The First Day of Class

The first day of class is your opportunity to show students what this course will be like: how you teach, how you expect them to interact, and the content you will cover. Rather than focusing on a full review of the syllabus, be sure to include substantive content, which will enable you to demonstrate your teaching style. Provide students with basic information they need to work through the first week or two of classes and later return to the syllabus as needed.

 1. Ensure that part of your first day is spent teaching.

By devoting a portion of the first session to introducing course content and your teaching style, you provide students with a meaningful preview of course themes, structure, and expectations. You might also introduce students to the types of active learning activities you will use during the semester.

2. Engage students in conversation about course content and key issues.

Ask thought-provoking questions about course content. Such questions help assess students’ relevant prior knowledge, which in turn helps you set the pace for the course. You might divide students into small groups and have them address questions together.

For large lecture classes, students can talk with two or three students sitting near them. Consider an exercise called First Day of Class Quotes.

3. Present your expectations for class dynamics to set the tone for the semester ahead.

Explain how students will engage in respectful dialogue. Explain how you will acknowledge different opinions and perspectives. Clarify how you view the role of office hours, preparation for and participation in class, and course assignments.

4. Provide students with ‘just in time’ information.

Trying to cover all course information on the first day can be overwhelming, and it is unlikely that students will retain everything you want and need to share. Consider what they need to know right away and then continue your orientation over several class sessions. As the need arises, remind students what is on the syllabus and where to find it. Remember that students are typically taking five courses and that each instructor’s policies for attendance, submitting assignments, and requesting help will differ.

5. Bring name tags or desk tents to help learn students’ names.

Depending on the size of your class, 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 for you to learn all of your students’ names.

6. Ask students by what name and pronouns they would like to be addressed.

Neither of these pieces of information is reflected on course rosters, and can easily be included in a pre-class questionnaire (see Take-Away #7 below). Asking students for these data demonstrates respect for diversity and sends a message to students that your class is a safe space in which to be their authentic selves. For more information on how to ask about pronouns, see the Center for Diversity and Inclusion’s Pronoun Guide.

7. Gather relevant information about your students prior to the first class.

Consider asking students to complete an online survey or form prior to the first day 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. For any size class, here are a few examples of areas you might cover:

  • Student’s name as it appears on your class roster and how he or she would like to be addressed in class (the names may not be the same)
  • Student’s pronouns
  • Reasons why the student is taking this course, e.g., major requirement, minor requirement, elective, pre-requisite
  • Whether student is a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior (unless you know that all students are in the same year)
  • Student’s preferred method of contact (if you wish to give the choice)
  • Specific questions that the student hopes will be addressed in the course (Note: Such questions can help you manage students’ expectations when their domain of inquiry is not part of your intended curriculum.)
  • Things that motivate or discourage the student in an educational setting
  • The student’s familiarity with student study groups (outside of class) or with team projects
  • The student’s hometown (which can help you gauge geographic diversity in the class)

You also have the option of distributing a questionnaire on the first day of class and asking students to complete it then.

8. Encourage students to ‘reconstruct’ your syllabus in a way that makes sense to them.

Undergraduate students are typically presented with five syllabi during the first week of classes. While broad categories may be similar, each document is organized differently and contains varied sets of policies and expectations. Urge your students to personalize the way they access information contained in your syllabus. For example, some may want to note all due dates on their phone’s calendar. Others may decide to highlight how assignments are to be turned in or your attendance policy. Alternatively, students might choose to

  • Create a list of all course assignments with due dates
  • Print out a copy of the class schedule or add the information to an online calendar
  • Bookmark a section of the syllabus for easy retrieval

9. Provide information about contacting and meeting with you.

Remind students that you have office hours, as well as how to contact you throughout the semester. Some students are very comfortable coming to office hours while others may be reluctant or unsure of what constitutes a valid reason to meet with you. Even if you have included this information on the course syllabus, it helps to reiterate your encouragement throughout the semester.

On your syllabus, let students know when and if you want them to email you, and approximately how soon they can expect a response. If you are working with a TA, you might include information about his or her role in the course along with when and how to contact the TA. If the TA also holds office hours, distinguish for students when they should reach out to the TA and when to contact you.

10. Be authentic and be yourself.

Your enthusiasm for your course content will be contagious. We are as diverse as our students, but share interest in the course subject matter. Think about how to convey your passion to your students.

It is also helpful to define for students what your relationship with them can or will be. We often assume that students intuitively understand this, but in many cases they have only their high school teachers and guidance counselors as models. In the absence of information, they will create their own ideas about how to interact with university faculty. Here is a helpful article (from the Chronicle of Higher Education) on the importance of defining this relationship, both for students and faculty.