Teaching Commons > Teaching Guides > Learning Activities > The First Day
A few days before your class begins, consider
sending your students an email and posting a
News item in your course; briefly introduce yourself and let students know what to expect on the first day of class. If you’re teaching online, you can also use this as an opportunity to remind students of the
course modality and meeting schedule (if applicable).
An effective introduction helps you establish a welcoming tone and a professional yet approachable presence. Consider how your enthusiasm for the course and discipline can positively impact students’ attitudes as well.
In your introduction, consider sharing the following:
If you’re asking students to engage in an icebreaker or diagnostic activity, consider providing your own response to the activity or prompt.
Especially if you’re working with your students asynchronously, consider building some of these elements into a pre-recorded course introduction video.
Panopto is one tool you can use for recording and sharing that video. In addition to the course introduction elements above, you might also
Using video to introduce yourself to students can help students get to know your personality and better perceive your enthusiasm for the course and subject matter.
At the beginning of Spring 2020, the University shared a video that included clips from many instructors' introductory videos. You'll notice that these are nothing fancy: just faculty members speaking into a camera and connecting authentically with students.
Before the first class, review your roster to begin learning about your students. On the first day, use some of the time to get to know your students personally and academically.
Learning the names of your students is often cited as a simple way to create an inclusive environment in your classroom. It shows your students you care and helps to foster a sense of community. Furthermore,
researchers have found that knowing student names helps improve student perceptions of instructors and their courses. It’s also one way, James Lang
argues, to get and hold students’ attention. See
3 Simple Ways to Learn Your Students’ Names and
Learning Students’ Names for practical tips for learning and remembering names.
A first day survey is one way to collect information about your students.
You might begin your survey by asking students to share their name and pronouns. One way to do this is to model:
My name is Abigail Wagner and you can refer to me as Abigail or Professor Wagner. I use she/her/hers pronouns. What is your name and what pronouns do you use?
You might also ask students to share a phonetic spelling or a recording of their name.
Responses to fun questions can later be used to build community in the class. For example, you might create a playlist of students’ favorite songs or compile and share their movie, book, or recipe suggestions.
a comparison of survey tools available at DePaul to determine the best tool for your first day survey.
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.
Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATS) are well-suited for gathering this information, (see especially Background Knowledge Probe, Focused Listing, and Concept Maps). "How to Assess Students’ Prior Knowledge" from Carnegie Mellon University also addresses how instructors can build on or actively counteract students' assumptions, previous knowledge, and ways of evaluating evidence.
Introduce the purpose and application of the course. Presenting it in the context of its discipline, students’ lives, and the world at large can help motivate students. You might even consider telling a story to grab their attention. The story could be borrowed from history, could pose an ethical or moral dilemma, or illustrate a vexing problem that your course will address.
Use a current event to demonstrate why the content of the course, or the skills students will acquire throughout the course, matters.
Identify the big takeaways that you hope your students will have, not just after completing your course, but many years later.
Explain what students will be able to do (or do better) by the end of the course. Describe how those skills might be applied to other contexts.
Bennett (2004) suggests presenting an interesting question or paradox in the field. Have students discuss the question in pairs or groups, and then report their thoughts to the whole class. Discuss different viewpoints, possible solutions, and how the course will address or return to this problem or paradox.
You could also collect answers to these questions using Poll Everywhere or in a D2L discussion.
A well constructed syllabus shows clear direction, goals, and planning for a course. Provide a digital copy of your syllabus to students before the first class. On the first day, highlight and review key components and important policies. To ensure that students have closely read the syllabus and understand each element, consider having students:
You can use a syllabus quiz to reinforce important policies and to set clear expectations with students. Some syllabus quiz questions might address things like
A syllabus quiz can be facilitated via
Zoom polling, and
D2L Quizzes. To keep the quiz low-stakes, consider allowing unlimited attempts or collecting anonymous answers. If many students answer a question incorrectly, consider reviewing that information with students.
Syllabus speed dating is one way to introduce your syllabus and encourage students to engage with each other. Maryellen Weimer,
writing in Faculty Focus, describes a professor who uses this method; Karen Eifler, an education professor at the University of Portland, designed this activity.
