Category: teaching

Planning your first day of class

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?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Do-It-Yourself first class

This excellent resource (PDF) from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative contains dozens of suggestions for what you could do. There isn’t time to do them all.

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.

What should you do in the first day of class? Things that simultaneously motive learning, personalize the experience, and establish expectations. (Graphic by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

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.

DO DON’T
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

  • interesting
  • valuable
  • 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
  • contact info
  • course website
  • Important Thing
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.
DO DON’T

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.

Faculty Offices As Learning Spaces

At the 2018 UBC Okanagan Learning Conference, keynote speaker, Robert Talbert talked about the rights of students, based on the work of Crystal Kalinec-Craig. Student have

  • the right to be confused
  • 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?

Steelcase “Faculty Offices of the Future”

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:

FOALS (Faculty Offices As Learning Spaces). Kinda’ cute, huh, even if @gdumanoir doesn’t like my horsey 😉

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.)

Let’s see where it goes from here!

Centers for Teaching professional development

My Centre for Teaching and Learning at UBC Okanagan “supports and promotes teaching and learning excellence, innovation and scholarship.” Many of our programs are offered as a form of professional development for course instructors.

Clarifying misconceptions about misconceptions in Science of Learning by Deans for Impact (Photo: Peter Newbury)
Clarifying misconceptions about misconceptions in The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

After some conversations with senior people here in my Centre – thanks JP and JH – I’ve realized my Centre staff should have professional development opportunities, too. We fill a special niche: providing teaching and learning support to course instructors (which is one step removed from providing teaching and learning support to students) and we should continue to learn how to do it well. So, I added a second hour to our monthly team meetings: a “lunch-n-learn” for my Centre staff.

This month’s session went really well and I want to share it with the Center for Teaching community in case you’re looking for ideas.

I asked everyone to read The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact. It’s a great report that presents 6 key questions:

  1. How do students understand new ideas?
  2. How do students learn and retain new information?
  3. How do students solve problems?
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  5. What motivates students to learn?
  6. What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

The report answers those questions based on current research and provides practical implications, that is, how it can be used in the classroom. The document is well researched and referenced, providing a rich source of the evidence in “evidence-based teaching.”

Two of the activities I facilitated with my team worked really well and led to very rich discussions:

Dig into the misconceptions

The last key question in the report lists common misconceptions about how student think and learn:

  • Students do not have different “learning styles.”
  • Humans do not use only 10% of their brains.
  • People are not preferentially “right-brained” or “left-brained” in the use of their brains.
  • Novices and experts cannot think in all the same ways.
  • Cognitive development does not progress via a fixed progression of age-related stages.

Here’s the thing: it’s not clear from the report if these are the misconceptions or these are statements that debunk the misconceptions. (It’s the latter, it turns out – correct, students do not have different learning styles.) So I asked my colleagues to

  1. identify and explain the misconception that the statement debunks, and
  2. talk about the risks of an instructor basing decisions on the misconception

This was good because we clarified the misconceptions about the misconceptions. We had a long conversation about the statement, “Novices and experts cannot think in all the same ways.” The discussion about risk was important, too, because it gave my colleagues ammunition for the conversation with course instructors about why they need to update their conceptions.

Course instructors are our students

After we’d looked over the six key questions and what course instructors can do in their classrooms to help their students learn, I asked everyone to take one step “up” and reconsider the questions, solutions, and implication in OUR niche where course instructors are our students.

For example, when we want to teach them about a new concept, like peer instruction with clickers, we need to remember course instructors, “learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know.” In other words, our clients are not empty vessels, waiting to be filled with our teaching and learning knowledge. And if we teach them by simply dumping knowledge at them, they will not learn it.

It is really interesting and challenging to reconsider each key question and solution and to imagine the implications for how we need to support our course instructors.


If you try one of these activities in your Center, I hope you’ll come back and leave a comment about how it went, so the next Center director can benefit from all our experiences.

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