Our previous blog post talked about ways to ensure your students feel welcomed and included in your course from day one. However, welcoming students to class and establishing course goals are only the first steps. As James M. Lang has argued, “On that first day…your students are forming a lasting impression not just of you as a teacher but of your course, too. Their early, thin-slice judgments are powerful enough to condition their attitudes toward the entire course, the effort they are willing to put into it, and the relationship they will have with you and their peers throughout the semester.”
If you want your students to be engaged throughout the semester, it is important to set the standard of engagement on the very first day. This post explores a few day 1 activities aimed to create a community among students and to engage students with your course and course content from the very beginning.
As you enter your classroom on the first day, one thing to consider is how you expect students to engage with one another going forward. In other words, will your students be expected to answer questions out loud or through a polling system such as Top Hat? Does your class rely on group work that requires them to work closely with their peers or will they frequently pair up with different classmates? Using an icebreaker on the first day is a high-structure way to ensure that students get to know one another (Sathy & Hogan, 2019).
When used effectively, icebreakers ensure that every student has an opportunity to speak and feel heard in your classroom from the very beginning. The trick is to find an icebreaker that affords each student the opportunity to feel included rather than more isolated.
To achieve this, aim for low-stakes, low reveal icebreaker questions. Students already hesitant to speak may feel further isolated by questions that require them to reveal overly personal information. Instead, consider asking “this or that” questions, which allow students to choose between two things. For instance, you might ask students “Do you prefer summer or winter?”
Questions like this do not require students to reveal personal information. However, they do invite them to share more should they choose (i.e., the summer or winter question may spark a conversation about the types of activities they engage in during these seasons). One fantastic low-stakes icebreaker that also helps emphasize diversity is the ricebreaker question, which invites students to share how their families prepare rice. With this activity, students can share as much or as little as they wish about their culture while simultaneously sharing something in common with each of their peers.
Whatever icebreaker question or activity you choose, keep in mind that the goal should be both to ensure each student has the chance to share their individual perspective while also respecting the fact that many students feel too vulnerable and/or uncomfortable sharing personal information. If you are looking for ideas of great activities and questions for your first day, check out Top Hat’s list of twenty ice breakers.
Chapter 4 of the teaching and learning bible How Learning Works describes the importance for instructors of paying attention to motivating your students in the classroom. It describes the research demonstrating the different impact between external and internal motivations for students and argues that students benefit from our focus on three areas: efficacy (how a student can be successful in your course), support (how you help them if they need it), and value. Perhaps the most important factor is the last: if students do not see the value of our course, they will not fully apply themselves.
As instructors, we often think that “Of course students see the value of our course: they signed up for it!” But the truth is students sign up for courses for all kinds of reasons. The research on transparency then tells us that it is important to make it clear to students the value of our course.
One way that I have used in my courses to make the value of them explicit is to build a concept map. Above is a photo of a board using concept maps we have created in my second-level writing course, “Criticizing Television.” On the first day I asked each student (or group of students for larger enrollment courses), “Why are they taking this course?” After giving them time to reflect, I draw a “Why?” in the middle of the board and then ask them to think of reasons how they might benefit from taking this particular course. As Criticizing Television is a second-level general education (GE) writing course, if no one says they are taking it for a GE credit, I say it and write it on the board. We discuss the GE credits students can get for taking the class and then the importance and relevance for them of taking GE courses. The goal, however, is to move students from focusing on extrinsic goals (a GE credit to graduate) to more intrinsic motivations, such as to improve their writing skills. I also ask them to think of more personal reasons why they might want to take a class on criticizing television and why they might need to develop their research and writing skills (they have to turn in an 8-10 page paper as the final assignment), both professionally and personally.
Periodically during the course, I then come back to their list of reasons, sometimes at the beginning of a new unit, to ask them to think again about why they think we are discussing some particular idea or concept during the course. I’ll do that a couple of times during the semester, and each time we might expand on the reasons why students are benefiting from the course, the goal being to add transparency by making explicit the value of the course for each individual student.
Finally, a great exercise to use in any class—but it is good to start establishing a pattern of use from the first day—is minute papers. Sometimes also called “minute thesis” or “muddiest point,” minute papers are a writing exercise that can be used anytime during a class to get immediate feedback from students, practice information retrieval, and prepare students for an assignment or activity. Simply give your student a few minutes to write on a specific prompt. For example, you might ask them to write down (on paper or digitally in an email, Canvas message, on a discussion board, or in Top Hat) what questions they still have about a subject taught or discussed in class that day. You can begin your next class answering the most important or shared question(s). Minute papers can also be used to prepare for a discussion: simply prompt students with what will be discussed next and give them a minute or two to write down their thoughts first. Different learners have different strengths and weaknesses, and not all learners enjoy blurting out answers in front of their peers, so give your students the option of considering a question first before asking for responses. As mentioned in Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom (Hogan & Sathy, 2022), minute papers can be used to prepare students for the kinds of questions they might be asked to complete on an exam (177-78). On the first day, they can also be used to ask metacognitve questions like, “What helps you learn,” “How has an instructor made you feel included,” or “What would you like me to know to help you succeed in this course?”
Any of these methods can help your students acclimate to the active teaching strategies you will use to be more successful in your course, but the goal is to make sure that every student feels included from the first day of class and knows that they can ask you for help (or where they can go to get assistance if they need it). Establish from the first day that you expect every student to participate in their own learning process in order to motivate them to bring their best selves as learners.
Looking for more ways to have a great first day of class? Read our previous posts on creating inclusive syllabi, introducing your syllabus, and planning your first day. You can also make a consultation with a CITL staff member to discuss a more course-specific approach to starting your semester.