Planning for the First Day of Class

by Jack Ullom

Preparing for The First Class Meeting

On the first day of class, your students' concerns are, "What is this course all about and what kind of person is the teacher?"  For you as the instructor, the first day of class is your opportunity to answer those questions and to establish a tone for the entire term.  Under ideal circumstances, you will have had at least a month prior to the first class meeting to plan the syllabus, calendar, course sequence and lessons.   As the first day of class approaches, your attention will turn to the logistics that will make your class run smoothly throughout the semester or term.  

  • At Least One Week Before the First Day of Class (or as soon as possible)
    • Find the building and visit the classroom.
    • Find the restrooms.
    • Obtain a key to the classroom and any computer/audiovisual cabinets.
    • Check textbook orders in bookstore.
      • Prepare printed materials that students will purchase.
      • Plan for any special supplies needed for class.
    • Make sure web-sites used to support your class are still active.
      • Ask department members to recommend sites they find helpful.
    • Make arrangements for classroom audiovisual equipment.
    • Check the operation of overhead projector, computer or VCR (recheck right before class).
    • Learn about the college library reserve system and place books on reserve in the library as needed.
    • Find out your department's enrollment management policies and forms, (e.g. if the class does/does not fill, add/drop, wait-listing students).
    • Check the sound and carry of your voice in the classroom.
    • Make sure that your handwriting on the board is clear and readable from the back of the room. If it is not, plan to use transparencies or PowerPoints.
    • Be prepared to deal with your specific student population. For example, if a significant number of your students are likely to have Spanish surnames, learn how to pronounce common names for that group correctly.

On the First Day of Class

First impressions tend to be lasting impressions. Strive to convey organization, preparedness and enthusiasm.
  • Try to arrive in the classroom before your students and organize your handouts, roll sheet, recheck equipment functionality, and other materials.
  • Put your name on the board for students to see as they come in.
  • If there is additional material to be written on the board, try to do so before students arrive, if appropriate and not distracting to student involvement in the lesson. Notes should be written/taken in context. dig deeper
  • Greet students as they enter the classroom.
  • Breathe.  Understand and accept that being nervous is quite normal.
  • Let students know when you'll handle enrollment issues such as signing add/drops.
  • Show a human side.
    • Share information about yourself such as the history behind your teaching career and other professional activities. 
    • Share any activities or connections you have with the community outside of your teaching, and any hobbies or other special interests which you enjoy.
    • Make these comments brief. (If you have students introduce themselves in pairs, have a student introduce you.)
  • Get to know your students.
    •  Immediately try to associate names with faces.
    • Allow students to introduce themselves.
      • Ask about career and educational goals.
      • Inquire about their expectations of the class.
    • Have students write what they want to be called on a folded card and put it on the edge of their desk.
    • If you have a digital camera ask students to hold their plaque and take their picture. Be very sensitive to students who may not want their picture taken. You must have their permission.
  • Avoid making apologies for any lack of teaching experience.  Your enthusiasm for the subject matter and your ability to engage students is more important than experience.
  • Use an icebreaker to initiate the exchange of information. dig deeper

Class Structure, Tone and Expectations

Probably the most important function of the first day of class is to provide students with the structure and expectations of the class

