Augustana Center for Teaching and Learning
The First Day of Class: It’s Not About the Syllabus
Well, if the first day’s not about the syllabus, what’s it about? It’s about setting a tone for the rest of the term (Write, D.L.; Davis, B.G.). Everything you choose to do on the first day contributes to the climate you plan for the class. My bias is that the first day must be purposefully designed so it is fully used to take the class toward the goals for the term, contextualize the course content, pique student interest, and engage students in an intellectually meaningful event. Procedural issues can be de-emphasized (Community College of Rhode Island) and focus placed on the fundamental academic question(s) posed in the course, the reasons you find the discipline intriguing, and providing students an insight into what they can expect to know and be able to do by the end of the term.
How the goals might be accomplished depends on several factors: the level of the course, whether or not there is a prerequisite, the way you define your role and the role of the students, the way the students understand your role and theirs, the type of interaction you find helpful to engage students in a consideration of content, the number of students in the class, among others.
Why de-emphasize procedural issues? In short, because they aren’t very interesting. You won’t get students hooked on a class with a discussion of the syllabus. This doesn’t mean you don’t need to hand out a well designed syllabus and discuss it a bit. But, it does mean you don’t need to read it aloud, and then dismiss the class. Reading it out loud tells students they don’t really have to be responsible for the content. Letting class out early tells the students that class time isn’t all that important (Wright D.L.). Distribute the syllabus near the end of the first class session and highlight the several items that pertain to the first couple of weeks. You can make sure the students know how to be prepared for the next class session, and tell them you’ll take questions about the syllabus at the beginning of the next couple of class sessions.
Do students at Augie expect a syllabus on the first day? Yes. I spoke with approximately 70 students who frequent Sorensen. The vast majority of the students I spoke with were education majors. They all indicated that a syllabus was expected. Even if you wish to negotiate the specifics of various assignments with the students as the term progresses, you likely aren’t going to negotiate every detail of the course. In that case, include the details you organize and describe what will be negotiated during the course. The students volunteered that a good syllabus includes more than a list of the assignments and a class schedule.
If the syllabus is the last thing to be addressed during the first class session, how does one begin? The Augie students noted that they wanted to know something about the professor, something about their fellow students, and wanted to do something related to the content that got them talking with other students. Those three comments echo several of the ideas for what to do during the first class session found in the work of Dee Fink who led our faculty retreat in August 2005 and met with new faculty this fall and others (see Other Resources below). There are all sorts of possibilities that will involve students right away. But, the reason for any of these choices should arise from the content and connect to how you want students to interact with you and each other during the term.
You can start with name-game icebreakers that might include taking turns having students share majors, hometowns, related courses taken, reasons for taking your course, rumors they’ve heard about your course, etc. Or, you might have students interview one another and then share what they’ve learned with the whole class (Wright D.L.). Maybe you’ll have them complete a quick interest survey and you introduce the students to each other.
Perhaps the introductions to each other can come as a result of engaging the students in a content-related task. Pose several key questions that students will be able to answer by the end of the course, have them work in groups to brainstorm what kinds of information and skills might they need to answer such a question, or, if a prerequisite is required for your course, have them generate possible answers based on previous course work. You could have students read 5 or 6 different short articles related to your content and then gather with the others who read the same article and generate questions of further interest or answer questions you’ve developed. Well chosen articles could also lead to questions that are answered during the course.
I enjoy thinking about the organization of classroom life and learning new ways to engage students as quickly as possible in my courses. Please stop by the Education Department office to share your ideas. We have great couches and usually have coffee going.
– Randy Hengst
Community College of Rhode Island . Teaching Resources - THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS: ADVICE AND IDEAS - Adjunct Faculty Handbook - Personnel - CCRI. Office of Human Resources Home Page - Human Resources - CCRI. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.ccri.edu/pers/Adjunct_HB/first%20day.shtml
Davis, B. G. Tools for Teaching - Chapter. Office of Educational Development. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://teaching.berkeley.edu/bgd/firstday.html
Fink, L. Dee. Ideas on Teaching. University of Oklahoma- Instructional Development Program. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.ou.edu/pii/tips/ideas/design4.html
Wright, D. L. The Most Important Day: Starting Well. Faculty Development at Honolulu Community College. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/dayone.htm
American Sociological Association. Ideas for the First Day of Class. American Sociological Association. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.asanet.org/cs/root/topnav/sociology_depts/ideas_for_the_first_day_of_class
Benoit, P. The First Day of Class. Teaching at Mizzou: A guide for new faculty, graduate instructors and teaching assistants. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://teachandlearn.missouri.edu/guide/chapters/firstday.htm
Brent, R. & Felder, R. M. It's a Start. NC State: WWW4 Server. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/Getting_started.html
Faculty & TA Development at The Ohio State University. firstday. FTAD: Faculty and TA Development. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://ftad.osu.edu/Publications/firstday.html
Honolulu Community College . Teaching Tips. Faculty Development at Honolulu Community College. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/teachtip.htm
Marcus, R. Cooperative Learning on the First Day of Class. The American Philosophical Association. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.apaonline.org/apa/archive/newsletters/v97n2/teaching/cooperative.asp
The National Teaching & Learning Forum. Frequently Asked Questions. The National Teaching & Learning Forum. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.ntlf.com/html/lib/faq/ac-byu.htm
Perlman, B. & McCann, L. I. APS Observer - The First Day of Class. Association for Psychological Science: Building a Science-First Foundation for Psychology. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=15
Vanderbilt Center for Teaching. Vanderbilt Center for Teaching: First Day of Class. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.vanderbilt.edu/cft/resources/teaching_resources/preparing/first_day.htm
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