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

Creating Classroom Communities to Support Students

When we think of the classroom, we often think of it as a space for logic to thrive, ideas to flourish, and critical thinking to expand. But how often do we consider the classroom as a space for emotional processing and connection? Connecting with students in the classroom can be both a rewarding and frustrating endeavor. It takes intentional effort to plan out how you want students to build community with each other and with you. And even after we’ve planned, it doesn’t always turn out the way we intended, which can be a good thing!

I recently received an email from a student after our latest winter course ended. It was probably day two of the spring semester, and I had already buckled down into the beginning of a new course with all new students. After a few follow-up questions, the student wrote:

“The atmosphere and environment within the classroom is honestly amazing and I’m feeling the withdrawal of our group going into the Spring semester.”

-English 1B student

Withdrawal. I was pleasantly shocked at this response. Withdrawal is a powerful emotion. And I think this tells us that students walk away from our classrooms with much more than new knowledge about writing. They walk away with an emotional experience, one that hopefully remains meaningful long after the semester has ended.

Sarah Cavanaugh makes a case for emotion-based pedagogy with her text, The Spark of Learning. When we engage student emotions in the classroom, there is a higher likelihood they will retain knowledge, enhance memory, and increase the value of their learning. If you’re looking for some heavy-lifting research on this, I recommend the first eighty pages or so of Spark of Learning. There are also further resources included below. The conversation I’d like to focus on is how these emotions are embedded in the connections we build in the classroom. By creating communities in our classes, we give students the opportunities to grow as learners.

First Impressions

Perhaps the most important day of the semester is day one, first impressions. It’s the day students make micro decisions about us and about their capacities in the course. This day comes with a whole host of emotions. I ask students to reflect on their first-day emotions and several come back with ideas of self-doubt, lack of motivation, and uncertainty in their abilities to make it all the way through. Fear. Rebecca Cox addresses this fear in her text, The College Fear Factor, where she says: “[t]he fear of failure – rather than the actual failure or evidence of unsuitability – prevents full commitment and engagement” (41). On day one students’ emotions decide their levels of commitment, engagement, and the value of the course to their lives. By creating a strong connection with students, we have the opportunity to lessen this fear and anxiety.

Fear and anxiety are disengaging emotions, and their presence in the classroom is why Cavanaugh spends quite of bit of time discussing the first day. It’s the most important day. Several semesters ago I made a decision to focus intently on connections on the first day rather than the syllabus. Hold on – we still cover the syllabus. But the emphasis for the first day is quite clear: I’m interested in each of you as people, not just as students or waitlist additions. Cavanaugh suggests that this emphasis on instructor-student connection is one of the markers of student persistence and motivation.

Emphasizing connection means making ourselves human in students’ eyes. They are curious to know why we love teaching, why we love learning, and why we’re excited to be there. Ask them similar questions. The first day sets the groundwork for the rest of the semester. When we are able to make micro moves like using student names or asking intentional questions, we make meaningful connections with students on the first day, which opens the door to stronger instructor-student relationships throughout the semester (Cavanaugh 62). When students feel they can trust us, it increases the likelihood that they’ll reach out for help, seek guidance, and listen to feedback about their writing development.

Instructor Emotions & Transparency

We know that students’ emotions run high in the classroom, especially on the first day. But what about us? Cavanaugh really challenges us to consider: What are our emotions in the classroom? It is no unfortunate surprise that we run from classes to meetings to professional development activities. And when we finally sit, we slog through emails and projects and planning. And then when we have some glorious free time…oh yeah.. grading. We’d be remiss to think that our jobs do not impact our emotional states and that this emotional state does not cross over to the classroom. If we’re tired, moody, or overtaxed with uncharted amounts of caffeine and cortisol coursing through our system, how effective are we as instructors (or humans)? There isn’t an easy solution, but Cavanaugh makes a few suggestions. Most of these we’ve probably heard before: sleep, eat healthy, practice mindfulness, get that Vitamin D in (it’s the sunlight), go for a walk, exercise, spend time with loved ones.