  • Review the syllabus completely.
    • You might have students do a paired exercise to discuss the syllabus or give an ungraded syllabus quiz.
    • Identify and describe textbooks, lab materials or supplies.
  • Make your academic and behavioral expectations very clear.
    • Describe the organization and scope of content of the class.
      • If appropriate, you may have planned to let your students identify key topics they want to discuss late in the semester. If you have done this, you will want to discuss the intent of this plan and how students will be engaged in the design of the course.
    • Explain attendance policies and ground rules for class interaction (see box below).
    • Explain to students that you will frequently offer them learning strategies for your content. And, that it will be helpful for them to pay particular attention to learning strategies in addition to course content.
      • Remember that we learn best when doing, applying or teaching content. Get students involved in this process.
  • Be honest about the skills needed to succeed in the class and identify college and community resources available to support student success.
    • Describe any prerequisites for the course.
    • Give time estimates for study and assignments.
    • Suggest some study strategies that may help students succeed (see "Helping Your Students" for ideas).
  • Clearly explain the grading system.
  • Make sure students know how to reach you.
    • Review your contact information, including office hours and location, email, phone and fax numbers. dig deeper
    • Do what you can to dispel the myth that a visit to your office, or other attempt to contact you, will automatically signal to you that they are in trouble.
  • Review safety precautions.
    • If your course requires laboratory or fieldwork, demonstrate the procedures for using equipment and supplies safely.
      • In ongoing classes, large visuals, such as posters, can be a better learning cue than a verbal reminder.
    • Discuss emergency procedures in the event of an accident, illness or natural disaster.
  • Encourage questions and allow frequent opportunities for students to ask them. Remember that some students need reflection opportunities before they will know what they want to ask. Anonymous questions on 3 x 5 cards or post-its can be very helpful.

Learner-Centered Ground Rules for Conduct

by Lisa Rodriguez

A growing trend among faculty is to allow students to participate in the decision-making process. Typically, faculty delineates a code of conduct for their students within their syllabi, but in the learner-centered classroom, students design the ground rules as well as the ramifications for breaking them. This process need not exclude faculty preferences that can be inserted at the end of the process. Here is a list of typical ground rules that students might agree upon:

      • Start and end class on time
      • One speaker at a time
      • Everyone participates
      • Keep an open mind
      • Focus on "what" and not "who"
      • No "zingers" or put downs
      • No one dominates discussions
      • Share "air time"
      • Be an active listener
      • Create a safe zone
      • Stay on track/topic
      • Agree only if it makes sense to do so

This is not an exhaustive list but it serves as a template to show what students often expect of themselves and of one another. For those instructors who might feel anxious about this process living up to the tried (but sometimes not true) statement of conduct dictated by the instructor in the syllabus, we suggest having all students verbally agree upon and/or sign a final list that is duplicated and distributed for future reference. Often, faculty who use this learner-centered approach feel that the class members have more sense of "buy-in" or ownership of their learning environment where conduct is concerned. As stated previously, many instructors also feel that students are capable of deciding the consequences for breaking the code, but they find that is sometimes necessary to lighten the decided penalty for their classmates' unacceptable behaviors.

Also, let students know that you are ultimately responsible for maintaining a fair learning environment. This may differ from what students feel is fair or unfair. For a good article on what students deem to be fair in the classroom see "That's Not Fair: Understanding Student's Ideas of Classroom Fairness," in The Teaching Professor, Vol. 14, Issue 4.


Final Advice

  • Create an open atmosphere where dialogue between the students and you is encouraged. Students appreciate immediate feedback.
  • Take two minutes the first day to have students write reactions from the first day, perhaps on the back of that same 3 X 5 card or anonymously if you like.
  • Assess your studentsí comprehension of the class material during each class session and more formally within the first two weeks. The 3x5 card mentioned above is an easy way to do this.
  • Spend some time each class period for approximately two weeks identifying issues that commonly stand in the way of student success and help students learn how to overcome them. Understanding how the brain works can help your students understand their learning processes.
  • Create the atmosphere that you feel is conducive to optimum learning of your content material. Keep in mind how people learn as you do this).
  • Demonstrate that time in the class is important by engaging students in substantive material, such as a paired discussion of the syllabus, or a reading, while completing administrative tasks, such as taking role. Do not end the first class early in order to send students off to purchase the textbook. If they have time constraints recommend an online purchase or purchase prior to the start of class (there are exceptional circumstances that you will want to attend to, but as a general rule - don't let students out early). Those students who come prepared with textbooks the first day will have their actions reinforced by a full menu of activities the first class meeting.
  • Students will appreciate your interest in their learning and if you follow many of the suggestions presented here, they will have begun taking an active part in that learning.