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Center for Teaching: Articles/Journals

Quick Tip

Start the semester right……….

Many faculty members have been teaching for at least a couple of years, so starting another semester sometimes feels a bit “ho-hum” –  especially in January after a busy fall semester.   But for our students, this will often be the first time they meet you, the first time in this specific class, and even sometimes, for those who sat out a semester or more, the first time they have sat in a classroom for quite a while.  If we stop to reflect on this for even a moment, it’s clear we should be deliberate about establishing ourselves and the course early in order to set off on the right track from the very beginning.  As the cliché reminds us: “there is only one time to make a first impression”. 

So…what should we think about in terms of this first impression?  Immediately, students should feel welcomed, informed, comfortable, respected, and perhaps even a little challenged.  They should feel this class will be worth their time and money, that you will do your best to help them succeed, that – with some work – they will succeed.  They should understand what the course will involve, and what the rules and procedures will be.  And, they should feel that they can trust and know you.  

How might we establish this positive first impression?  Clearly, there are many things we might do (and you might do already), but here are some of the more obvious things to think about:

·      Before class, check out your classroom.  Is it clean?  Welcoming?  Warm enough/cool enough?  Are there enough seats?  Do all of them have a clear view of you?  How is the room arranged?  Is it set up in rows simply because that is the default… and do you want to re-arrange the seating to facilitate discussion or interaction within groups?  If so, do it ahead of time so students will simply accept the arrangement as natural.

·      Have your syllabus ready and waiting for students.  Do you have enough for everyone – including the inevitable late adds?  Is the syllabus clear?  Does it list all the important policies?  Does it clarify how much you will or won’t utilize Blackboard?  Does it list all the significant assignments you will give (students like to count up and internalize how much work a course will involve).  Does it give your contact information (office hours, email, telephone number).  Does the language set a tone you want?  

·      Write your name and the course title and number on the board at the front.  This will establish a connection between you and the course, alert students who may be in the wrong place, and reassure early birds.  Think here about what you want students to call you – is it first name, “Professor”, “Dr”?  Consider the significance each form of address suggests.

·      While you are at it, consider how you come across to students.  Are you dressed professionally?  Are you prepared?  Do you look students in the eye?  Do you speak clearly, enthusiastically, respectfully?  Do you seem approachable, open, knowledgeable?   What students conclude about you on that very first day will carry over for a long time. 

·      Consider doing something special to welcome students to your class.  Perhaps play some background music during the gathering time.  Or bring some food – a mini-candy bar to accompany each syllabus perhaps.

·      Learn your students’ names within the first week – preferably the first day.  Again and again, research shows that students persevere and succeed at greater rates when individuals in the institution know their name.  And, while faculty often pay lip service to this simple task, many don’t take the time or energy to master their students’ names.  Do it.  Consider how you would feel if the person up in front didn’t even know your name.

·      Tell students something about yourself.  Just as they feel more connected when you know their name, students feel more connected when they know something about you.  You can either give yourself a short introduction, or you might take part equally in a classroom ice-breaker exercise. 

·      Think about the tone you want to set in your first class.  While you need to go over the syllabus, a droning line-by-line reading of a 12-page document will cement your reputation as a bore.  Can you introduce an interactive question-response teaching style right away?  How are you going to make clear to students you are open to questions?  Is group work going to be a significant part of the course?  If so, can you do some kind of group exercise to establish this as a regular part of the class?  Do you need to do a short introduction to the reasons and significance of the course?  If you are going to launch immediately into significant teaching, think about constructing the lesson for maximum student involvement and participation.

·      Finally, think about how you might react if you yourself were a student and walked into this classroom for the first time.  Would you feel acknowledged?  Informed?  Respected?  Reassured?  Would you feel likely to continue attending?  If so, then you may well be on your way to a successful semester.

Obviously, there are many ways to initiate a class.  What you do will be dependent on your own personality and style.  But remember, we have a golden opportunity in our first classes to establish connections with students, earn their good will and commitment, and set the tone and standards for the remainder of the semester.  It behooves us all to reflect upon how we might best accomplish these things and be deliberate in our behavior and activities.  What we do early on will pay dividends for ourselves, the class, and our students.  

Interested in pursuing this subject further?   Contact  your local Teaching/Learning Consultant.  He or she can offer more resources or follow up with campus activities centered on this subject.                   

Have a great semester!

Thomas Hodgkin
Professor of English
Chair -- State-Wide Center for Teaching


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