Best Practices, Pedagogy

Is Your First Day of Class “Syllabus Day”?

At college campuses across the country, a new semester has begun, allowing us to once again begin anew.  Few professionals have the opportunity to start fresh every couple of months but professors, if they’re so inclined, can modify their classes every semester based upon self and student evaluations.  One part of teaching that I have consistently reflected upon is the very first day of classes.  How much time should I spend on the syllabus?  Are there any icebreakers that aren’t incredibly corny?  Should I teach course material that day?

Do I even need to go

If students’ social media posts are any indication, professors can’t seem to win:  if they spend time talking about the syllabus, students complain; if they launch right into course material, students complain.  Check out the Twitter hashtag #syllabusweek for a glimpse into the minds of our students.

So what’s a professor to do? Based upon my own experiences and those of many other professors I’ve learned from, here’s my advice:

Read Aloud

Don’t make the first day of class “Syllabus Day.”  Avoid reading the entire syllabus to students.  This is a waste of everyone’s time.  Students who care about their learning will read the syllabus on their own.  If you’re wary of putting that onus on students, include a syllabus quiz the first week or ask students to sign a syllabus contract.  Perhaps more importantly, why not write a syllabus that students might want to read rather than one that looks like a Terms of Service agreement.  For tips on making your syllabus more student-friendly, check out “Crafting a Learner-Centered Syllabus.”

Don’t let them go after five minutes.  What’s the point of meeting if nothing is going to be accomplished the first day?  I used to think students would perceive me as “cool” if I let them go after only a couple minutes.  Not so.  Most students felt their time was completely wasted.  Put yourself in their shoes.  If you were asked by a colleague to come to campus for a meeting then, after just a couple minutes, they said “Eh, let’s just continue this conversation later,” you’d likely be frustrated.

Only Lasted 5 Minutes

Focus the first class on making connections instead of giving directions.  Rather than spending 50 minutes telling students what they can and cannot do in your class, spend time getting to know one another.  That first day tells students a lot about who you are and what kind of teacher you will be.  If you spend it giving them “do’s and don’ts” they won’t learn much about you except you like rules.  According to Joe Kreizinger from Northwest Missouri State University, focus the first class on:

  • connecting students to instructor: put your teaching philosophy into student-friendly language and explain how you approach classroom management and student learning.
  • connecting students to content: explain why this class matters and how it applies to your students’ current and future lives.
  • connecting instructor to content: tell students the story of how you discovered your discipline.  How did you know it was the field for you?
  • connecting students to students: icebreakers can be corny, but they are also effective at forcing students to talk to one another rather than stare at their cell phones while they wait for class to begin.

Build icebreakers into the entire first week, even beyond.  Most professors include some type of “getting to know you” activity on that first day.  But the class roster doesn’t solidify until after the add/drop deadline.  Therefore, I suggest icebreakers are even more important during the third and fourth class periods.  This doesn’t have to take much time.  I typically incorporate self-introductions into roll call, asking students silly questions to make them chuckle.  I’m consistently surprised by the number of times students find unexpected connections: “Seamus Finnigan is my favorite Harry Potter character too!!!!”  Some students may be grumpy about icebreakers, which is understandable considering they do them in every class, but that encourages me to find new ones each semester.

I hope these tips help you design an engaging and productive first-week routine.  Best wishes for an enjoyable semester!