First Day Advice From the Field

Published by Carrie O'Donnell
on Jan 22, 2020

Welcome back professors! With the start of the new term comes two things, new opportunities for learning and first day jitters. Even the seasoned professors we work with tell us they still get nervous on the first day of class. Of course, the first week is also when you’re creating a vision of what’s to come and setting expectations for classroom culture and course requirements. Engagement with your students is vital from the get-go. One of the best ways to create that is through exercises that help motivate your students and create natural interaction – with each other and with you!

Additionally, making these connections the first day will go a long way toward creating a cohesive, supportive environment in which students can best thrive. This is also the time to begin planting seeds of collaboration and teamwork. Our experts in the field suggest these six options to help break the ice with your students and get everyone off to a solid start.

1) The Story of You – Sharing a bit about why you love teaching, your journey to getting there and some of your interests outside the classroom not only helps students also see you as a person, but also creates an environment of openness. You may want to include slides, videos, even meaningful quotes – the more vibrant your story, the better.

2) The Story of Them – Divide the class into small groups (4-6 students). Ask the students to introduce themselves by sharing his or her name, hometown, major as well as one interesting or surprising fact about themselves. Then randomly ask students from each group to introduce another student to the class.

3) First Day Graffiti – Arrange five flip pads around the room, each with one of the following questions written at the top. Encourage students to tour the room, engage with each other about the questions and write their answers on the pad. Review a few answers from each question with the class, inquiring for more details where appropriate.

  • I learn best in classes where the teacher _______________.

  • Other students in the class help me learn when they ___________.

  • I am most likely to participate in class when __________.

  • It’s hard to learn in a class when _______________ happens.

  • It’s easy to learn in a class when _______________ happens.

4) Best and Worst – At the front of the classroom, using a projector, whiteboard or similar, draw a line down the middle and label one side best class and one side worst class. Beginning with “best class”, ask the students about the best class they’ve experienced and why, briefly capturing the highlights of their answers as you go along. Do the same for the “worst class”. Spend about five minutes per side. Then point out a few answers from each side to show the differences between a best class and worst class experience. Tell the students you want to this to be a “best class” experience for all and together you can have the power to make it happen.

5) Rapid Fire Forty – Prepare 40 half-sentences, for example, “Five years from now I will be….”, “My biggest goal this year is….”, “The weirdest food combination I really love is…”. In rapid fire succession, quickly read each half-sentence and randomly point to a student, who has to answer immediately. If one student has no answer, quickly point to another student. Repeat until all 40 questions have been answered. The quick pace helps create energy and fun, while random selection help remove barriers to participation.

6) Race to Read The Syllabus – Your syllabus is the roadmap you’ve prepared for your students to help guide them through the course. Rather than assume everyone is going to read it after class, have some fun with it the first day. Group students together into teams and give them 10 minutes to study the syllabus, devising a way to remember what’s on it. Give a hard copy quiz to each team. The first team to complete the quiz with a 100% score wins! A fun prize, a few bonus points towards their final grade or public recognition – whatever fits your style. Need some help creating a syllabus worth reading? Find it here.

One final tip: We have it on good authority that the phrase “ice breaker” makes students cringe and instantly feel resistant to whatever follows. Instead, invite your students to help you make your class one of the best by participating in a few easy activities. This also communicates that their participation will make a difference in creating the outcome.

Carrie O’Donnell is the CEO of O’Donnell Learn, a leading learning experience (LX) design firm dedicated to helping learners achieve their goals and flourish in life. ODL is passionate about partnering with institutions and their faculty to deliver learner-centered design and innovation.

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