Every Fall, I follow along as Derek Bruff @derekbruff tweets out inspiring stories from the open classroom event his Center for Teaching runs at Vanderbilt. Course instructors from across campus volunteer to open their classrooms and welcome their peers to come observe. While we may have 25, 60, 300, or more students in our classrooms, it’s rare to have a colleague, and open classroom events provide an opportunity for all the educators in the room – the ones at the front and the ones at the back – to share some formative feedback.
We hosted our first Open Classroom Week at UBC Okanagan October 1-5, 2018. Twelve course instructors from across the campus, across disciplines, and from 1st-year to 4th-year invited their peers into their classrooms.
Opening your classroom to your colleagues takes courage and confidence and demonstrates educational leadership. So, I wanted to thank those twelve course instructors. Sure, I could send SW-S, RT, RP, WSM, CL, RF, GD, TE, TF, NL, CS, and AK a letter (or a letter to their Department Heads) on Centre letterhead, formally thanking them for participating in the event. But I wanted something they could put on the shelf in their office so remind them, and any visitors, that they did something valuable. Combine that with my obsessi–, er, interest in pop-up cards and you get this:
Do it yourself
Want to make one for your Center? Here’s the PPT file I used to create the card, plus a set of directions for editing the text, printing the card, and making it. I think the instructions are clear but by the time I wrote them, I’d already made 5 prototypes and then the dozen cards I gave to my UBC Okanagan colleagues so I could pretty well do it in my sleep. If you get stuck, feel free to tweet me at @polarisdotca. And then send me a picture of your finished card (and permission to share it)!
As Will Rogers once said, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” What you do in your first day of class establishes the learning environment for the rest of your course, so it’s critical to think and plan carefully.
Nobel prize winner and science educator, Carl Wieman, reminds us the goals of the first class are to
motivate learning – why should your students engage and invest their time and energy?
personalize the experience – how can each student find your course meaningful?
establish expectations – how will your course run and what will happen in class?
That’s a lot to accomplish in 50 or 80 minutes, especially if you also want to (and you probably do!) start teaching your students about the content and concepts of your course.
Why is this important?
Why is it important to think about and plan your first class, on top of planning your syllabus, assessments, and lessons?
You want every student to leave the first class thinking
This will be a good course.
I’m okay, I’m safe being here.
I have something valuable to contribute.
No matter how much you prepare, when the clock strikes and finally stand up at the front of the room and flip on your wireless mic, you are not at your best. You’re anxious and exhausted and nervous and excited. And that is NOT the moment you want to be making important decisions and setting precedents that will impact the rest of the course. Now, before the course starts, is the time to think and make decisions.
More from Wieman: If you don’t spend time establishing the learning environment but instead, simply “go over the syllabus” or launch right into Topic 1,
students who are most likely to see the subject as worth learning are those whose backgrounds, and corresponding attitudes, are most like that of the instructor. Those students whose backgrounds are different, which by definition (usually) includes most members of under-represented groups, will be less likely to understand the appeal of the subject and consequently more inclined to put their efforts into pursuing some other discipline.
I invite you to download this list and print this Venn diagram. For each item A, B, C,… (and others you add to the list) decide for yourself if the item motivates learning, personalizes the experience for the student, and/or establishes expectations. When you’re done, perhaps the items at the center of the Venn diagram – the items that do all three simultaneously – are the ones to build into your first class. That way, you can be the most efficient and effective in the limited time you have with your students.
I think you’ll find, for example, that when an item clearly establishes expectations and personalizes the experience, with just a small change in how you present it or build it into your class syllabus or policies, you can also motivate learning.
Do’s and Don’ts
What you do (and don’t do) in your first class is up to you, of course. As a helpful reminder from people who’ve been there before and seen it happen, here are some first day of class do’s and don’ts for you to consider.
Check out the classroom before the first class
fully connect and test your laptop
using clickers? connect and test the hardware and software
how do you log into the podium/lecturn computer, if needed?
what’s the wifi like, even in the back corners?
how do the classroom lights work?
try the lapel (“lav”) mic
are you using a presentation remote to advance your slides? Does it work from the back of the room?
Assume you can figure it out at the time
let a technical problem ruin your only chance to make a first impression
Start the class on time (establish expectations!)
arrive late (what expectation does that establish!)
have “intimate” conversations with the (enthusiastic) students who arrive early and sit in the front row. This can signal to the rest of the class who will be getting special attention. Instead, circulate around the room and speak with lots of students, or greet everyone at the door.
Tell students you think they can all succeed if they put in the effort (growth mindset). It’s fine to say the course is challenging (after all, shouldn’t it be?) as long as you also let them know the course is
achievable with appropriate effort
Say threatening things like
you expect some of them to fail (“Look left, look right – one of you won’t be here by the end of the course.”)
this is a “weed-out” or “gatekeeping” course (to get rid of students who shouldn’t continue to the next course)
students don’t usually like this course
this course is really hard
Give them an authentic experience of what the class will be like.
If you’re going to use peer instruction with clickers, do it even though not everyone has a clicker yet. If awarding participation points is part of your plan, don’t start that until Week 2.
If you’re going to flip your class, send them a pre-reading assignment (and welcome) before the first day.
If you’ll be asking them to discuss challenging issues and items in small groups throughout the course, do it in the first class, too, maybe as an icebreaker.
Use teaching practices that are inconsistent with how you’ll teach the rest of the course.
Model academic integrity, today and every day. Address it when it’s needed: discuss plagiarism in Week 3 when you assign the first essay.
