In Focus: The First Day(s) of Class

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Jeff Kurtz

As we prepare to meet our classes for the first time, I invite you to reflect both on how you’ll use the first day of class and consider the proposition that the semester promises several first days. 

Admittedly, we do not get a second chance to make a first impression. On my first day, I embrace the counsel of William McKeachie, from his classic Teaching Tips and Ken Bain in What the Best College Teachers Do. Specifically, I let students know from Minute 1 that the entire session will be dedicated to learning, curiosity, and examining the commitments that will drive our semester. 

I use the first class to promote opportunities for students to get to know one another, underscoring a commitment to openness and open-exchange. I work hard to learn the names by which they want to be called. I remind them about the University’s expectations for learning by spending time on key policies, but I do this in a way that underscores what’s most important: their learning, as that learning will take place in a classroom characterized by mutual respect, trust, and a shared commitment to curiosity. I give a quiz to test students’ prior knowledge, and we spend time working on the questions and topics they might want to explore. (Students are jarred at first when I ask them, “What do you want to learn?,” but they quickly settle into the question and the discussion that follows is usually quite rich.)

My classes are not dictated solely by students’ interests, however. I pass out the syllabus and—in echo of Bain—foreground the curiosity, questions, and passions that drive my learning. I ask students to do a short in-class writing assignment, because I want to get to know them and especially want to get to know them as writers. While students might begrudge that we spent the entire first day in session, they appreciate the time we’ve taken to clarify the values and expectations for the semester. And they know I’m serious.

But what do I mean by multiple first days? In my experience, it is easy to overlook the ways a classroom’s culture is formed and sustained over the first weeks of a semester. To this end, I create multiple opportunities to clarify and stress expectations, foreground learning and curiosity, keep students gently off-balance to encourage risk-taking and reflection (unannounced, ungraded quizzes do wonders), and seek their feedback on the learning community we’re trying to make. Building this culture and living through several first days takes time, and I don’t cover as much content as I could. But to me, the yield is rich: Students recognize why we’re here and what matters. 

What thoughts do you have about a semester comprised of first days? And how do you maximize opportunities on the first day of class (and beyond) to build a culture of learning? I’ve love to hear your thoughts.

Posted Date 
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

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