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I found some relevant advice on the first day of teaching online (e.g. here, here, here, and here). Common themes include setting expectations, motivating the course content, and having two-way interactions with students.

Besides for reviewing the syllabus (and relevant university-wide policies referenced but not located in the syllabus), how can an instructor most effectively use the first class session? Are there any especially effective ways to do these things on the first day of a class?

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    I took a great number of classes where the professor handed out the syllabus on the first day -- which was usually already available online -- and then told us to go home. I recommend against that strategy! – rhombidodecahedron Jan 21 '15 at 12:24
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    What level of students you are about to teach? Kindergarten or PhD? – Ooker Jan 21 '15 at 13:21
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    Show a movie; everyone will love you! – CaptainCodeman Jan 21 '15 at 14:15
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    Everyone knows that on the first day of class, you've got to find the biggest, meanest-looking student and take him down in front of everyone. Er, wait, maybe that advice wasn't for classrooms. – Nathan Long Jan 21 '15 at 19:19
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    As a recent student, please don't waste everyone's time reviewing the syllabus! Make it available, tell the students they're responsible for reading thoroughly and understanding it, then start teaching. – Robert Jan 21 '15 at 21:13
62

Students basically want to know if they should take your class. To that end I would include

  1. A short (10-15 minute) sales pitch explaining what exactly your class is about and why your topic is interesting.
  2. Administrative details of the class (I would cover this after the sales pitch, so students who are late don't miss anything).
  3. A presentation on the first topic in your syllabus. This is important because hearing your first lecture will give them a good idea of the difficulty of the class, which prerequisites are required, and the style/quality of your lecturing. Also, if your entire first lecture is a sales pitch, students will feel like they wasted time coming to your class, or that your class is "easy"/not serious.
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    2. ...and students that choose not to follow the course don't have to listen to the administrative stuff! :) – clabacchio Jan 21 '15 at 17:17
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    The importance/duration of #1 should be dependent on the level of course that you're teaching. If it's a common course that people are already familiar with and that has a self-explanatory title (like "Intro to Chemistry" or "Probability and Statistics"), I would recommend spending less than 10 minutes on the intro. If it's an advanced course or has an obscure title (e.g. "Defense Against the Dark Arts"--a real course title where I'm studying), a full 10-15 minutes is time well spent. (My $0.02.) – apnorton Jan 21 '15 at 19:09
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    Sometimes professors spend 10 minutes to discourage students from taking the class (because the class is unexpectedly packed). – kon psych Jan 22 '15 at 5:21
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    There's really no need to cover administrative details. They're all online, and your students are perfectly capable of looking them up themselves. Just get to the content! – sapi Jan 22 '15 at 6:39
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    @sapi: As a student, I always found a presentation of administrative details very helpful; like any information, administrative details can be subject to inquiries that are best discussed in class. Nonetheless, even if one relies on much administrative information being available online, one bit of such information that we usually make available only in the class is the access data to much of the course material and course systems. And lastly, don't forget that the administrative information is just as much a part of the "sales pitch" as the course contents (which is of course online, too). – O. R. Mapper Jan 22 '15 at 12:17
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My perspective is as a student of physics; I hope this answer generalizes sufficiently.

I have had several teachers in physics who have presented on the first day whichever tricky mathematical theorem, process, or derivation will be used most frequently throughout the semester. This becomes valuable because each time the concept comes up during the rest of the course, the teacher can say, "Now I'm using the Helmholtz theorem (or whatever), which you'll recall from our first class," and the distinction of having been the very first material presented means the students actually do remember it, or at least remember of it. Whereas a proof done sometime in the middle of the fourth lecture will as likely as not need to be reviewed each time it recurs, because the students don't recognize it when it resurfaces.

So if the item is well-chosen, it can save enormous amounts of time in the presentation of later material, since it can essentially be skipped each time it comes up with a casual "…as you'll remember from our first class" in a way that material introduced later often sadly cannot.

Obviously you have to determine if there is a similarly valuable sort of thing in whatever field you teach.

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    Presenting stuff on the first day of class makes it more memorable to the students who show up; less so for the ones who decide to add the class late. – Ben Bitdiddle Jan 21 '15 at 7:11
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    @BenBitdiddle: presumably that's the kind of thinking that eventually leads to the practice deprecated by rhombidodecahedron in a comment to the question: do nothing in the first class, since it's not really "the first class" until everyone who might take the course is present. It's correct if your university decided that the purpose of the first week of the semester is not to learn anything, rather to try before you buy ;-p – Steve Jessop Jan 21 '15 at 13:34
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    @BenBitdiddle I agree that presenting tricky material on the first day is probably not a great idea (for various reasons). But, I don't think that you should hold off for the stragglers. Reward those who show up with a brief review of knowledge and a general assessment of where the entire class stands. Make it "worth" their time. (Students don't realize how much useful administrative info they may get the first day.)While the reviews are typically helpful to get the students in the right mind set, I don't imagine it's too detrimental for those who add the class late. – Ramrod Jan 26 '15 at 9:53
19

From a relatively recent student point of view, once you have discussed the syllabus, university policies, and your rules for e.g. how homework should be turned in, try to make as much as possible of the class typical of what the rest of the course is going to be like. Think of it as a sample.

