Strategies for Starting the Semester Well

Whether you have been teaching for several years or are beginning to teach your very first traffic lightsemester, being prepared for the start of the semester will help make the transition successful for you and your students. The following is a list of strategies you can use the first day and into the first weeks of the semester that will help you create an engaging, motivating, and organized classroom environment.

The strategies below has been excerpted from the following resources (full citations are at the end of the post): 10 Ideas for Starting the Quarter, Center for Teaching Excellence, University of California, Santa Cruz and First Day of Class: What Can/Should we Do? Program for Instructional Innovation.

Make Positive First Impressions

Greet students as they arrive in the classroom on the first day. Be upbeat and have a positive attitude toward them and your course. This will show students that you are on time and interested in them. Post or project a message on the board as students walk in the classroom to get them thinking about the subject. For example, project a thought-provoking question related to the subject or reading assigned for the day or a thought-provoking image. Share something about yourself that will help students see you as a human being rather than an authority figure. For example, personal stories of your college years, content-related work, and travel experiences can help establish your credibility.

You can further establish your credibility by sharing your research and how it ties to course content; consider including your relevant published research articles and books as course resources. Students will appreciate knowing that you personally contribute to the knowledge base of your discipline.

Finally, dress appropriately. Younger new faculty might consider dressing in more formal attire that can help convey a sense of authority. Usually it’s easier to relax a more formal impression into a more relaxed one than the other way around. Keep in mind, though, that no matter how you dress, having a positive approach to teaching and your students can go a long way in making important and lasting first impressions.

A note of caution: What should you be careful not to say? Students don’t need to know everything about you. In particular, it is not helpful to say you’ve never taught the course before, or that it is your least favorite course to teach. Also, it is imperative that you never share irrelevant stories about your personal life or social media sites with your students. You don’t want your students to have any negative or questionable perceptions of you at any time in the semester.

Involve Students Quickly

Getting students engaged early on will help send the message that they should be prepared for class discussion, possible group work, and in-class activities. Here are a few examples that get students involved in course content the first week of the semester:

  • Ask students to introduce themselves, either in class or through an online discussion forum, where students respond to prompts such as, “What is your major?,” What are your career aspirations?,” and “What skills do you bring to this course that can help you or your classmates be successful?”
  • Have students think and write silently about why they have enrolled in the course; what skills and abilities they might be able to contribute to the course; and their expectations they have for the course.
  • Start an activity where students are the experts and cannot rely on you for information. For example, in a psychology course on myths about human behavior, begin by brainstorming myths about student behaviors in residence halls.
  • Give a low-stakes or zero points quiz on the course syllabus during which students can use their mobile devices to access a Blackboard quiz. Alternatively, begin an interactive poll that involves students using their classroom response device after which they can see their results. Follow the poll with a classroom discussion before having students retake the poll to improve on their initial answer.

Give Students a Reason to be in Your Course (identify the value and importance of what you plan to teach)

Not all students come to class with a clear idea of why this subject is important. You may need to help them understand the significance of the course. Do this early on so students will be ready to invest time and energy necessary for learning the subject matter. Here are two activities to stimulate students’ interest in the course:

  • Connect course content to current events. Have student bring in news items that relate to your course (using paper and e-newspapers and social media stories). Discuss selected stories and connect them to what you plan for that particular day. By connecting course content to current events, pop culture, or student interests, you demonstrate relevance, which can increase student motivation.
  • Common sense inventory. Nilson (2003) describes a “Common Sense Inventory” where students need to determine whether 15 statements related to the course content are true or false (e.g., in a social psychology course, “Suicide is more likely among women than men,” or “Over half of all marriages occur between persons who live within 20 blocks of each other”). After paired or small group discussions, you can reveal the right answer. This works particularly well in courses where students may have a number of misconceptions (e.g., Introductory Physics – “An object is hard to push because it is heavy”).

Clarify Learning Objectives and Course Expectations

Clearly state course learning objectives to help students understand what they are about to learn and what they will have to do to be successful in your class. For example, explain how course content aligns with course assessments and how these assessments will help students learn.

Course expectations include what you consider to be appropriate amounts of study time and homework for the class, the importance of turning assignments in on time, expectations about in-class behavior, how you want to relate to students, and how much you expect students to interact in class. The first day also offers an opportunity to find out what expectations the students have of you and the class. Begin a discussion by asking students to respond to questions such as

  • What have you heard about me as an instructor?
  • What have you heard about this course?
  • What do you expect to learn from this course?
  • What challenges do you anticipate to being successful in this course?

Establish Rapport

Almost any class will be more enjoyable for both you and your students if everyone knows something about each other. This exchange can be started with introductions and sharing some background information, which can be facilitated in class or through a Blackboard discussion forum. You can also use icebreakers that can raise students’ energy levels and help them to be more comfortable with the classroom environment. Read First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning for some simple yet effective ways that emphasize learning and student responsibility for creating a meaningful classroom environment.

