Monday, August 25, 2014

Activities for a Successful First Day of Classes

Technically, there is still almost one more month before summer is officially over. But, for me, summer is over when classes start.  Not only my children will go back to school next week, but the fall semester at the university is also starting next week.

I have to admit that the beginning of the fall semester is always an exciting moment for students and for us, faculty. A new academic year brings with it new faces on campus as well as a sense of excitement that is only matched by convocation day.

I am one of those people who believe that what happens that first day of classes sets the tone of the rest of course. So, I always do my best to try to make that day unique and inspirational. I take time to plan carefully what I want to do on this day in order to give my students a clear impression of the course content and both my expectations and teaching philosophy.

Activities for the First Day of Classes

Although there are many different activities that can be done during the first day of classes, these are three activities that I am planning to do in my courses this academic year.

Best and Worst Classes – This is a quick and easy activity that can be done in less than 20 minutes. First, I ask students to form groups of 5-6 students to facilitate discussion. On one section of the whiteboard I write: “The best class I’ve ever had” and underneath it “What the instructor/professor did” and below that “What the students did”. On another section I write “The worst class I’ve ever had” and then the same two items beneath.

Without naming the course or instructor, I ask students to share their personal experiences with other members of their group. They do this for about 5-7 minutes depending upon the size of the group. Then, we have a class discussion. Each group is asked to participate. I begin filling in the "table" on the board based on what students mention. If students are silent or there are only few comments, I add some key words or notes based on my own experience with some of my best and worst classes. 

In 20 minutes or less, two very different class portraits appear on the whiteboard. I move to the best class section of the board and tell students that this is the class I want to teach, but in order to achieve this, I need their help. I make clear to them that together we have the power to make this course one of those “best class” experiences. 

Syllabus Speed Dating – Karen Eifler, an education professor at the University of Portland, designed this activity that consists in:
- I distribute the course syllabus and give students 5 minutes to peru
- Two rows of chairs face each other (this can be adapted to large classes if necessary). Students sit across from each other, each with a copy of the syllabus that they have previously reviewed.
- Students are asked two questions: one about something in the syllabus and one of a more personal nature.
The pair of students has a short period of time to answer both questions.
- I check to make sure the syllabus question has been answered correctly. 
Then students in one of the rows move down one seat and I ask the new pair two different questions.

 Not only does this activity get students acquainted with each other, it’s a great way to get them reading the syllabus and finding out for themselves what they need to know about the course.

First Day Graffiti – This an adaptation of an activity originally proposed by 
Barbara Goza (Journal of Management Education, 1993) and recently modified by Maryellen Weimer (editor of The Teaching Professor Newsletter). Flip charts with markers beneath are placed around the classroom. Each chart has a different sentence stem. Here are a few suggestions:

“I learn best in classes where the teacher ___”
“Students in courses help me learn when they ___”
“I am most likely to participate in classes when ___”
“Here’s something that makes it hard to learn in a course: ___”
“Here’s something that makes it easy to learn in a course: ___”

"Here's something that I don't like from labs: ____"
"Here's something that I like from labs: ____"

Students are invited to walk around the room and write responses, sharing experiences with each other and myself as they do. After there are comments on every flip chart, I walk to each one and talk a bit about one or two of the responses. 
Because sometimes I run out of time (my lectures are usually 50 minutes), I tend to finish this activity at the beginning of the second class.


If you want to teach during your first lecture, but would still like to use at least some minutes to motivate students to invest in the course, I suggest you use one or more of the activities below.
  • Learn each other's names: ask students to introduce themselves or take a class photo.
  • Ask students to write their expectations of the course on index cards for your review.
  • Communicate learning outcomes explaining what students should know or be able to do as a result of completing the course.
  • Explain how you will create an inclusive environment for students.
  • Present content using a real-world scenario that will give students a context for the course.
  • Stimulate interest in your course—what exciting questions or topics will  be discussed during the semester? 
  • Give students a taste of what is expected of them. Will they be expected to actively engage in learning activities during lectures? Will they be required to participate in group work? If so, engage students in these types of activities on the first day.
  • Discuss the syllabus near the end of the class period. Use the first valuable moments of class time to make a memorable impression on the students.

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