First Day of Class
As the old adage goes, you get only one chance to make a first impression. No pressure. Here are some tips and suggestions from fellow faculty members on what helps them:
- Arrive early: This readies you to interact freely with the students as they arrive. It signals your strong commitment to them that they matter, which is often a trigger for them to reciprocate in the effort they invest in your class. In Small Teaching (2016), Lang cites a study by Chambliss and Takacs as reported in How College Works (2014) demonstrating that the sheer fact of paying attention to students and their work helped create a positive atmosphere and significant learning gains.
- Standby an appropriate opening background slide and/or music to create an engaging environment. It is calming to know that students have something to occupy themselves with as they wait for you to begin. Free mood music, playlists and videos can be readily found online on Youtube and music streaming services like Spotify.
- Introduce yourself effectively: Depending on your level of comfort, you may consider sharing your hobbies and interests, and how you came to specialise in your chosen field and in teaching.
- Photographs you have taken are a great visual talking point for this purpose.
- Some faculty prefer to interweave personal sharings in different parts of the lesson or towards the end, so as not to focus attention unduly on themselves at the start.
- Refrain from sharing information that undermines your credibility in their eyes (e.g. that you have never taught this course before).
- Clarify learning objectives and your expectations: This is arguably the most critically important objective. This orientates students towards the type of learning performance and behaviours you expect from them. It also assists those who have not firmed up their decision on whether to take your course or not.
- Describe the course pre-requisites (and where to refresh and prepare themselves if they are not confident on the strength of their foundation). This also helps you identify students for whom you may need to provide additional support.
- Highlight the main aspects of the syllabus (such as an overview of your learning objectives, the assessment components, grading criteria, your instructional strategies, online learning aspects, rationale for the recommended textbooks).
- Consider quizzing students on the course outline and/or syllabus either formally (using the eLearn quiz platform; click here for the user guide on how to do so) or informally (inserting questions in your slides). This compels students to pay more attention to the course outline and prepares students to expect quizzes as one form of interactive learning in your course. Lang (2016) advocates populating the course schedule section in detail with descriptions of what will happen in the different units of the course. This “retrieving syllabus” (as Lang calls it) offers you an option of referring them to it in subsequent lessons to question them on what they remember from earlier lessons.
- 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 the following:
- What is your stand on punctuality, attendance, missed or late work, academic integrity, 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?
- 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.
- As a general rule, refrain from lecturing extensively. It gets students accustomed to passive listening and consequently, are slower to participate in discussions or activities.
- Model the classroom environment you intend to foster. For example, if you intend for your students to 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; if you intend your classes to be participatory in nature, spend parts of your first lesson polling them and engaging them in class discussions to ask for perspectives and examples.
- If you prefer a slightly less formal dynamic with your students, you may 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 needed.
Last Day of Class
The last day of class is often at risk of ending on an anti-climactic note, characterised by unexciting wrap-up summary lectures or fun but irreverent food celebrations.
Here are some ideas on how to create end your course on a note of promise, and get students reflecting on how meaningful the course was, while leaving you with a feeling of excitement 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” the material that they learned. Such questions enhance students’ retention of concepts and enable them to think about course material in more complex ways. 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?
- Share what you learnt teaching this course: As faculty, we sometimes 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.
- 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. Invite them to share how they could make a difference in the world with the knowledge they’ve gained.
- 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.
- Dietz-Uhler, B., & Lanter, J. R. (2009). Using the four-questions technique to enhance learning. Teaching of Psychology, 36(1), 38-41.
- Chambliss, D. F. (2014). How college works. Harvard University Press.
- Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
- Lyons, R. E., McIntosh, M., & Kysilka, M. L. (2003). Teaching college in an age of accountability. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Maier, M. H., & Panitz, T. (1996). End on a high note: Better endings for classes and courses. College Teaching, 44(4), 145-148.
- McGlynn, A. P. (2001). Successful Beginnings for College Teaching: Engaging Your Students from the First Day. Teaching Techniques/Strategies Series. Atwood Publishing, 2710 Atwood Avenue, Madison, WI 53704.