Good communication can have a positive effect on enjoyable teaching and learning experiences. Conveying a positive attitude right from the start and showing students that you care about them as individuals and their success can have a positive effect on your students. Being open, honest, and caring are easy ways to connect with your students.

Consider a “Homework 0” voluntary-mandatory office hour. Have students make an appointment with you at a convenient time, find your office, and visit you there early in the semester. This gets students to your office, breaks the ice with a short one-on-one interaction, and encourages students to come back for help when they need it.

Justice (2006) states that even the way you walk into the classroom the first day can make an impression on your students. Read the following “scenarios” and decide for yourself which instructor you would rather have for a course:

Scenario A. The instructor rushes into the room a few minutes late while fidgeting with the messy stack of papers he is carrying, some of them falling to the floor. He keeps looking at his watch and begins the class by saying “I think we should begin with chapter one.”

Scenario B. The instructor confidently walks into the room, makes eye contact with and smiles at the students, and says “Good morning/afternoon/evening.” She places her book bag on the table and, walking toward the students, asks, “How is everyone today?”

Scenario C. The instructor briskly walks into the room, carrying several large books which she neatly places on the corner of the desk, opens her PowerPoint presentation and, standing behind the podium, begins to read from the slides.

Create an Inclusive Classroom Environment

Create an inclusive classroom that values all students, their perspectives, and contributions to the community of learners. There are several ways to create inclusive classrooms including using icebreakers, incorporating meaningful and worthy classroom policies, helping students contribute to the learning process, and using teaching strategies that engage students and motivate them to learn. Calling students by name helps to engage with them and shows them that they are important to the class. Use name cards if you have difficulty remembering names.

Establish a culture of feedback where you encourage students to share their classroom experiences. Explain that the feedback you give to students is as meaningful as the feedback they share with you about the course and that you will listen and consider all suggestions.

Whatever classroom environment you prefer (formal and intense, informal and relaxed, or something in between), set the tone early in the semester to help students gauge the rest of the semester.

Help Students Understand the Learning Process

Share with your students what you know about learning and how you can help them develop good study skills, test taking strategies, and communication skills necessary for success in your course. This is especially important for beginning college students as well as those who are returning to the classroom after many years. Provide self-help resources in Blackboard that students can access when needed. For example, create a “Learning Resources” folder that includes tutorials, links to campus resources, websites, and articles relevant in helping students take an active part in their own learning.

Provide Course Logistics

Carefully review the course syllabus that provides details about the course including information such as:

  • Office hours and location
  • Materials students will need
  • Assignments, homework, and exams schedule
  • Grading schema and feedback on assessed work
  • Course policies regarding class participation, attendance, punctuality, late work, make-up exams

Introduce the Subject Matter

Begin what you plan to teach with an overview of the subject by asking yourself these questions:

  • What is it that you are going to teach?
  • What are the major concepts, important ideas, significant details you plan to teach? In other words, what do you want students to learn?
  • How is course content connected to other courses, topics within the discipline, research topics?

Pre-class Warm-up

As you prepare for the beginning of the upcoming semester or any day of teaching or presenting, try some techniques which have been used by professionals in theatre, film, and television that may help improve your own teaching presentation. Try doing some vocal warm-ups such as yawning, humming and warming up the tongue and jaw through simple exercises by speaking to yourself, out loud that can help develop better voice intonation and performance in the classroom (Justice, 2006). Here are two simple techniques.

Out loud, pronounce the following words, emphasizing each vowel and consonant. Consider using your hands and arms for emphasis:    

hello, away, until
buhdah guhdah, puhtah cuhtah

Explicitly pronounce, out loud, this tongue twister:

A big black bug bit a big black bear, made a big black bear bleed blood

Summary

Careful course planning can help you prepare for the semester ahead. Whatever strategies you plan to use throughout the semester, include them during the first few weeks of the semester. If you want students to participate in whole-class discussions, work in small groups, write a reflection, or watch and evaluate a video, do these activities early on. Setting the tone at the beginning of the semester will help not only your students to do better but will help you as well!

References

Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation (2015). Make the Most of the First Day of Class. http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/firstday.html

Justice, G. (2006). The art of teaching: Using performance techniques in the teaching/learning process. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Theatre Arts, Virginia Tech. This document is available in the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, Northern Illinois University.

Nilson, L. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing. [Available at NIU library, call number: LB2331 .N55 2003]

University of California, Santa Cruz, Center for Teaching Excellence (2005). Teaching tips from CTE: 10 ideas for starting the quarter. https://users.soe.ucsc.edu/~elkaim/Documents/FF_F05.pdf

Further Resources for Starting the Semester Well

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Office of Graduate Studies (2016). 101 things you can do in the first three weeks of class. http://www.unl.edu/gradstudies/current/teaching/first-3-weeks

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching (2016). First day of class. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/first-day-of-class/

Weimer, M. (2015). The first day of class: A once-a-semester opportunity. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/the-first-day-of-class-a-once-a-semester-opportunity/

Weimer, M. (2013). First day of class activities that create a climate for learning. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/first-day-of-class-activities-that-create-a-climate-for-learning/

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