First Day of Class" in a Chronicle of Higher Education advice guide:
- Spark students' curiosity.
- Build a sense of community.
- Get students learning.
- Set high expectations.
Read Lang's full advice guide for real example first days from an English composition course taught by Lang, a history survey course taught by Cate Denial at Knox College, an upper-level psychology course taught by Sarah Rose Cavanaugh at Assumption College, and a mathematics course taught by Derek Bruff at Vanderbilt.
If you'd like even more ideas about how to use the first day of class effectively, consult the "what to do on the first day of class" advice offered by these teaching centers:
- Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning
- Carnegie-Mellon University's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation
- Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
- Vanderbilt Center for Teaching
In addition to Lang's advice guide mentioned previously, you might find these advice articles useful:
- Boldt, J. (2014). What do you do on the first day of class? Chronicle Vitae [website].
- Garrett, J., & Clement, M. (2018). Advice for the first day of class: today we will. Faculty Focus [website].
- Mayhall, M. (2018). The vital importance of first-day activities. Inside Higher Ed [website].
Finally, no matter what activities you have planned for the first day of class, I urge you to learn your students' names before the semester begins. Photo rosters are available in WaveNet and Courses. Professors can check the Courses Roster tool to see if students have recorded their names (see “Add Your Name Pronunciation”). Addressing your students by name on the first day of class has enormous positive impact and makes students feel welcome like nothing else can.