Indiana University Teaching Handbook
Preparing to Teach
The First Day of Class
Adapted with permission from Northeastern University, 1986
The first day of class can be an anxious experience for your students. Students enter the first day of class with at least four questions (Ericksen, 1984):
- Is the class going to meet my needs?
- Is the teacher competent?
- Is the teacher fair?
- Will the teacher care about me?
To this list we should add:
- Will I be able to succeed?
- What does the teacher expect from me?
- What will I need to do to get a good grade?
- Will I be able to juggle the workload for this course with the workload in my other courses?
Keep in mind that the first day of class sets the tone for the whole course. This is the best opportunity you have to establish your expectations for student achievement and behavior. Take advantage of the fact that most students will be looking for signs to indicate what the course holds for them, and will therefore be highly attentive. Therefore, be careful to communicate to students not only your high expectations for them, but also your commitment to and support for their learning.
Avoid bold de-motivating statements such as, Half of you might not finish the course, or Only one student made an A in this course last semester. Even if there is truth in these statements, they tend to discourage those students who, though highly capable, lack the confidence necessary to persevere past the negative rhetoric. Instead, use language that encourages students: This course will challenge you, but I know you are capable of doing it.
It is essential to go over the syllabus carefully with the students. The syllabus represents the thought and planning that went into your course. It therefore conveys to students much about who you are, how well you are organized, and what kind of teacher you will be. Presenting and discussing the syllabus will give students a chance to ask questions, to clarify policies, and to reflect upon the demands of the course. This is a good time to talk with your students about academic honesty and the ethical standards you have set. Make clear your estimate of how much out-of-class study and preparation time the course will require.
Treat the first day as a substantive meeting, not merely an administrative house keeping day. Give students a sampling of what they will be doing in your course. This conveys your seriousness as an instructor, and communicates to students that class time will be spent productively. If you expect students to participate in discussion during the semester, set up a discussion on the first day to establish early that this is what your classroom will be like. If you want students to be active listeners and questioners in class, design an activity that will allow you to model how this process works in your classroom. If writing is an important part of your course, give students a brief, in-class writing exercise related to their first assignment.
One excellent exercise on the first day is to administer a pre-test or knowledge survey on topics you will be covering during the semester. The purpose of this activity is two-fold. First, it allows you to see what knowledge or understanding students do or do not bring into the classroom; second, it gives students a chance to reflect upon what they need to know to succeed in the course.