by Kevin Steele, Director of Instructional Technology, Design and Assessment, VITAL
“SYLLABUS DAY: The first day of an academic term at most high schools and colleges. On this day, a typical class lasts no more than twenty minutes and involves nothing more than reading the syllabus.”
While the use of urbandictionary.com is not standard in professional writing, it does show how students view the first day of each course. This particular definition is the highest upvoted definition on the site, showing us what students expect the first class to be like at a standard university. However, Valpo is not a standard university. So now is your opportunity to change convention and make the first day of your course memorable and engaging! Capture that precious instructional time. You will never get another opportunity for the first impression.
Greet the Students at the Door
Professional introductions will be an unavoidable post-university skill. Give them a firm handshake as you introduce yourself as the instructor for this course. Ask them for their name and major at the very least. If there is not a line at the door, follow-up with some other questions about their goals for the class, or their post-graduation goals.
This activity helps students realize that you are interested in them personally. Show them that they are not just a number, but rather an integral member of the community they are about to join. Additionally, this is a coaching exercise in showing them the importance of a first encounter. Demonstrate a firm handshake. If the student is mumbling or too quiet, say “Could you repeat that a bit louder? I could not hear you.” After they repeat, provide a reaffirming statement, “Nice, I see the confidence now! Please keep that up in class. I want to hear your voice as part of this class. Welcome!”
(NOTE: This strategy works best when you can arrive early and have a smaller course under 25 students. This would be too difficult to execute with a large class, or if your schedule has you coming quite a distance from your previous class.)
Authentically introduce yourself to the students at the very start of class. Spend a bit more time on it than just your name and title. Share something personal with your students such as your family makeup, ages of your children, how you met your spouse, what topics about this particular course excite you, where you have travelled, interesting people you have met in your life, etc. Keep it short, but show you are a real person, too. Your introduction will make you personable, approachable, and interesting to your new students.
Want to get more adventurous? Try some of these suggestions: WeAreTeachers.com
Stay away from the typical questions (name, major, where they are from, tell us something interesting) as the students have probably been through the same exercise in the class previous to yours. Since the college experience is based on relationships, this is the perfect time to get them talking. A Google search will return back a myriad of choices for introduction icebreakers. Choose one that may reflect what the course has to offer. Engage them, if possible, in activities they will do with regularity in your particular course.
Freshman are overwhelmed, do not know many others, and will be just starting to establish these relationships. Transfer students and commuter students have an extra challenge in establishing relationships because they may lack the connections made by shared living, student activities, or social organizations. Make the first day about building student relationships with their peers.
Ohio State University’s Center for Teaching Advancement has a short list of some relationship building activities you might want to attempt (stay away from #2—it’s a trap).
Showcase the Course Content…Not the Syllabus
While you’re doing all of those introductions, why not introduce the course content as well? Getting to know one another, course policies and routines are all important but get your students familiar with the subject matter of the course right off the bat. Help whet their appetite for what will come in the following weeks. Perhaps there will be a way to incorporate your content in an ice-breaker activity or as part of the introductions.
Syllabus coverage is usually dry and boring. Not to mention that all of your colleagues are usually doing the same thing that first day. For my courses, I make a video of me going over the syllabus in 10 minutes or less. I post it on my YouTube channel and email all students the link the Monday of the week our classes begin. The syllabus is posted on Blackboard, as is the video overview. Students are asked to take a short quiz on the syllabus, also posted on Blackboard, by the end of the first week of classes.
Connections Outside the Classroom
Why not make use of some of the other resources at Valpo on that first day? Freshmen in particular could benefit from getting to know about the Christopher Center, Brauer Museum, Academic Success Center, Hesse Center, Language Resource Center, or even things in the City of Valparaiso. Carol Goss, Director of the Language Resource Center, in a recent meeting mentioned the phone app GooseChase, that allows you to create mobile scavenger hunts where individual students or groups can participate in a scavenger hunt you create for them around campus or town. Examples include taking selfies at a point of interest, answering questions learned after finding a plaque or book, or marking a geolocation at a site to prove they were there. GooseChase has a limited free plan for such activities.
Just be sure to clear this with departments, offices or individuals. A lot of campus places like to know the time frame in which to expect students. Also, be sensitive to the work that the offices perform. For example, don’t have students snapping pictures in the Registrar’s Office.
This is just a small list of ideas and resources for making a great first impression and setting the tone for the class on your first day. I am always interested in hearing more ideas! Please share them with me. Also, if you try one of these strategies this semester, please email me about the results. I would love to share them.