Making the Most of Your First Day of Class

Row of students in class

In his Advice Guide: How to Teach a Good First Day of Class (login or certificate required), Jim Lang offers some sage, practical, and research-based suggestions for instructors on making the most of the first day of class. He offers four key principles:

Principle No. 1: Curiosity

“Do not begin the first day of the semester by immediately handing out the syllabus. Instead, spark their curiosity about the content first, and then demonstrate how the course content can help satisfy that curiosity with a review of the syllabus.”

Principle No. 2: Community

Lang points out that: “We do not teach brains on sticks. We teach human beings who are inspired by wonder, driven toward community, beset by fears and anxieties, and influenced in countless other ways by aspects of their lives beyond the purely cognitive.” He suggests:

  • Humanize yourself to the students.
  • Get students talking to one another.
  • Greet each student if you can.

Principle No. 3: Learning

Lang suggests that you can engage students in learning on the first day without diving head-long into content delivery.
He offers two ways to get students learning on the first day:

  • Ask students to try a cognitive task before they are ready, by requiring them to retrieve and use whatever knowledge they might bring into the room. Working with that knowledge, they are creating what the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning call “fertile grounds” for new knowledge and skill acquisition.
  • Invite students to think about the course from a metacognitive perspective. Let students know what kinds of learning strategies they’ll need to be successful in the course. Ask them to identify:
    • The support they will need from you to use those strategies effectively.
    • Strategies they have used effectively or ineffectively in the past. For example, ask students on the first day to reflect upon the best and worst classes they have taken in your field (or related fields) and to describe what made those courses successful for them or not.

Principle No. 4: Expectations

In the time devoted to teaching during the first class, Lang advises instructors “to [outline] the parameters of the course beyond subject matter, describing: materials, assessments, policies, key dates and deadlines,” and to make sure to include this information in their syllabi. Lang points out that “some instructors give students a no-points or low-stakes syllabus quiz on or immediately after the first day of class, ensuring that they get familiar “with the most important aspects of the course.”

Before the first class, Lang suggests that instructors look over their class list to understand a bit more about their students: What are their majors? In what year of study are they?

The Teaching + Learning Lab suggests that you circulate a pre-course survey to further learn about individual students’ past academic experiences, goals, concerns, or other information that would be useful for you to know. . You can use the Canvas Quiz function or a Google or Qualtrics form. See Open Learning’s Canvas Resources for Instructors for info on creating quizzes in Canvas. In your pre-course survey, you can ask whatever questions you feel will help you get to know the needs of your students as learners: previous courses taken, their major, their motivation for taking the course, their preferred modes of engagement in class, etc.
Here are three examples of pre-course surveys (in Google Forms) – feel free to adapt them as needed for your teaching goals. (You will be prompted to make copies of these docs, which you can then modify to fit your specific needs.)

As you learn more about students’ past academic experiences, relevant lived experiences, learning needs, or diverse backgrounds, you can adapt your teaching and/or sharing of support resources to better meet students’ needs. Moreover, you can highlight the value of students’ different identities, experiences, strengths, and needs as assets in the learning environment.

Lang also suggests that before the first class instructors familiarize themselves with the room in which they will be teaching, and the specific technology available in the space.

Although visiting the room in person is preferred, the MIT Registrar’s Classrooms@MIT site provides information on features and technology in all MIT classrooms (searchable by room number).

Taking steps before the semester begins to get to know your students and their learning backgrounds, and taking the time on the first day to introduce your students to your class, are great ways to set you and your students up for a successful semester.

For examples of how fellow instructors at MIT create effective and engaging first days of class, please visit our Teaching Resources page on The First Day of Class.