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

The First Day of Class

Professor speaking in front of their class.
In the first class meeting, or the first days of your online course, 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 the class matters. This is also a great time to begin building a productive, supportive, and inclusive learning environment. Below are some strategies for making the most of the first class meeting or the start of your online course.  

This guide contains the following sections: 

Before the Course Begins
Introduce Yourself
Ask Your Students to Introduce Themselves
Introduce the Course
Share the Syllabus
Have Students Communicate with One Another: Icebreakers
Engage Students in Active Learning

Before the Course Begins

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).

Introduce Yourself

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: 

  • What do you love about teaching the course? How long have you been teaching? What is your favorite thing about teaching?
  • Why did you choose to study and work in your discipline? What do you love about the discipline? How you see the discipline affecting the world and vice versa?
  • What is your research agenda and how does it relate to the course? (if applicable)
  • Personal details that you feel comfortable sharing, such as place of birth, family details, hobbies and interests, future plans.

If you’re asking students to engage in an icebreaker or diagnostic activity, consider providing your own response to the activity or prompt.

Course Introduction Video

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 

  • Explain how your course will be delivered and how students should navigate your D2L course each week 
  • Point out important areas of the D2L course and explain their function in the context of your class (e.g., if you plan to regularly provide students with feedback via Submission folders, show them the ways they can access that feedback) 
  • Emphasize how students can connect with you synchronously, via office hours and any other opportunities for one-on-one meetings or collaboration (e.g., optional group study sessions, individual conferences) 

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. 


Ask Your Students to Introduce Themselves

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.

Learn and Use Students’ Names

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.

Collect Information via a First Day Survey 

A first day survey is one way to collect information about your students. 

  • Here are some things you might ask students to provide:
  • Name and pronouns
  • Context (hours spent working, childcare responsibilities, etc.)
  • Prior knowledge/experience
  • Technological proficiency
  • Personal goals for taking course 

First Day or Pre-Course Survey Question Examples

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. 

  • Why are you taking this course?
  • What are your academic and/or professional goals?
  • What is your greatest academic strength?
  • What is one thing you hope to do or learn during this course?
  • What previous experience do you have ______?
  • What challenges do you anticipate in this course?
  • What else should I know in order to best support you in this course?
  • What is your favorite song or musical artist?
  • What is the best book you’ve read recently?
  • What is your favorite movie?
  • What is your favorite food or meal? Can you share a recipe?

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.

See a comparison of survey tools available at DePaul to determine the best tool for your first day survey. 

Assess Students’ Previous Knowledge

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 Course

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.

Strategies for Introducing Your Course

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.

Share the Syllabus

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:

  • 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.

Syllabus Quiz

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 

  • Expectations for participation
  • How to navigate the course and/or prepare for class sessions
  • How to access and use office hours 
  • Grading and feedback timelines 
  • Late work policies 

A syllabus quiz can be facilitated via Poll Everywhere, 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 

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.”

Have Students Communicate with One Another: Icebreakers

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.

Icebreaker Examples 

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:

  • If we were to find ourselves in your hometown, what’s the one thing you’d say we absolutely had to do before we left?
  • If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
  • What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

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 in Zoom breakout rooms or D2L Group Discussions.

Icebreakers in Asynchronous Online and Flex Modality Courses

Tools like D2L Discussionscollaborative documents (e.g., Google Docs), and Microsoft Teams (part of Office 365) can be used to facilitate asynchronous icebreakers. In Flex modality courses, consider providing all students the opportunity to introduce themselves and interact asynchronously before the first synchronous class session. Regardless of the course modality, send emails to acknowledge early participation in icebreaker and community-building exercises and check in with students that haven’t yet participated. You might also use the responses to shape the start of a class session, the next module, or to begin a D2L News item that you use to check in with students. For example, you might highlight trends in the responses and indicate how you'll be exploring topics of interest, answering student questions, making time to talk more about the best new show on Netflix, etc. 

Incorporate Icebreakers Throughout the Course

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 Discussionscollaborative documents (e.g., Google Docs), and Microsoft Teams can be used in asynchronous online courses. 

Engage Students in Active Learning

In “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. 

Model Future Class Sessions

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: 

  • Ask students to read a short excerpt of text and analyze or discuss it in small groups 
  • Provide students with a problem and ask them to solve it
  • Give students a short case study and ask them to map how they would approach it
  • Facilitate a short lab that helps students to see best practices for using the space 

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.

Ask Students to Think About the Course Metacognitively

Another way to encourage learning on the first day is to ask students to reflect on what they know, what they need to know, and the learning strategies they’ll need to be successful in the course. These are some examples of questions you might ask students to reflect on individually or in small groups: 
  • What study, learning, writing, composing, etc. strategies have worked for you in the past? What strategies haven’t worked? 
  • What elements and actions contribute to a productive learning environment? 
  • What skills must you learn in order to be successful in this class or in a profession related to this field? 

This activity could also be facilitated in Zoom breakout rooms or D2L Group Discussions. See Activities for Metacognition for additional prompts and resources.

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. (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. 

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