First Impressions:  Helping Students to Feel Welcome and Engaged on Day 1

By Kathleen Sell

In her book The Spark of Learning, Sarah Cavanagh writes, “On the first few days of class students will be forming their impressions of you, and this impression may be more important than much of what you do later” (qtd. in Lang).

James Lang, in his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education “How to Teach a Good First Day of Class,” suggests that these “thin slice judgments… condition [students’] attitudes toward the entire course, the effort they are willing to put in, and the relationship they will have with your and their peers throughout the semester.”

Lang outlines some key principles to keep in mind as you plan your first day: curiosity, community, learning, and expectations (see the article linked below for his full discussion).

1) Curiosity

  • Rather than starting with the syllabus (please don’t make this the first thing or the sum total of what your first day is all about!), try starting with something that sparks curiosity about the course content itself and begins to establish the relevance, interest of the course material to students’ world and lives.  So what will students be able to do/ do better—and why does it matter—as a consequence of taking this course? Then a look at the syllabus later can show how the course content can satisfy that curiosity/ help develop those skills. So think big questions addressed by course content.
  • Showing your love for the material and what sparked and continues to spark your curiosity helps here, too! What do you love about your field and teaching this material? How can you communicate some of that to your students?
  • This also works with Darla Cooper’s framework for student success (RP Group “10 Ways Everyone Can Support Student Success”) by laying the groundwork to help students feel engaged as they begin your course—establishing a sense of the overarching questions, the big picture, why the course matters, and why they should be interested!

2) Community & Partnership

  • Right from the start of a class, signaling that we see ourselves in partnership with our students in learning the material and accomplishing the goals of the course is key.  And intentionally working to create community helps to get this partnership off to a good start.
  • This can (hopefully does!) start even before the first day of class with a welcome email or uploaded welcome video to the class, a reach out to students requesting name pronunciation/ pronouns, info about course materials. Tools in Canvas, such as Name Coach can really help. Once class begins, one strategy to avoid mis-pronunciations or using a name other than the name they choose to use is to have students name themselves and you can check them off as they do so. Using name cards for the first week or two, too, can be a help with learning names especially if masks have made it harder for you to do so!
  • Humanize yourself! Greet and talk to as many students as you can individually, give them an opportunity to ask YOU questions since you’ll be asking lots of them. Online, this can happen with the welcome video, too. Tools to facilitate this, such as a short Flipgrid video or video assignment with flexible guidelines, can be a great way to meet both your online students and your masked in-person students and for students to meet each other in a less stressful environment. 
  • Get to know your students—a survey or info card of some sort that allows students to share (as willing) information about themselves, their interests, what brings them to your course, any areas of concerns or needs they may have can help you begin to know your students as the complex adults with complicated lives that they are. Beyond simply saying or signaling that you are happy to answer questions or see students in office hours (which many of us call student hours), what might you more concretely say or do to communicate your commitment to each student’s learning? Offering information—on syllabi, in Canvas, in class the first day—about resources available to students can help here, and get students involved in sharing resources they know about that you may have missed. All this demonstrates your willingness to know and support your students as whole individuals.
  • Get students talking to each other—this could be an icebreaker but could also be something simple related to course content if you’re not comfortable with icebreaker activities (so part of sparking curiosity and getting them learning!). 
  • All this is key to helping students feel nurtured, connected and valued—three of the six factors for student success in Cooper’s student success framework. Offering students an opportunity to share something about themselves—and listening and responding!—taking the time to get to know them, and creating space/ opportunities for them to connect with one another will be crucial to their success all semester long.

3) Learning

  • Get students learning the first day! This is “not the same as content delivery” but rather an effort to get students engaged with reflecting on and processing something about the content you’ll be covering (Lang). Or perhaps you might get them meta-cognitively thinking about strategies for effective learning in a class like yours, experiences (good and bad) they’ve had in a class like yours before (helpful for math and English!) and meeting any concerns that come from this productively from day one.
  • Think about something that will allow students to activate any prior learning, apply the knowledge they walk in the door with to something you’ll be working on in this course. Connecting the knowledge and experiences they already have and bring to your class to what they’ll be learning and highlighting what their knowledge and experiences can contribute to the class’s learning can help create an environment in which students feel valued and seen.
  • Getting students engaged right away in content also can have, crucially, the added benefit of helping to establish your expertise, especially if your embodied self doesn’t “match” what students might stereotypically expect a “real professor” and can begin to disarm any of the assumptions they might make about you as their professor on the basis of your race/ethnicity, age, gender, appearance, differing physical abilities.

4) Expectations

  • And yes, some time this first day to address the essential questions students will have about the course is good! So addressing materials/ texts to buy, tests/ projects/ assignments they’ll have to complete, the basic shape of the course is a good idea. Evan Kutzler (who regularly posts on teaching on Twitter) suggests asking, “’what do you need to know before you can come back to class confident you will do well?’, [which] gets a bigger response on syllabus day than ‘so, any questions?’”.
  •  Leaving some time for follow up questions on day two to address anything that comes up as students take a more thorough look at the syllabus is a good idea, too. And this could be gamified with a Kahoot or done as a group activity to continue to help students build community. Some time to transparently address and demystify course expectations will help lay the groundwork for students to plan ahead and feel that they belong. Our adult students, with all their many responsibilities, need to know clearly from the outset what they’ll be expected to do and within what framework of expectation (e.g. around grace periods for late work, etc.).
  • I send the syllabus out with my welcome note before the start of the term so that during this portion of the first day of class, they may already have some specific questions they’d like me to address or clarify.
  • HOW we do this matters a lot—the tone, the language, the emphasis. Signaling your expectation that the students CAN accomplish the tasks outlined for the course, communicating that learning involves mistakes and re-dos and growth over the course of the whole semester, highlighting the supports built in to and available alongside the course to help students succeed—these are positive approaches to a discussion of expectations. Highlighting only the difficulty, that not everyone can or will succeed, or too much time on rules and regulations send exactly the opposite message. We need to signal from day one our belief that our students are capable and expected to succeed.
  • Something else to try to extend this through the first week or two (even beyond as other kinds of questions emerge about content or specifics of assignments) is to have a system for gathering questions—whether this is a question box that students can drop a note into, a parking lot (giant sticky and smaller ones to post questions) up during class sessions, or index card check ins where students can reflect on something they’ve learned and ask any questions they have. For both online and in person classes, you could also try having an Open Q&A discussion board. This helps students ask questions that others might have, too, and creates a spot to check for answers at any time in addition to emailing you.

What first day strategies have you tried that work well?

Resources

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