Many teachers devote the first class meeting to giving a general description of the course and its requirements and, after answering questions about the course, either begin to lecture or dismiss the class early. But there are many things you can do on the first day that will help establish rapport with the students, prepare them for the semester’s work, and generate excitement about the course subject matter. According to surveys of undergraduates, students want to know two kinds of information on the first day of class. They want to learn as much about the nature and scope of the course as possible so they can decide whether they want to remain in the course or so they can better anticipate the work requirements for the semester. They are also curious about the teacher as a person. They want to know if you will be reasonable and fair with them, if you care about them as individuals, and if you care about the course itself.
A well written syllabus, distributed in the first class, can do much to promote a positive attitude in students, since it shows the teacher cares about the course and has made an effort to plan it carefully. At minimum a syllabus should contain the course goals, topics, grading and examination procedures, reading assignments, attendance policy, and your office location and appointment hours. By preparing a comprehensive syllabus, you simplify the matter of reviewing the course requirements on the first day. Also, students who join the course late will have all the vital information they need to succeed in the course.
Undergraduates, particularly in large classes, want to feel that they are human beings and not simply a name and ID number on a registration roll. Course evaluation research has shown a strong correlation between positive evaluation of the instructor and student perceptions that the instructor cares about them as individuals. Furthermore, the same body of research indicates that a positive attitude toward the course and instructor motivates students to work harder and achieve more. Thus, there are good reasons to show students from the very beginning that you view them as individuals and care about them as people.
Aside from the benefits already mentioned, there are other reasons to learn students’ names. Your ability to call upon them by name helps create a relaxed and friendly classroom atmosphere. It enables you to stimulate class discussion by asking students personally to express their points of view. Also, it may transform a group of isolated and anonymous individuals into a community of people who cooperatively engage in the exploration of ideas and knowledge.
In small classes learning student names may not be difficult. If you teach a class of less than twenty students, you might ask students to identify themselves one row at a time and repeat what each student has told you. Using the preregistration list, call the roll at the start of each class. After collecting the index cards, spend time on the first day and subsequent days reading the names on the cards, looking at each person and trying to form an association between names and hometowns, facial expressions, hair color, or any other striking characteristics. All these methods are effective in classes with relatively small enrollments, but they share one common disadvantage: they use class time which could be devoted to other purposes. Some faculty members have found ways to circumvent these disadvantages in courses with large student enrollments.
In large classes ask your students to provide you with photos (labeled with their names) by the beginning of the second week of class. Review these photos as soon as you receive them and as often as you can until you have learned their names. It will not take long before you will be able to identify every student in your class. You should return the photos to students at the end of the semester so they can be given to other teachers who use this technique. By having a seating chart and photos you can learn who your students are in less time regardless of class size. This method may yield an additional benefit: you are likely to notice if someone misses several classes and can contact the student to discuss whatever problem he or she may be having. By reaching out in this way, you show that you care about the student as an individual.
On the first day of class, give each student an index card and ask them to write their names, local addresses, phone numbers, hometowns, and majors. Then ask them to write about their interest in your course and other courses or life experiences they have had which relate to the subject matter of the course. You might also ask them who their heroes or heroines are, what hobbies they enjoy, and skills or talents of which they are especially proud. In asking for personal information you should emphasize that students are not required to reveal anything that they do not feel comfortable sharing. Once you have collected these index cards they can be used in many different ways – they can give you some idea of the interests and prior knowledge which students bring to the course. Using this information, you can improve your perception of material so that you neither bore the more knowledgeable students nor completely confuse or lose the less knowledgeable students in the class.
Another method which can be beneficial to you and your students is an ungraded short essay written on the first day of class. If well conceived, short essays can reveal several important student characteristics, including perception, knowledge and attitudes about the subject, analytical and conceptual skills and general writing ability. If you are teaching a course in art history, show a slide of a lesser known work and ask students to identify and describe the style, symbolism and period of the work. If you are teaching about a foreign country, ask students to write about their perceptions and beliefs about that country. Reading their essays will help you understand what preconceptions, attitudes and prior knowledge students have about the subject matter and will help you identify themes that you may want to emphasize as you teach. When they have finished return the first essay and ask them to compare their two answers. This will give them concrete evidence of how their thinking may or may not have changed as a result of the semester’s work. You can collect the papers and compare them yourself, to discover how much your course contributed to your students’ intellectual development.
Designing and administering a non-graded diagnostic test is another method you can use to gauge student’s knowledge, perceptions, and ideas about the course. The more you know about your students’ knowledge or understanding of the subject matter, the easier it will be to focus on what you need to teach them. Many of the questions asked in the diagnostic exam may be used as questions on the mid-term and final exams – this enables you and the students to compare their knowledge at the beginning and end of the course. You will have a basis for judging how much each student gained by participating in the course.
The preceding suggestions are designed to help you learn as much as you can about your students. Just as you have good reason to want to know more about your students, students appreciate knowing more about you than is printed on the course syllabus (name, office location, office hours, and telephone number). Your willingness to reveal something about yourself helps overcome the hierarchy of the classroom that inhibits communication between you and your students. The first day of class is an opportune time to tell students something about your personal or professional life. Each teacher must decide what self-revelations are acceptable and relevant in the context of the teacher-student relationship, but some subjects are relatively safe and easy to talk about – for example, your educational background and research interests. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about yourself in class, there are other ways to convey the same information. Your might distribute an abbreviated personal resume or CV.
One way you can show students what to expect in the course is to give them a sample of course content. A professor in the natural sciences shows a fifteen-minute video which introduces his subject. The film is colorful, exciting, and motivational and he reports that students come to the second class eager to begin learning more. A teacher in social sciences asks students to think about the questions they want the course to answer for them. Providing samples of course content can be accomplished in many ways, but the more successful methods are creative approaches, that both introduce course concepts and stimulate student interest in course content. In literature classes, ask students to think about whom they would most like to be if they could be any writer or fictional character in a book they have read.