We can be more intentional, though, by increasing awareness of our emotions that spill over into the classroom. Are you frustrated or overwhelmed or bored? How is that going to impact the way you deliver instructions or connect with students? Instead of finding ways to eliminate these emotions, the better suggestion is to embrace them with awareness and honesty. Again, become a human in your classroom and be honest. If you are grumpy and you do end up creating a disconnect, try apologizing. Be polite and recognize there are humans sitting in those seats. This type of behavior is what Cavanaugh considers immediacy, which “[r]elated to being mindfully in the moment and connected with your students, immediacy pertains to behaviors that are both spoken and unspoken and convey to students that you are interested in them, the material, and the process of learning” (100). By practicing this idea of immediacy, we’re also reinforcing a cycle of healthy connection: rupture and repair. Demonstrating transparency and honesty models this behavior for students. It lets students know that mistakes happen, and the point is to keep going.

Cavanaugh suggests that this type of transparency may be our most powerful policy. Being humans in front of students also extends into course policy. Our transparency policies can look like sharing rubrics and grading methods from the very start of the semester, vocalizing expectations on assignments, vocalizing reasoning for why we are doing activities and assessments, and how we expect students to perform, especially when they’re falling behind. The varying levels of honesty and transparency of our roles as instructors and how we’re organizing the classroom will extend the connections we make on day one into the rest of the semester.

The Power of Choice

Wherever possible, give students the power to choose their learning.

After the first day, how do we keep students connected? If we first do the work to create a strong instructor-student connection, then we can reinforce this trust in the classroom by organizing course materials and activities around the idea of emotional connection. One of the most helpful ways to do this is through high value and high control assignments and activities. If students have a choice in their learning, if we give them the opportunity to make decisions, the work they do and activities they engage in will hold more value. Cavanaugh notes that students make several appraisals in the classroom: “The first appraisal is that of control: to what degree students feel in control of the activities and outcomes that are important to them” (148). Wherever you can, embed choices into your course. Some good ideas are to practice active learning and give students options within that framework (see our first post in the series!).  Other ideas are to select an agenda for the day, give students the opportunity to elect due dates together, or practice setting class norms for the semester (an idea from the Reading Apprenticeship model). For assessments, consider multi-question writing prompts and using book clubs as a way to give students a choice in the texts they are reading. Creating a community of choice helps students see value in their work. Further, we can reinforce this value for students by representing their experiences in the class. Relating course material to real-life scenarios and choosing texts that reflect students’ experiences helps to create value for the work you are asking them to do. When students feel valued in this way, that positive emotion goes right back into the community.

Sticky Situations

Sometimes we don’t always connect with students, especially if there are negative emotions in the student’s experience. A few years back, I was consistently challenged by a duo that liked to sit in the back and whisper. Except it wasn’t whispering – it was talking. And they happened to be talking about me. I’d like to report here that I handled it well, drew excellent boundaries, and didn’t react at all. Not exactly.

While I did eventually pull in a colleague to strategize solutions, the impact of those students’ loud talking about me held a significant impact on my ability to manage discussion and deliver instructions for the day. I was distracted, my face turned red at some point, and I definitely called on them (twice) to answer questions I knew they weren’t paying attention to at all. Yikes.

This type of passive aggressive behavior is a huge impediment to the classroom as a safe space for learning and building community. Cavanaugh writes “They may flout your requests, refuse to participate in class discussions, engage in academic dishonesty, or actively or passively demonstrate disrespect. Reactance can be particularly problematic if students begin to share their disgruntlement with each other and encourage each other to greater heights of rebellion” (192). When we’re working with large groups of people in vulnerable environments like a classroom, reactance and defensive behaviors are bound to occur. These moments though are, again, a great opportunity for awareness of what else might be going on.

Am I reacting to my emotions here? What emotions might be informing these student behaviors?

In a separate semester than the talking duo from above, I decided to engage a reactive student. I was sensing some resistance, so after class I asked how she was feeling about the class. After some back and forth, she expressed fear and anxiety and was honestly just really confused about what the expectations were. She was afraid she was failing. We set up a time to meet in office hours and there we talked through the confusion and helped her feel more grounded. Cavanaugh suggests that we can disrupt negative emotions, or potentially disengaging behaviors, by practicing empathy and using politeness in our language (195-196). Again, the idea here is to consider students’ whole experiences as humans and not just students in a 2-hour class. These relational connections, however brief or extensive, can go a long way in supporting students to persist through the semester.  

The Impact of a CommunityBased Classroom

When students feel connected to the course material, are challenged to critically think about ideas, and are given support, their lives can be changed. And I think a lot of us come into teaching for this reason. We want to develop and impact students’ lives for the better.