Emphasize penalties for academic misconduct and all the ways a student can be kicked out of the university.
It establishes a feeling of distrust
Now is not the time they need to be hearing this. It’s important, yes, but not right now.
End the class on time with a slide containing the most valuable information, just in case a lost student missed the first few minutes of the class:
your preferred name
office location and hours
End the class early (establishes the wrong expectation) or
end the class late (be kind to your anxious, exhausted colleague who’s trying to get into the classroom to set up their first class!)
Repeat vital information (your preferred name, contact info, Important Thing) at the begin of second class
Assume everyone was there in the first class.
You got this
Taking the time now to think and plan doesn’t mean you won’t be anxious and exhausted on your first day of class. But you can be confident in what you say and do. Through your actions and inactions (h/t, @ddmeyer, for that excellent phrase), you can support your students and not intensify their struggles.
As class size increases, instructors face an increasingly difficult challenge. There is clear evidence that more students are more successful in classes with active learning. Yet the work required to facilitate active learning – logistics, providing feedback, supporting and interacting with individual students – increases with class size. And despite the importance of the design of learning spaces, large classrooms often impede student-student and student-instructor interactions.
At UBC’s Okanagan campus, I was invited to advise the architects and campus planners on the design a new 400-seat classroom.
Design Principle: Eliminate everything that hinders student-student collaboration and student-instructor interaction.
My poster uses a giant 6-page “book” (you can see it drooping slightly in the center of the poster in the picture above) to highlight different features and characteristics of the design:
Student flow: Main entrances to the classroom are at the middle of the room. Students flow in and downhill toward the front. Sitting at the back takes deliberate effort. Students can discretely enter and exit without disrupting the class or the instructor.
Accessible seating: Fully 20% of seating – roughly 90 locations – are accessible to students using wheelchairs. They can sit in groups with their peers at prime locations, instead of being isolated or confined to designated seats.
Network of aisles: A network of aisles throughout the classroom allows instructors and teaching assistants to get face-to-face or within arm’s reach of every student. Wireless presentation system allows instructors to teach from any location and project any student’s device.
Group work with whiteboards: Students on narrower front desks swivel around to work with their peers on wider desks. With 150 whiteboards scattered throughout the room, groups can be collaborating within seconds of their instructor saying, “Grab a whiteboard and…”
Lighting: Separate front, middle, back lights create smaller classrooms for 250 and 100 students.
Prep room: Prep room is accessible from outside the classroom so instructors can prepare before and after class. Includes sink, glassware drying rack, storage cabinets, lockable flammable solvent cabinet, fume hood, chemical resistant countertops, first aid kit, demo cart.
Design Features Promote Collaboration and Interaction
The classroom is gently tiered so students farther back can see the front. There are 2 desks on each tier. The front desk is wide enough to hold a notebook and laptop. The rear desk is nearly twice as wide, allowing the front student to swivel around and work with their peers in the rear desk.
Swivel chairs on wheels allow students to easily move and work with others around them.
The front desk on each tier has a modesty screen. There are deliberately NOT modesty screens on the rear desks, allowing students on the front desk to swivel around to the rear desk without smashing their knees or having to sit awkwardly.
There are power outlets for every student under the desktop, leaving the work surface unbroken and smooth for notebooks, laptops, and whiteboards.
When the instructor or teaching assistant stands in the aisle in front of the front desk, they can speak face-to-face with the 1st row of students, and are within arm’s reach of the 2nd row. From the aisle on the back of this set of four rows of desks, the instructor or teaching assistant is face-to-face with students in the 4th row and within arm’s reach of the 3rd row.
Optimizing Visibility of the Screen
A slightly curved screen at the front of the classroom is large enough to display two standard inputs. A third projector can display a single image across the screen. The screen is about 7 or 8 feet above the floor, so the instructor at the front does not cast a shadow on the screen or look directly into the projectors (housed in a 2nd floor projection room at the back of the classroom.) The size and curvature of the screen ensure all but the very front-left and front-right seats have views of the screen within UBC’s guidelines.
Does the Design Enhance Learning?
We are studying the impact of the design by comparing data collected before and after course instructors teach their courses in the 400-seat classroom, including
distributions of final grades and grades on in-class activities like peer instruction (“clicker”) questions and group work sheet
drop, fail, withdrawal (DFW) rates
locations of the course instructor and teaching assistants at 2-minute intervals throughout the class period
what the instructor is doing (lecturing, writing, posing questions,…) and what the students are doing (listening, discussing peer instruction questions, asking questions,…) using the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS)3,4
My thanks to Dora Anderson, Heather Berringer, Deborah Buszard, Rob Einarson, W. Stephen McNeil, Carol Phillips, Jodi Scott, and Todd Zimmerman for the opportunity to help design to this learning space.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111
Beichner, R., Saul, J., Abbott, D., Morse, J., Deardorff, D., Allain, R., … & Risley, J. (2007). The Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project, a peer reviewed chapter of Research-Based Reform of University Physics. College Park, MD: Am Assoc of Physics Teachers.
Stains, M., Harshman, J., Barker, M. K., Chasteen, S. V., Cole, R., DeChenne-Peters, S. E., … & Levis-Fitzgerald, M. (2018). Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities. Science, 359(6383), 1468-1470. doi.org/10.1126/science.aap8892
Smith, M. K., Jones, F. H., Gilbert, S. L., & Wieman, C. E. (2013). The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): a new instrument to characterize university STEM classroom practices. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 618-627. doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-08-0154