Quick-Start Essentials

CIIA's Essential Resources

See more teaching strategies via
the CIIA's Teaching Tips guide

For other syllabus considerations,
see the Summer '11 Praxis.

Whether you are an experienced professor or stepping into the classroom for the first time, how you utilize the early days of class is important. First impressions help set the tone for the rest of the semester, raising or lowering student expectations, motivation, and potential success.

Research by McKeachie (1986) suggests that the first meeting "is exciting and anxiety producing" for teacher and student. However, there is a desire in both for connectivity (Wright, 1999). According to Wlodkowski (2008), feeling connected to and included in the group is a great motivator to learn. For a discussion on the importance of connectivity please visit WWU Professor Dr. Joseph Trimble's Creating Classroom Connections online video module.

How do you begin on the right track? How do you set a positive tone for successful learning throughout the term? How do you create an environment that helps students feel included, and motivated to learn? While each instructor will have different challenges and opportunities, the strategies and ideas outlined below will help to provide a starting point.

Considerations for Setting a Positive Tone on the First Day

  • Begin with enthusiasm. Early in a course, what may be even more important than communicating expertise in the subject is doing so with great enthusiasm for teaching and for the content of the course (see video: Teaching with Enthusiasm, CIIA).
  • Welcome & introduce the class. Write a welcome statement on the board/screen, greet students as they arrive, state your name, and briefly describe the big ideas of the class in a way that "hooks" their interests. Also consider using multimedia such as an appropriate introductory video or a Prezi you've created with pre-recorded audio via Camtasia Relay (contact the Student Tech Center for support).
  • Introduce yourself. One strategy is to tell a short personal story relating why you are passionate about the content and teaching it. A brief history of how you got involved in the subject area, how it applies to life, or how it has applied to your life works well and can help less motivated students see the practical application of the content (see video: Welcoming Students on the First Day, Iowa State U.).
  • Allow the class to introduce themselves to one another. This helps build connectivity and establishes a sense of community within the group. Whether the activity is done with the entire group (in smaller classes) or in divided groups (in larger classes), try to arrange the chairs so that students can make eye contact with each other and you. A simple guided introduction can be designed by having students respond to a prompt written on the board. (For more ideas, including simple icebreakers, see The Most Important Day, HCC)
    • In small groups, "guided introductions", could include stating name, class year, major, as well as a question or two directing students to a relevant topic or that pertain to the student's prior knowledge in the content area. You may want to encourage sharing yet allow students to opt-out. (for another strategy see: Group Introductions, OSU)
  • Learn student names. While not always possible in large classes, reviewing the photo roster (via Web4U) and making some attempts will go a long way (see: Not Quite 101 Ways to Learning Students' Names, U. of Virginia).
  • Begin to evaluate and acknowledge prior knowledge the students may bring to class. If the general level of knowledge is found to be higher or lower than expected, the class can be "fine tuned" if needed. (more examples see: How to Assess Students' Prior Knowledge, Carnegie Mellon) Questions used in the "guided" introduction (see above) can be designed to help. Additional strategies include:
    • Straw Poll: use it to ask students some general questions regarding their familiarity with the content. They respond with a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down", indicating their familiarity, or lack thereof. This can be integrated with a presentation and allow for anonymity via the use of clickers (see the CIIA's Clickers info page and online video module, Using Clickers in the College Classroom).
    • Concept Maps: If the general level of knowledge is found to be higher or lower than expected, the class can be "fine tuned" if needed (see the CIIA's online video module, Classroom Assessment Technique: Concept Maps).
  • Introduce the Syllabus. The above "warm-up" strategies provide context for, and can serve as a lead-in to handing out and discussing the syllabus. This, too, could be a point at which students could form groups and develop summaries or questions about the syllabus, possibly as a "jigsaw" for longer syllabi.
  • Set the Tone. Communicate your expectations, then provide support to meet the expectations (see: Communicating High Expectations to Students, UO). Remember that what happens during the first meeting of your class sets the tone for the rest of the term. Whether you intend to incorporate active learning strategies, clickers, or peer interaction, be sure to include at least a "taste" of that the first day.
  • Define rules of engagement that clarify student participation and help create and support an inclusive learning environment, one that emphasizes respect and civility (see: Guide for Setting Ground Rules, EdChange.org, Creating Inclusive College Classrooms, U. Michigan, and the CIIA's Diversity Teaching Tips).
  • Assess effectiveness of opening day strategies, evaluate, and then re-tool if necessary (see: How Assessment Works).

See also: Welcoming Students on the First Day, Video part of a series of videos related to creating a positive learning environment, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Iowa State University

* This information has been compiled by the CIIA and adapted from the following sources:

Gross Davis, B. (1993). The First Day of Class, Tools for Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, as published online via UC Berkeley.

McKeachie, W.J. (1986). Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Company.

Wlodkowski, R.J. (2008) Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wright, D.L., The Most Important Day: Starting Well, as republished from University of Nebraska (1999) online via Honolulu Community College.