The first day of class is your opportunity to engage in collaborative norm setting and build community, setting the tone for the class moving forward. There are three key aspects of community building in the classroom—emotional, logistical, and social—which will help you create an engaged and empowered learning environment.
The emotional aspect will empower and motivate students to feel connected to the course material and the instructor and fellow students. Logistical components include clear expectations and accountability structures that encourage transparency and trust in the classroom. Finally, the social factor will establish a positive and equitable classroom environment.
The strategies discussed in this resource will help you build community and facilitate an engaged and empowered learning environment from day one.
First Day Activities
Learn your students’ names and pronouns
Name tags (or desk tents) can assist both you and your students in learning each other’s names. This technique helps create a sense of community in the classroom, even in large lecture classes where it is more challenging to learn students’ names. On the first day of class, you can have students make their own name tents with the option of adding their pronouns and a phonetic spelling for pronunciation of their name.
Remembering and learning students’ names demonstrates respect for diversity and sends a message to students that you care about them as individuals. It’s important to make every effort to learn and correctly pronounce your students’ names. Ensure that you are referring to students using the name with which they are most comfortable, and not simply their legal name. AU’s Canvas sites include a feature which lists students chosen names so that instructors use the proper name. Additionally, NameCoach can assist you with proper pronunciation.
It is also important to ask students to share their pronouns, but not require them to do so to avoid discomfort or self-outing for your trans and non-binary students. For more information on how to ask about pronouns, see the Center for Diversity and Inclusion’s Pronoun Guide￼.
Consider using an ice breaker
Ice breakers can be an engaging way to model standards of social communication and build community in class. They can also set the expectation that students will need to engage with and participate in class. However, they can also be a dreaded feature of first day interactions.
To enhance the quality of responses, create a more informal and comfortable atmosphere, and craft a student-centered learning community, use the following strategies. You can give students time to reflect after asking a question, ask open-ended questions, and break students into small groups to facilitate discussion and reduce public speaking anxiety.
Example ice breaker questions include:
What was an activity you enjoyed over break?
What is your favorite coffee shop or place to study in the area?
Would you rather travel every week or never leave home? Why?
What are you looking forward to in the course? Why?
What are you concerned about this semester? Why?
When deciding on an ice breaker, you should avoid forcing students to disclose very personal information, having students introduce one another, and asking questions that are either “yes or no” or have correct and incorrect answers. Ice breakers should be utilized to increase students’ comfort and confidence and prime them for engagement within class. Icebreakers should not be used to put students on the spot and provoke anxiety or embarrassment.
Gather relevant information about your students
Consider asking students to complete an online survey before or during the first class to provide you with helpful benchmarking information. If you have large classes and want to collate the results to look for trends or gaps in knowledge, consider using Qualtrics.
Topics addressed can vary based on course content, but helpful questions, outside of demographic questions, can include:
What are your reasons for taking this course? How does it fit into your career goals?
How familiar with the course content are you?
What are your preferred communication methods and/or discussion formats?
Is there anything you’d like me to know about your learning environment this semester?
What challenges do you anticipate for the semester and how might you proactively address those challenges?
Asking questions such as these can help you gather useful information and adjust course content as necessary. They also prepare students to be reflective about their learning experiences, which increases their motivation and engagement.
Engage in Active Syllabus Review
Active syllabus review provides students the opportunity to review the syllabus and ask any relevant questions they may have. It can make the process more productive and insightful for instructors, encouraging students to see the course as more than a list of objectives and deadlines.
Active syllabus review can include splitting students into small groups and asking them to review the entire, or a portion of, the syllabus. They could be tasked with describing a specific assignment to their peers, developing clarifying questions, or even finding specific information, like a scavenger hunt.
As your students review the syllabus, ask thought-provoking questions about course content that help connect to students’ larger goals. Examples include:
What are you looking forward to in the course?
What are you most concerned about?
What specialized topics are you interested in learning more about?
What assignments are your excited for? Concerned about?
These types of questions help assess students’ relevant prior knowledge and course-related anxieties, which in turn can help you set the pace for the course.
Present your expectations for class dynamics and invite students to set their own guidelines and classroom norms
Discussing classroom norms and dynamics helps promote transparency and sets the proper expectations from the first day of class. First, as the instructor, you should clarify how students can use office hours, your communication policy, how students should prepare for class, and what is expected for participation and course assignments. Explicitly clarifying this information helps all students know how to interact in the course and illuminates aspects of the hidden curriculum that confuse many students.
Once instructor guidelines are complete, consider developing shared norms for classroom interactions (classroom discussion, group projects, etc.). Some questions you can use to guide this discussion include:
What values and principles should we prioritize as a class?
What are some characteristics of positive classrooms you’ve been a part of in the past?
What do you need from your classmates to facilitate productive interactions? Your instructor?
As you collaboratively generate a list of norms, make sure that all students’ voices are heard and their contributions are valued. You may consider breaking the conversation up into stages of individual written response, small group discussion, and large group discussion so that all students can contribute in various ways.
Examples of collaborative norms include:
Equitable—The class will model intentional care and consideration and work to create a sense of belonging for everyone
Open-minded—As a class we will be respectful of different opinions and perspectives.
Communicative—The class will share thoughts and feelings openly, listen carefully, let others speak, and engage in open dialogue. There are no stupid questions or contributions.
The final strategy for an engaged and collaborative classroom is to remember to be your authentic self!
Your enthusiasm for your course content will be contagious. Share your passion for course subject matter and express genuine interest in student connections and interest in course content.
Imagine them as your future colleagues—what information do you want to impart? How do you want to help them succeed?
Utilizing these strategies on your first day will help foster more engagement and create a collaborative community of learning! For more teaching resources please visit our Teaching Support page.