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.
the right to make mistakes and revise one’s thinking
the right to speak, listen, and be heard
the right to write, do, and represent what makes sense to you
Robert’s particular take on these rights is how the physical learning space can promote (but more often, restrict) these rights. Simple example: in classrooms where the seats have built-in tablets, left-handed people have to sit in special lefty-seats, usually along an aisle or against the wall. They can’t sit with their peers and can’t choose to be inconspicuous in the middle of a big block of seats.
Robert gave another example that caught a lot of conference attendees’ attention: despite a course instructor’s pleas to their student to come to office hours, faculty offices are rarely welcoming spaces for students. If a student can overcome the apprehension and anxiety of the clutter and the feeling like they’re invading their instructor’s living room, the typical office does not permit active, collaborative learning. The instructor sits in a big chair on one side of a barrier — their big ol’ desk — and talks at the student sitting on the other side of the desk in a crappy chair.
He teased us with some new office designs and furniture that create a welcoming, collaborative learning space. I mean, who wouldn’t want an office like this, right?
A number of UBC Okanagan faculty spoke to me after the conference, wondering how they could renovate their offices. All it would take, it seems, is a few $1000. But who has that kind of money to spare – certainly not the instructors, themselves.
I’m on an learning spaces advisory committee and I pitched an idea: a competitive grant program where each year, say, 5 faculty members could receive up to $3000 to renovate their office. Let’s call it a FOALS grant:
The advisory committee said, sure, take it to Deans’ Council and see what they say. Whew, passed the first hurdle. Or keeping with the horsey theme, cleared the first jump.
Fast forward 2 weeks.
The meeting went something like this:
Ha ha ha ha! Nope.
No, seriously, this is a great group of people to work with and they give me some good feedback and legit reasons why they were laughing:
It’s hard to justify an expense that doesn’t have a clear connection to the core teaching and learning mission of the university.
This would introduce even more inequity into an culture that’s steeped in seniority, status, who has a window, and whose office is next to the washroom.
What happens when someone move offices? Is the new furniture theirs to move? Does it stay with the room (which is probably would if the reno includes big whiteboards.)
So, while FOALS won’t be coming to UBC Okanagan any time soon, it sparked some ideas that might:
Deans could bring this idea into conversations with new faculty members when they’re talking about start up funding and opportunities.
focus on shared spaces like atriums, foyers, open spaces at the ends of hallways: if those spaces had whiteboards, work surfaces, wall-mounted monitors the instructor and students to jack into, comfortable task seating,… course instructors could hold “office” hours there with groups of students
there might be some smaller, affordable items faculty could purchase on their own – if only someone would source good stuff at good prices. (Psst – I think I’ve got a line on Steelcase’s awesome verb whiteboards.)