“When I started taking this class, I wasn’t looking to be moved or understood – I was looking for a checklist element as a transfer student into a four-year college. What I found was a way to grieve my father’s death.”

-student writing reflection

Below are two examples of writing reflections that I ask students to submit on their last day of class. There are three responses included. After, reflect on how decisions about first-day activities, learning activities, course policies, and course material can help students create a stronger connection in the classroom. We’ll also get the discussion going below with some questions to think about.

A Note on The Spark of Learning

Cavanaugh has a lot of suggestions and strategies for engaging students and using emotions-based thinking to influence decisions about course material and learning activities. There are several concepts that haven’t been covered here, so if you haven’t read her book, I recommend it!

In the meantime, I’ve put together a quick tip sheet based on Cavanaugh’s text: Emotion-Focused Tips for the Classroom (PDF Download). Check it out!

Further Readings

  • Small Teaching – James Lang (and blog)
  • Reading for Understanding (the Reading Apprenticeship Model)
  • The College Fear Factor – Rebecca Cox
  • Teaching Community  – bell hooks (and to reiterate Star’s suggestion: everything bell hooks)
  • Pedagogy Unbound – David Gooblar
  • “The R is for Repair” – Gottman Institute: this is a great source for understanding the importance of repair in relationships which we can translate to situations in our classrooms.

“Connecting with StudentsWorkshop

Join us on Friday, March 27th from 11a-12pm in QD119 for a one-hour workshop. We’ll test some ideas and think more about how we can create stronger communities in our classrooms.

Food For Thought: Let’s Get a Dialogue Going!

Take a few minutes to reflect on the questions below and leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments. Feel free to add further resources, strategies, and ideas you are currently practicing or using.

  1. Which of your own emotions impact the learning and teaching in your classroom?
  2. How can we create more opportunities for high-value and high-control in our classroom activities? With assessments? With policies and practices?
  3. Which student emotions are you reluctant to acknowledge and/or address? Why?
  4. How can we be more transparent in our practice?
  5. When students go wayward with some of their emotions, how can we bring them back into the community? Strategies?

Workshop Resources

Resources mentioned from the workshop today are listed below! We have the session recorded (a few minutes late – sorry!), but you can download the full session below! There are also articles to read, discussion questions from the session, and some assignments templates that you can import directly into your course. Browse and have fun!

“Connecting with Students” Workshop Recording & PPT

Here is the link to the live Zoom session for the “Connecting with Students” workshop!

Lessons and Discussion Board Ideas

COP Lesson: Historical Materialist Interpretation of Student Anxiety (Rob Hyers)

Articles for Reading

Assignment Templates for Download from Canvas Commons

I’ve created a module with 5 assignment templates you can download directly into your course. Download from Commons can be done in a few easy steps. You can also just view the templates as well in the Commons to see if you want to download them into your courses.

Follow the simplified directions for downloading below – OR view these directions for downloading from the Commons

  • Login to your RCC Canvas account
  • Select the “Commons” button on the far left navigation bar
  • Type in the module name: “Connecting with Students” – Assignment Templates
  • You’ll see my name (Alexandria Gilbert) come up as the author
  • Click on the title of the Module
  • On the far right select the blue “Import/Download” option
  • Select the course you want to import it to

Workshop Discussion Questions

Think about the stuff you have accumulated so far in your life. How did you acquire them? How much of it took hard work? How much of it was luck? How much help did you have from others? Considering what was said regarding the causes for student anxiety, how might the narratives you have created for yourself be helping or hurting your students? 

Consider the COP which focused on Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) and SODA (Stop, Observe, Detach, Awaken). What techniques do you already have in place in your classroom to address CRT issues? How might those techniques be modified to also include the treatment of your students in poverty? 

What are emotions that instructors are feeling during this transition? How might those emotions impact the way we interact with students? What are some strategies we can use to address our own emotions?


What are some of the ways in which we are allowing students to run the learning and feedback portion of our courses or might adapt those things to allow students to be more closely at the center of the power?

What are some of the ways in which we might de-center ourselves from the power of that learning and feedback loop in our classes or in feedback loop? Or ways in which we might adapt things we are doing to provide a more collaborative approach?

In what ways may students feel out of control right now? What areas of your course have “choice” built into them already? Is there another area where choice can be added? What opportunities for student-student interaction do you have in your online environment? How can you add 1 more opportunity for students to connect in the next week or unit?