Students may be faced with having to make a decision early in the session on which classes to take. The more typical the first class is, the more valid data they have to make that decision. If, on the other hand, you spend the whole of the first class doing things other than teaching in your normal style for the class, they have no way to evaluate whether that style works for them.

  • Good point, I definitely agree with this in principle. But in practice it can be hard to do, because the material that needs to be covered at the beginning of a course is often review/background that is handled (qualitatively) differently from the regular material. – ff524 Jan 21 '15 at 6:32
3

I'll add something more to the already good answers from the perspective of a student, what he expects his first lecture to be.

One of the things which, apparently, is pretty common throughout the academic life is, seriously listening to the advice of the so called Seniors. The Seniors will advise you to take a particular course regardless of the teacher / teacher regardless of the course.

Something along the lines of "Dont take that professor's course, he will screw you up every class with tonnes of homework & will not give good credits even if you manage to pull it off." OR "Take this particular course. It has great opportunities. The recruiting companies want this course as a prerequisite."

So, professors, during your first lecture, assuming you are privy to this gossip of Seniors being passed down since generations, please address each & every rumour & clear the thought process of the naïve juniors & be absolutely truthful about it. Then the students can really decide for themselves whether to take the course or not

3

Sorry, I know I'm gonna lose a great deal of rep for this, but I couldn't resist (from Spiked Math):

First day

2

Show the students why this class is awesome. You want to sell them on the class. Covering a syllabus or the policy on late work isn't going to do any of that. Students come to the first day with very low expectations because they are conditioned to the fact that it's a "do nothing" day where they just cover administrative crap.

Give demonstrations of why your subject is amazing and relevant.

  • Show awesome chemistry or physics (something that produces fog or involves lasers!)
  • Show math puzzlers (I once had a teacher "prove" that pi=2 and nobody could refute it.)
  • Read touching poetry or even meaningful modern song lyrics (show you are in touch with their generation)

I've been out of school for a long time, but still remember my greatest teachers and they always loved the subjects they taught and kept it interesting.

1

Tell them about the history of topic, get an idea what your students know about it. Then relate it how is it different from that or how is it related. Let them know, Why they are studying this topic, What is application of this and what can be the possible future of the topic. Sometime, even pros and cons can be discussed.

Then, You can start about the topic lecture, This will create some idea to the students in the practical life and they can get more valuable information and study with more interest.

Let the conversation flow from both the sides and motivate them to ask more questions they can ask.

1

For undergraduate courses your "first day of class" is really an administrative meeting with students that are signed up for your class. Often students are still arranging their schedule for the semester. In this light, the first lecture is an opportunity to get them excited about the course topic and familiarize them with your approach to teaching it.

In my experience, it's a good idea to do something real in the first lecture in any case, to give the students an idea of what your lectures will be like and to give them a taste of the course material. Just keep in mind that anything important that is touched on in the first lecture should be revisited in a subsequent lecture--basically treat it like a bonus lecture that most of your students didn't attend.

In my view, the first session should be used to accomplish the following:

1. Motivate the course topic and your syllabus.

Try to communicate why this course is important and why you are interested in teaching it. Your engagement and enthusiasm can have a strong positive influence on the engagement and learning potential of your students. Whenever possible, take the opportunity to relate the course topic to current events, new approaches/practices, or recent research results.

2. Clarify your expectations for the course.

Don't read information verbatim from the syllabus, but try to quickly sum up what you expect from your students and what their grades will be based on. Here, a little information on yourself as and instructor, and a little friendly advice on how to stay on your good side is often helpful.

3. Highlight any important or unusual requirements for the course.

If your course requires background in another subject, or if past students have had lots of trouble with certain topics, try to give students a heads-up regarding any difficulties they can prepare for.

4. Get a feel for the level of your students and their expectations.

A short quiz or survey can often be helpful as a segue or starting point for a discussion of the course topic in addition to giving you some idea of how familiar your students are with prerequisite material and material to be covered in the course.

-1

At my top 10 US university, some of the math professors do not care about grades, or administration, etc. They would rather teach. So within one minute of starting the class, they begin the main material. Any administration information is placed on the website or sent through emails, if necessary.

But the (undergraduate and graduate) students are at a sufficiently high level that grades are not an issue either. Virtually all my friends are hovering around the 4.0 range. So this may not apply to other situations with lesser students.

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    I fail to see what you second paragraph has to do with the answer. – Wrzlprmft Jan 21 '15 at 19:28
  • The professors are able to ignore grading because it is of low importance. In a more judging environment, such concerns may be more pressing and require the professor to devote time to them. – jraow Jan 21 '15 at 20:45
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    The answerer is probably not intending to sound arrogant, but he is correct that in some universities and some disciplines the culture is such that grades and administration are neglected. A fellow graduate student colleague of mine would tell the students he was TAing: "remember, the quality of your homework directly correlates with the amount you deserve your A." But this environment is the exception, not the rule. – Matthew Leingang Jan 22 '15 at 3:55
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    The not caring much about grades thing is certainly not limited to "top ten" anything. Nor to elite students. Really passionate teacher often have that attitude in any environment because it is the learning that matters: grades are an necessary nuisance that take up too much of my valuable time and cause students to focus on the wrong things at times. – dmckee Jan 22 '15 at 17:59
  • @dmckee I totally agree. I wish students would stop asking me what it takes to get an A. If they care about learning the material, the grades will follow. – David Hill Jan 23 '15 at 17:58

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