Teaching Commons > Teaching Guides > Learning Activities > The First Day

The First Day of Class

In the first class meeting, engaging our students in central themes of the course sends the message that we are excited and eager to help our students learn in this course and that the time they invest in coming to class matters. According to James M. Lang, author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching," not engaging with the course topic or material on the first day sends a message that the course meetings are a requirement that we both would rather not fulfill.

During the First Class Meeting

Lang  suggests that the first class meeting should consist of:

  1. Presenting the syllabus to the students;
  2. introducing the course topic and initial material;
  3. and requiring at least some students to participate.

Adding to Lang's list we can consider:

  1. understanding our students and their prior knowledge;
  2. introducing our own background and interests;
  3. and setting expectations for course activities.

Presenting the Syllabus

A well constructed syllabus shows clear direction, goals, and planning for a course.

To ensure that students read our thoughtfully constructed syllabus and are well aware of all the elements of the syllabus, we can consider having students

  • complete a syllabus scavenger hunt, in which students are asked to find specific pieces of information from the syllabus;
  • work in groups to present different parts of the syllabus to the entire class;
  • take a low-stakes syllabus quiz (this is often used in online classes);
  • or work in groups to write 2 or 3 questions about the course that are not covered in the syllabus.

Introducing the Course

Presenting the course in the context of the discipline, the students’ college career, and the world at large helps students understand the purpose and application of a course. Understanding the purpose and application of a course motivates students. Bennett (2004), for example, suggests presenting an interesting question or paradox in the field. We can then spend the first day discussing different viewpoints, possible solutions, and how the course will address or return to this problem or paradox.

Requiring Some Participation

Requiring students to participate creates a classroom culture of active engagement where, as Lang states, “Students in [the] course will not be able to sit back and coast," but rather "be in class, [prepared], and [ready] to participate in every session” (p. 28).

If we presented an interesting question or paradox in the discipline, we can have students respond to the question in a short 5 minute writing exercise or have them discuss the question in pairs or groups, and then report their thoughts to the whole class.

We can also collect answers to these questions and paradoxes using iClickers or even before the first class meeting, using the learning management system, allowing students to respond anonymously. Answers can then be presented in class and used as discussion starters.

If writing will be central to the course, have students write a short diagnostic piece that you can collect in order to assess where your students are as writers. Having students respond to a well-thought out prompt can reveal important information; such as, your students’ knowledge and attitudes toward the subject your teaching, their general writing ability, and possibly their analytical skills.

Understanding our Students

It is often beneficial to assess students’ previous knowledge and misconceptions about a course topic. This will help us better understand what knowledge students bring to the course and frame our teaching strategies around their needs. We can also connect this activity to the suggestions in Introducing the Course, where our goal is to try to have students see the course in the context of their lives.

Introducing Ourselves

We can help set the tone of a course by letting our students know more about why we’re teaching the course.

Nilson (2003) believes that in addition to our educational and professional background we should include information about our own research, why we chose to study in this discipline, why we love teaching it, and how we see the discipline affecting the world (p. 51).

Setting Expectations

Whatever it is that we want our students do on a regular basis, have them start right away. The first class meeting is a good time to let students know what to expect in terms of the types of activities that they will be doing for the rest of the quarter. One way to do this is to organize first day classroom activities that model how future class sessions will be conducted. For example:

Poetry course: Divide a short poem (or poems) into 5 or 6 parts. Have students form small groups of 5 or 6. Give each student one or two lines from a short poem. Have students read their lines aloud to their group, and then have them reassemble the poem together. The group then discusses and decides on the meaning of the reconstructed poem. The activity is useful in that it involves students in active learning practices in which they have read a poem, discussed its elements, and interpreted its meaning. (Erickson & Strommer, 1991, p.90)

Multi-culturalism course: Give students 3 minutes to write down the 5 most important historical events or alternatively important people in history. Group students together to create a list of up to 10 “most importants” that they agree on, giving them 10 minutes. Poll each group noting their responses on the board or projector. Determine trends in the list, are the events or people modern if not very recent, are they most American or European, are they primarily political or military. Use the list to guide student reflection about their world views, the limits of those views, and how the course is designed to expand their socio-cultural understandings. (Erickson & Strommer, 1991, p.90-91)

These activities let our students know what will be expected of them, and may let us gain an understanding of our students’ prior knowledge and preconceptions. In particular diagnostic writing and quizzes can also be used to judge how much our students have gained over the course of the quarter and when shared with the students (individually or in aggregate) allow them see how they have changed.

References and Further Resources

Bennett, K. (2004). How to start teaching a tough course. College Teaching, 52(3), 106-106.

Case, K., Bartsch, R., McEnery, L., Hall, S., Hermann, A., & Foster, D. (2008). Establishing a comfortable classroom from day one: Student perceptions of the reciprocal interview. College Teaching, 56(4), 210-214. 

Erickson, B. L., & Strommer, D. W. (1991). Teaching college freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lang, J. (2008). On Course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Nilson, L. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

"Make the Most of the First Day of Class" from the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence.

"The First Day of Class" from Carleton College’s Science Education Resource Center. Including a number of videos of faculty on their first day of class.

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