It’s true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Whether you’re teaching a large introductory-level course or a smaller senior-level seminar, the beginning of the semester is important. Many students will make up their minds early whether they like the course, its contents, the instructor and their peers. When students make up their minds too early, engagement can dip. So, too, can attendance.
Here, we offer suggestions, tips and strategies to help you start the semester off right. New instructors may be learning the ropes, while those who are more experienced may be looking to liven up their routine. Here are some helpful tactics to ensure your first week of classes is engaging and welcoming to students.
Help your students transition into the new term
1. Create an engaging syllabus: Your syllabus should be the foundation of your course. Adding in visual components, like images, graphics and charts, can help students better understand the different elements of your course.
Tip: Consider distributing your syllabus a few days before the first day of class so your students can come prepared with their questions. You could also have students annotate your syllabus online with questions and comments. This promotes a closer reading of the syllabus and helps students understand this isn’t a static document and it can change according to their needs.
2. Set up clear communication strategies: Ensure you’re clear with students on how and when they can reach you and their TAs. This can include office hours, netiquette for email communications and expectations for in-class behavior.
Tip: Joel Stake, lecturer of biological sciences at Louisiana Tech University, starts each new term with an introductory video on his course LMS page to briefly overview course policies. He then follows up with weekly short videos highlighting what’s on deck for the week and sharing personal updates.
3. Conduct a student interest inventory: A student interest inventory is a brief questionnaire that helps you gain a more holistic understanding of your students, their academic backgrounds, hobbies and interests. Consider asking questions like:
- Why did you register for the course and do you have any particular areas of interest?
- What are you looking to get out of the course and how might it help you reach your post-graduation goals?
- Consider posing a handful of questions to students about any accommodations you should know about. Learning styles, home life situations, connectivity concerns and other responsibilities are useful for you to know as the instructor in order for your class to be as flexible and accommodating to students as possible.
- Fun questions that can help to get to know students better, such as: If you could have any superpower, what would it be? What’s something that would surprise the class about you?
Get students’ attention
4. Share some information about yourself: Share a brief overview of your academic career and provide students with a personal anecdote about why you chose your discipline or a funny story from your undergraduate experience. This way, you can break down barriers with your students from the very beginning, to foster an open, inclusive environment for learning.
Tip: You can also share your teaching philosophy statement with students. A teaching philosophy statement is unique to each instructor and can provide students with more insights around your discipline, influential mentors, personal educational experiences, type of teaching (graduate vs. undergraduate, large vs. small classes, etc.) and program-related teaching requirements (i.e. case-based learning).
5. Consider starting with a diagnostic assessment: These short assessments help instructors better understand what students already know. This can be an exit ticket, minute paper or short ungraded quiz.
Tip: Frank Spors, professor of optometry at Western Health Sciences University, uses these short assessments every week of his course to check in with students and see what questions they have before each class.
6. Take breaks: By interspersing lecture blocks with opportunities for students to take control of the class, you keep them on their toes.
Tip: After reviewing the syllabus and rules for respectful discussions in the classroom, consider asking students to complete a think-pair-share exercise to come up with what they think classroom rules should look like. This builds on a learning science principle known as retrieval practice. Retrieval practice is the act of recalling facts from memory. You can implement this practice by incorporating quick checks throughout the assigned readings. After students read or watch a video, ask them to answer a simple question about that concept.
Provide support early and often
7. Repeat yourself: Students have different ways of absorbing and processing information. Try repeating key pieces of course information, like office hour times, key dates and your contact information, in a number of different places. Consider keeping a discussion forum open in your LMS or Top Hat available for students to ask informal questions that can be answered by TAs and peers at any point.
8. Share campus resources: Students may be unsure of where to go if they’re in need of extra support. Consider sharing academic support, financial aid, mental health resources and campus housing information with students through your online course platform or include them in your syllabus.
9. Encourage reflection: By including journal prompts in your class, you can encourage students to monitor and reflect on their progress in your course. This practice can also leave them with a study aid at the end of the course that they’re able to build on throughout the semester.
Tip: On the first day of class, you can ask students to take five minutes at the end of your lecture to jot down their expectations for the course. You can then ask them to look back on these reflections on the last day of class to see how far they’ve come.
The first week of classes can be nerve-wracking for professors and their students. But holding space for questions and discussions helps create an open and supportive environment. By setting the stage for dialogue and transparency from day one, you’ll be able to equip yourself and your students for success this semester, wherever your class is taking place.