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.
And here’s what it actually looks like!
(left) Students focus their attention on the front of the room when the instructor is lecturing and writing on the doc cam. (right) At a moment’s notice, students can swivel and gather on the wider, rear desks, grab a nearby whiteboard, and work together.
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.
Here’s what it actually looks like! I’m running two PPT presentations, one through the left projector and through the right, to fill the entire screen with one 32:9 image:
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.
During the Winter 2018, Fall 2018, and Winter 2019 Terms, we used the COPUS protocol to record what John, Steve, and Tamara were doing, and what their students were doing, both in the active learning classroom and in other, more traditional lecture halls.
Spoiler: I was hoping for an obvious uptick in the kinds instructional strategies they facilitated and increase in students marks when they moved to the active learning classroom. We didn’t find it. And we think we know why: they need to teach for a term in the new classroom to discover what it enables and how they can revise their materials and lesson plans for the next time they teach there.
The COPUS protocol records what the instructors are doing during the class. Here’s what John, Steve, and Tamara do in the traditional lecture halls (blue) and what John and Tamara do the active learning classroom (green). There’s no obvious change in the three most frequent instructional strategies, lecturing, writing on the doc cam, and asking clicker questions.
With no significant change in what the instructors are doing, it’s no surprise there’s little change in what their students are doing:
It’s also not surprising that are big changes in students’ final marks. While it’s true physics marks are different than chemistry marks, there are no significant changes in students’ physics marks or students’ chemistry marks between courses taught in traditional lecture halls (blue) and the active learning classroom (green).
Instructors may need to teach for at least one term in the active learning classroom to observe and experience the features that enable more active learning instructional strategies before they make lasting changes to their teaching.
Instructors should get an orientation to the features of the active learning classroom as soon as they’re scheduled to teach there, so they can get a head start on revising how they teach.
Update: Fall 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all courses online. The active learning classroom, sadly, is quiet and empty. Only a few COPUS observations were made in the Winter 2020 Term before the emergency pivot and no observations have occurred since.
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
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.)