Skip to content Skip to navigation

The First and Last Class

Now that you have a lesson plan in mind, you are ready to focus on how to execute your plan and deliver the lesson, specifically the first lesson.

The first day of any class is an opportunity for you to:

  1. “sell” your course
  2. clarify expectations and
  3. set the tone for the course

This section offers some suggestions on how you can achieve the foregoing objectives. Following that, students should be able to predict the nature of your instruction, know what you will require of them and very possibly, be looking forward to their next lesson with you!

1. “Sell” your course

Even though students have signed up for your course and may have read your course outline, it is extremely useful to raise interest and excitement about what your course has to offer.

Provide a roadmap overview of how the topics across the lessons connect up. Explain how your course fits in with the rest of the curriculum. Highlight topics that are most interesting to you, and invite your students to identify topics that pique their interest. Conduct an activity for students to discover something about the nature and scope of questions the course is intended to answer.

For example:

  • Bring in newspaper or magazine clippings to demonstrate how your course relates to current events and student interests.
  • Collect data from students that tie in to the course content e.g. a faculty member teaching statistics may collect data on the first day and use it to illustrate survey sampling concepts.
  • Start the lesson by posing questions about the subject that you are trying to answer (e.g. I often wonder why …). This conveys your continuous effort at making sense of the subject and the idea of education as a never-ending process of inquiry to obtain greater understanding (and that whatever truths you claim are provisional and temporary).
  • “By giving students an interesting and inviting introduction, I was able to reduce anxiety about the course and help students view the class as a collaborative learning process. Every field has its own exciting research or striking examples, and it is a good idea to present a few of these up front. The teaching challenge is to find special ideas within your own field. Your class will thank you.”

2. Clarify expectations

Setting out clear expectations orientates students towards the kind of learning, classroom behaviour and performance expected of them.

  • Describe the pre-requisites so that students will know if they are ready to take your course. This also helps you identify students for whom you may need to provide additional support.
  • Highlight noteworthy features of your course instruction (e.g. active learning components, online learning aspects) and your course assessment (e.g. how the final grade is determined, assessment rubrics, what the exams will be like). In particular, share your rationale behind them to help them understand and appreciate these features.
  • Quiz students on the course outline. This compels students to pay more attention to the course outline and prepares students to expect quizzes as one interactive learning approach in your course.
  • Offer advice on how to succeed in your course. Where possible, illustrate your advice with past student works or performances.

Come prepared to address common student concerns, such as:

  • What is your stand on punctuality, attendance, missed or late work, academic integrity, eating in class, and laptop use?
  • What are the required readings? Where are they available?
  • What preparation is required outside of class? How often will this take place?
  • What are the best ways to reach you outside of class? What are your preferred hours of availability?

3. Set the tone for the course

How you engage your students on the first day sends a strong message regarding the level of interaction you expect from the students. Lecturing extensively gets students accustomed to passive listening and consequently, are slower to participate in discussions or activities.

  • Model the classroom environment you intend to foster during the class. For example, if they will spend a good deal of time doing group work over the course of the semester, you may want to break them into groups on the first day and get them talking.
  • Consider a tongue-in-cheek first day homework assignment that requires students to make an appointment with you, find your office and visit you there before the next lesson or two. This familiarises students with your office, and breaks the ice with a brief chat in a cozier setting and increases the likelihood that students will come back for help when they need it.

Create rapport and a comfortable level of formality / informality by finding out more about each other.

  • Share something interesting about yourself to help students get to know you professionally and personally. At this early stage, refrain from sharing information that undermines your credibility in their eyes (e.g. that you have never taught this course before). Consider how you would balance establishing your competence and authority with coming across as supportive and approachable (Ambrose 2010)
  • Find out more about your students by collecting data on:

    • Their baseline knowledge:

      • check that students have taken relevant courses in a sequence, and
      • give students an ungraded pre-test that assesses knowledge and skills necessary for the course.
      • Their motivation in the course:
      • why students are taking your course
      • what they expect to get out of it, and
      • what challenges they anticipate
    • Depending on how many students are lacking certain knowledge or skills, you might:

      • invite them to reconsider taking your course
      • explore with them how they can bridge the gap on their own, and
      • devote one or two classes to a review of important foundational material


The Last Day of Class

By the end of a semester, it is natural to find that the energy of most students and faculty members are low, with both parties having settled into comfortable routines. The last day of class is often at risk of ending on a note of trepidation (as a result of feeling unprepared for a tough exam), or hollow anti-climax (characterised by bland wrap-up summary lectures or fun but irreverent food celebrations).

This section offers some suggestions on how to create a last day of class that ends on a note of promise, and gets students thinking about what a meaningful course they took and leaves you wanting to teach it again next semester.

Invite students to reflect on the knowledge they gained or how their learning approaches have evolved

Dietz-Uhler & Lanter (2009) developed four versatile questions that encourage students to “analyze, reflect, relate, and question” material they’ve learned. Adapted to the purposes of the last day of class, these are:

  • Can you identify one important concept, research finding, theory, or idea that you learned while taking this class?
  • Why do you believe that this concept, research finding, theory, or idea is important?
  • Apply what you have learned from this class to some aspect of your life.
  • What question(s) has the class raised for you? What are you still wondering about?

Such questions enhance students’ retention of concepts and enable them to think about course material in more complex ways.

Share what you learnt teaching this course

Faculty members often learn something new about our subjects or teaching because of interactions with students. Sharing that experience models lifelong learning and demonstrates that students have a lot to teach and contribute as well, an empowering view that encourages them to be more active learners in the future.

Have students look ahead

To address the common tendency of students leaving all their knowledge behind at the end of the semester, thinking it has no application to their future endeavors, invite students to imagine how they can apply their new knowledge and skills in future classes and beyond. It may be about the course content, or it may be about how they learn or work with new information. One variant is to have students write back to you a few months later with an update on that application.

Create a ritual for the last day of your classes

Having worked hard establishing a learning community all through the semester, why not end with a community event? This could involve giving out awards for those who excelled in the class, improved the most, regularly contributed to discussions, etc. Alternatively, have them create awards for their classmates.

Personalise their exit

Shake each student's hand on the way out, and offer encouragement for their future efforts with this topic and their future studies. This ends the course on a suitably personal, collegial and classy note.

Other good activities for the last day of class include:

  • Having students write a letter to next year’s class with advice on how to succeed in the course. These can be a rich and interesting resource for your use in the first day of class the next time you teach this course.
  • For courses where students have produced a body of writing or work, have them give short ‘portfolio presentations’ to explain themes in their work to the rest of the class.
  • Invite students to share how they could make a difference in the world with the knowledge they’ve gained.
  • Hold an ‘open Q&A’ where students can ask any questions they’d like (with the exception of questions about the final exam, religion, or politics).


  1. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching (available as an eBook in the SMU library)
  2. Bennett, K. L. (2004). How to Start Teaching a Tough Course: Dry Organization Versus Excitement on the First Day of Class. College Teaching, 52(3), 106
  3. Lyons, R., McIntosh, M., & Kysilka, M. (2003). Teaching college in an age of accountability. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  4. Dietz-Uhler, B., & Lanter, J. R. (2009). Using the four-questions technique to enhance learning. Teaching of Psychology, 36(1), 38-41.
  5. Maier, M. H., & Panitz, T. (1996). End on a high note: Better endings for classes and courses. College Teaching, 44(4), 145-148.


Last updated on 05 May 2017 .