Leveraging the First Day of Class

Students listen to a cybersecurity lecture by Senior Lecturer of Computer Science, Ming Chow, in Braker Hall, July 2018. (Anna Miller/Tufts University)

By Heather Dwyer, Assistant Director, CELT

The first day of class is an exciting moment for you and your students. As you prepare for the day, take the opportunity to set expectations by establishing tone, measuring students’ prior knowledge, and clarifying the syllabus.

Create a tone that is supportive and motivating to students. First impressions make a big difference, and the tone you convey will impact students’ perceptions. One way to establish a positive tone is to communicate your high expectations, along with your confidence that students have the capacity to achieve those expectations. Doing so can improve students’ motivation, their perceptions of you as an instructor, and their perceptions of the course itself. Additionally, it is important to emphasize that you are committed to supporting students as they strive to achieve high expectations. Language in the syllabus can describe your willingness to foster a supportive, inclusive learning environment, including implementing appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities.

Gauge students’ prior knowledge to help guide your teaching. Students’ prior knowledge—or lack thereof—can impact subsequent learning. Take time during the first day of class to measure the extent and quality of students’ prior knowledge by asking students to complete a diagnostic pre-assessment. This could take the form of a quiz that includes concepts or calculations related to the course content (and the quiz should be graded on completion rather than correctness). Alternatively, you could ask students to generate a list of words they associate with the course title, and to use concept mapping to highlight connections between those terms—it’s expected that students will struggle with this. Regardless of the pre-assessment you choose, use the results to guide subsequent teaching.

Have students actively engage with the syllabus. Because the learning objectives will serve as the course’s backbone, it’s critical that students understand them from the beginning. Build in opportunities for students to engage actively with the syllabus. For example, task students with finding course-related information by putting them into small groups and giving them a short time to answer ten questions about the syllabus. This will convey that relevant course information is in the syllabus and that students should look there before asking you. Alternatively, use Canvas to create a syllabus quiz—you can set it up to give automatic feedback and an automatic participation grade. Avoid reading from the syllabus, as this will prompt students to become passive listeners, and they may quickly become bored and disengaged.

Each course only has one first day—arguably the most important day, as it sets the stage for the entire rest of the semester. Make the most of that day by creating a foundation for inquiry and success.

Selected References

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., & Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Boser, U., Wilhelm, M., & Hanna, R. (2014). The Power of the Pygmalion Effect: Teachers’ Expectations Strongly Predict College Completion (Rep.). Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED564606)

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The Mentor’s Dilemma: Providing Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(10), 1302–1318.

Weimer, M. Five things to do on the first day of class. Faculty Focus August 21, 2013.

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