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.

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.

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.

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