A successful semester not only ends well—it also begins well. Thought and preparation can allow you to set a productive tone and direction from the very first day.
Check out the classroom space that you’ve been assigned, both so that you know where your class is located, and also to be sure that the room will work for you. Look at the lighting controls, arrangement of seats, and size of the room—can this space support your teaching plans (e.g., discussions, student collaboration, use of technologies)? If you plan to use audio/visual equipment, make sure it works, especially if you will be using computers, video projectors and other pieces of technology. If the classroom doesn’t fit your needs, it’s good to know before the semester begins, so that you can change it in time. (At Georgetown, you would contact the Registrar.) For more on working with your room, see our Classroom Space page.
If the course has teaching assistants, the professor and TA should meet before the semester, preferably well before the first day of class, to clarify expectations and define roles in the course. See our Teaching Assistants page for an extensive exploration of what ought to happen in these conversations.
First impressions count in a variety of ways, especially given that the first day is often a “shopping” day for students who are still making decisions about their semester’s schedule. Your first meeting with students is an opportunity to set a tone, create a sense of classroom community, and prepare them for what’s to come. The first day is therefore not a throwaway day but rather a crucial glimpse of the course as a whole.
One of the most important elements of that course is you, naturally, so take the time to introduce yourself and your investment in the material at hand. Why do you think this class is important? Be yourself, so students can get a sense of who they’ll be working with.
The other members of the classroom community are the students. If at all possible, start learning their names right away. If you have a hard time memorizing names, try taking photos and labeling them. Some schools, Georgetown among them, make photo rosters available—Georgetown does it through Blackboard and Canvas—to allow you start matching names with faces. You may want to help students get to know each other, as well. If the class is small, you could ask them to introduce themselves briefly—or have them talk in small groups first and then introduce one another to the larger class. Some instructors ask students to sit in the same seats for the first few weeks to make it easier for everyone to get names down.
Many teachers use icebreaker exercises to help everyone in the room get to know one another. These can be as simple as having people introduce themselves to their neighbors, sharing basic information (e.g., year in school, where they’re from, academic major, etc.), course-relevant information (e.g., why they’re taking the class, how this course connects to other ones they’ve taken, what they’re most excited/nervous about, etc.), or less typical information (e.g., students’ unusual skills, the furthest place from DC they’ve ever been, a common food they’ve never tried, etc.). Icebreakers can also be more complex, taking the form of games and activities that build relationships (e.g., “two truths and a lie”), help students reflect on the learning process (e.g., What’s the best academic experience you ever had, and what did you, the teacher, and your fellow students do to make that happen?), or engage in the course material (e.g., working together to solve a relevant thought problem). You can find lots of specific ideas for icebreakers at the Ohio State University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Cengage, Icebreakerideas.com, or, for a nearly exhaustive list, Iowa State University’s Learning Communities, but the main point is to find something that will help you get the class moving in the direction you want it to go.
This first day is also the moment to let people know what they’re getting into academically. The syllabus is, if not necessarily quite a contract, nonetheless an important repository of information about everything from how you want to be contacted and required course materials to the nature of assignments and assessments in the course. (See our Creating Your Syllabus page for lots more information on this.) You should also talk about these things, highlighting your goals for the students as well as your expectations and emphases. Doing all this tells the student, “This is how the class will be, so only stay with us if you’re prepared to engage with this kind of class.”
One way to drive some of this home is to ask students to do, on the first day, things that you’re going to want them to do throughout the semester. If students will need to participate in active discussions frequently, get them talking that first day about something basic but relevant; if you want them to collaborate later on, have them talk to one another, or even work together, the first day. (Some of these activities also serve as icebreakers.) Writing, problem-solving, thought exercises—more than just an opportunity to say hello and go over the syllabus, your first session with the students is an opportunity to introduce them, experientially, to the course they’re about to take.
Finally, consider gathering some information from the students to find out what they know about the subject matter, and what experience they have work with the methodologies of the course. This is the baseline you’ll be working from, and it can inform your teaching.
Obviously enough, the first few weeks are, in part, where you continue what you started on the first day. If you started to get to know your students on that day, keep getting to know them going forward. Let what you know about them, including their previous experience and knowledge, guide your teaching choices. Pursue the emphases and goals you laid out when you first met the class.
You can also view the early weeks as set-up for the rest of the course. If you have ambitious goals for your students, you need to design your course so that students will reach them. We go into this further on our Learning Goals page, but it’s worth saying here that many goals can only be reached through a sequence of discrete steps. Some theories of learning (e.g., Bloom’s Taxonomy) suggest that we have to master lower-order skills before we can master higher-order ones (e.g., students have to understand the concepts before they can apply them).
In this understanding, the experience of an effective semester is not one of steadily accumulating information but the development of increasingly complex skills, each one built on the one that came before. You could think of the beginning of the semester, then, as first steps toward places you ultimately want to reach.
All this said, although first impressions are important, they are not everything. If you need to change something about your approach to the course for the sake of the students’ learning experience, and if you can effectively explain the change to those students, you should make that change. Once you’re a few weeks in, you could collect some feedback from the students on how things are going—see our page on this subject for some ideas—to see what, if anything, needs to be changed.
Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.