Have a Fabulous First Day!

 Do you have first day jitters? Don’t worry!  Even the most seasoned faculty get them, but that’s only because we care about our students and want them to learn about the fascinating fields and ideas we have come to love.   And, there is ample evidence out there to support our intuition (or fear?) that the first day really matters to student enthusiasm, motivation, and success.  Here are just a few ideas that will make for a fabulous first day:

Before the First Day

  • Send your students a welcome letter. Let them know who you are, why you love your field, and what you’re most excited about for your time together.  Tell them your preferred name / title, your pronouns, and the best way to reach you for help.
  • Drop an Easter Egg. “Easter eggs” are little surprises embedded in your syllabus or Sakai / Canvas site. For example, in your syllabus, you might include a line somewhere near the end that says “When you read this, email me a picture of a turtle or tortoise for five bonus points on the next quiz.”  Not only will you find out who has read your syllabus, you will be building motivation in all students to read carefully and well.

Before Class Starts

  • Get there early, and meet students at the door or welcome them to the Zoom room. Introduce yourself and let them know they are in the right place.
  • Have student name cards available if you are in person and let students decorate them. Then, use them by referring to students by name throughout the day and semester.
  • Distribute “Getting to Know You” Cards and ask students to respond to important questions like “What is your name?” and “What excites you about this class?” Read these cards after class and make notes so you can avoid deadnaming your students and have some insight into their motivations for the class.
  • Consider mood music. Get yourself a walk on song or prep a playlist for while students are gathering that sets the mood and tells them a bit about you.

Before you “Talk Syllabus”

  • Tell your students a story. It can be a story about some amazing development in the field, a particularly thorny problem scholars struggle with in your discipline, or even a personal story about how you came to love what you do. The teacher’s enthusiasm for content has been shown to have a profound effect on student persistence.
  • Ask them to tell you a story. Invite them to write 2-3 paragraphs titled “My Autobiography in [Discipline].” This may be particularly important in STEM and writing fields, where students may have had numerous negative experiences or feelings of inadequacy that can impede their success.
  • Let your students interview you. Get them into groups to come up with questions about you, your background, interests, hobbies, or anything else (within reason and comfort). Letting students see you as both a person and expert in your field has been shown to increase student motivation.
  • Ask them to engage in the content. Give students a shared reading and invite them to work in pairs or groups to summarize the main points or ideas, as well as why it might be important to the class.  Or, if your course primarily emphasizes skills (like critical thinking, writing, public speaking, etc.) give them a low stakes opportunity to practice those skills. Then allow them some time to reflect on their strengths and growing edges and to set goals.
  • Think about community building. Rituals matter to group cohesion, and they are established on the first day. If you want every class to start with community announcements, or every week to end with a student summary of the week’s content, start those rituals now.

When you “Talk Syllabus”

  • Host a scavenger hunt.  Are your office hours on the syllabus?  Walk students over there (if in person) and ask them to answer 20 questions about you, your office, and the hours while you are there.  Do you have a separate lab location?  Send students out to find it and retrieve the mystery objects (probably candy) they find there.  Did you mention that you want students to use the writing or quantitative support center? Ask students to take a group selfie with someone at that location and Tweet it out with the hashtag #syllabusscavengerhunt. If you are teaching online, you can do ,any of these tasks by asking students to find, screen shot, and share to a group doc how to connect with these places.
  • Divide students into groups and ask them to interpret and present one section of your syllabus for the class. Give them a chance to ask clarifying questions and discuss why they think you have included this particular element / assignment in your course.
  • Allow students to negotiate percentages, due dates, policies, course materials, and expectations. We have good evidence that many students are ill-equipped to negotiate effectively when they leave college and enter the world of employment.  You are giving your students a gift by giving them a low-stakes opportunity to practice these skills.  (Plus, no one can say they “didn’t know” about an assignment later when it’s been negotiated in class.)

 So there you go!  More than a baker’s dozen worth of ideas for making this year better than ever. Oh … and if today isn’t the first day of class, many of these ideas can  easily be modified for wherever you are in the semester.   Have a fabulous first day!