“Two rows of chairs face each other (multiple rows of two can be used in larger classes). Students sit across from each other, each with a copy of the syllabus that they’ve briefly reviewed. Eifler asks two questions: one about something in the syllabus and one of a more personal nature. The pair has a short period of time to answer both questions. Eifler checks to make sure the syllabus question has been answered correctly. Then students in one of the rows move down one seat and Eifler asks the new pair two different questions. Not only does this activity get students acquainted with each other, it’s a great way to get them reading the syllabus and finding out for themselves what they need to know about the course.”
To begin creating a learning community, students need to communicate with one another. Icebreakers are one way to encourage communication between students. Icebreakers are commonly thought of as just "getting-to-know-you" activities, but they can also serve as a useful inflection point to help your students transition into a learning frame of mind.
Most of the examples below come from
a larger list of icebreakers created by Lansing Community College's Center for Teaching Excellence and The University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and Arts’
list of 3 icebreakers.
Have students complete a form or write on a whiteboard with spaces for "something you already know about the subject," "something you want to learn," and "something that could happen in this class that would make it possible to learn what you need to learn." Have each student introduce themself and share something from the form.
This activity could also be facilitated via Google Docs or Microsoft 365
Break the class into groups of four. Each small group must come up with four things they have in common (all working full-time, all single parents, etc.). Then they are asked to share something unique about themselves individually. The group shares their familiar and unique features with the rest of the class. A master list can be made on the board for the class to look at and discuss if appropriate. (This idea is adapted from Victoria Meyers at Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan.)
This activity could also be facilitated via Zoom breakout rooms or D2L Group Discussions
Give each student a notecard and ask them to write three statements about themselves: one statement should be false, and two should be true. Explain that the goal is to fool people about which one is false. Have each person read their statements and have the group guess the lie.
If you are teaching a large class, you can break students into smaller groups for two truths and a lie activity. Then, after each group has guessed, ask students to introduce their group members to the whole class.
This activity could also be facilitated via Zoom.
Break students into pairs. Ask students to interview their partner. They can start by learning their partner’s name, major, and where they’re from. Add in other questions and prompts that help students to engage with your subject matter and learn more about their partner. Here are some examples:
After students interview their partner, they should introduce their partner to another set of partners or to the whole class. This activity helps to encourage good listening skills.
This activity could also be facilitated via Zoom breakout rooms
Ask students to share a recent discovery that has become one of their new favorite things (e.g., a snack, podcast, brand of socks, exercise routine, nature preserve, etc.). Give students time to find a picture or link to help share their new favorite thing with the class.
This activity could be facilitated in small groups and works well inZoom breakout rooms or D2L Group Discussions.
Icebreakers are commonly thought of as just "getting-to-know-you" activities, but they can also serve as a useful inflection point to help your students transition into a learning frame of mind. So, you might periodically begin a class session, or a new module or week, with an icebreaker. Polling is a good way to incorporate getting-to-know you activities at the start of synchronous class sessions. D2L Discussions, collaborative documents (e.g., Google Docs), and
Microsoft Teams can be used in asynchronous online courses.
“How to Teach a Good First Day of Class,” James Lang emphasizes the importance of asking students to do something on the first day in order to set expectations for participation and to spark learning and enthusiasm. The following strategies are also another way to encourage students to communicate with each other.
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 a first day activity that models how future class sessions will be conducted. These are some examples of how you might model future class sessions:
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. (Erickson & Strommer, 1991, p. 90)
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)
If you’re teaching asynchronously, you can use the first week of your course to model how weeks or modules of your courses will be organized. If you plan to regularly use certain activities, assessments, or assignments, consider asking students to complete a low-stakes version during the first week of the course. As an added bonus, this will give students an opportunity to test out the technology tools.
This activity could also be facilitated in
Zoom breakout rooms or
D2L Group Discussions. See
Activities for Metacognition for additional prompts and 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. (2020).
Distracted Minds: 3 Ways to Get Their Attention in Class. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Lang, J. (2008).
On Course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Lang, J. (2019).
How to Teach a Good First Day of Class. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
"Make the Most of the First Day of Class" from the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence.
Nilson, L. (2003).
Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
"The First Day of Class" from Carleton College’s Science Education Resource Center.