Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#99 Getting Started in the Right Way on the First Day of Class


As both beginning and experienced teachers know, getting started "right" the first day with a class can make all the difference in how things go for the rest of the semester. Here are some excellent tips on this topic sent to me from the Center for Teaching and Learning at Indiana State University ( Note: I have combined and slightly edited two messages on starting and finishing a class, thus the unusual length of this posting.


Rick Reis

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Center for Teaching and Learning
Indiana State University

What better time than the beginning of the semester to consider the importance of welcoming students in your classroom? Of course, this is not to advocate some kind of big group hug. Rather, good teachers use the normal patterns of social interactions to draw students into academic work. Classroom anthropologists have identified patterns in social interaction that create expectations about how to work in the classroom. The tips for this week and next [both presented here] offer ideas that use these patterns to draw students into effective working relations.

Phase 1: Entering the Lesson

Social encounters usually begin with some action that acknowledges everyone and establishes a welcoming tone. Learning interactions are no exception. Teachers can use the moments when students are entering the classroom to build a commitment to the class. Here are some simple, but socially valuable, tips.

Be Early. Arrive 5 minutes early for class. Whether inside or outside the classroom, let students know that you are ready to talk with them: smile, nod, make eye contact, chat, whatever suits your style.

Shake Hands. This simple gesture communicates. In your large classes, greet a few. You will find that those who are welcomed are more ready to respond in class.

Have Students Meet. Have students greet someone else in the class. Even if this ritual takes only 30 seconds, you should find that your class warms up considerably. Add some fun: have students use greeting rituals from various cultures, or ask students to create and lead the daily greeting (no embarrassing tricks allowed).

Social Ice Breakers. While often misunderstood and over-used, the right ice breaker can help a group of students get over the chill of anonymity.

Phase 2: Start the Learning

The transition from everyday social life to learning encounters requires a shift. Students may not be ready to start work when the teacher is. Use the following tips to shift their attention to the common work of learning your lessons.

Content Ice Breakers. Short activities can be used to introduce course content. For example, list several terms from an essay and have students get a signature next to each term that a classmate knows. Or, handout a set of index cards, each containing instructions for one step in a process? such as solving a math problem. Have students form a team with those whose cards contain the other steps. Give teams a problem to solve with each student responsible for the steps listed on his or her card. Debrief results.

Critical Reading Guide. Bob Votaw, a geologist from IU-NW, gives students a page for writing answers to key questions about the required reading. These are due as students enter the next class. By quickly reviewing a sample, he identifies common understandings and frequent mistakes. He adjusts his lecture to their responses.

Quick Quizzes. Give students a short quiz. The material will be fresh in their minds as you start your lesson. It is not necessary to collect and grade the quiz, but explain how their responses relate to success in learning the material.

RSQC2. Ask students to quickly write response to some simple prompts over reading or previously covered material. Ask the CTL for a detailed description of the five prompts used in the RSQC2 method.

Pre-Test. You can use a formal pre-test over the material to be covered. Informal methods are less intimidating but equally effective in connecting student to material. Have students write their own definitions of a term, ask them to write down their idea of a process or historical sequence, or make some guesses about statistical facts or likely outcomes.

Attention Grabber. Use a problem or a demonstration to capture students? imaginations about what is to come. Often, an intriguing example will provide a guiding context for the material that follows.

Final Comments

Student participation is not simply a question of motivation but one of social relations too. People work better when they are noticed and guided into the working part of the lesson smoothly. Abrupt switches will inevitably leave some students behind. Build a welcome phase and a settling down phase into the first few minutes of your lessons and you will find more students are ready to engage in the learning activities you have planned. Utilizing these interaction patterns creates a context in which social relationships focus students on the task at hand. Contact the CTL for a list of other tips for the start of the semester.

A Closing Routine

The social patterns described last week draw students into your learning activities. It is equally important to end your classes with routines that help students know what to take from the experience. The final moments of a class are best used to consolidate ideas and set the stage for the next meeting. Squeezing in additional information does not provide the same gains as reinforcing, summarizing, and reconnecting students to the important material. Listed below are tips for the two phases that occur at the end of most social encounters.

Phase 3: Clearing Up

Near the end of an interaction, people often highlight and confirm the main points of the encounter. Such "clearing up" generates immensely valuable teaching moments. Use the following tips to create reflection activities that help students re-process your lesson.

Minute Paper. Give students 1 minute to write down the main point of the lesson. Have them briefly discuss their ideas with their neighbors. You can collect & respond to their comments.

Journal Entry. Ask students to write a journal response to the lesson for several minutes. Ask us for some guiding questions.

Complete Grids. Give students an outline or grid that pulls key ideas and information together. Have them spend several minutes completing parts you deliberately leave undone. Ask the CTL for a sample.

Application Cards. Have students list 2-3 applications of the material just covered. Share responses & comments on how your lesson links to everyday settings.

Exam Questions. Put on the overhead one or two questions from your test bank that are related to the lesson. Allow students a couple minutes to discuss possible answers.

Debriefing. Ask students to reflect on what worked for them in the lesson (and what didn?t). Have them discuss and write down one suggestion for themselves and one for you.

Feedback. Gather some targeted feedback during the last few minutes of a class. A short survey can tell you how things are going. Ask us for our short, general model.

A number of valuable reflection techniques can be found in Angelo and Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques. Drop by the CTL and review the 50 CATs described in their book.

Phase 4: Making A Good Exit

Social interactions end nicely when participants know what is expected at the next meeting. It is also a valuable practice to acknowledge good efforts and successes.

Assignments. Save several minutes to discuss expectations and questions about assignments.

Q&A. Open the class up to general questions and answers during the final minutes. If response is low, have students write their questions down and hand them in.

Return. If you have no intention of reviewing or commenting on papers or exams when you return them, give them back as part of the exit phase, leaving a couple minutes for individuals to review and make arrangements to talk with you.

Honorable Mention. Take a minute to acknowledge quality student work. A mention is enough; you might share a student?s efforts as a model for others. A public pat on the back leaves people feeling good about the class.

Study Groups. Allow students a couple minutes to meet their study groups (set these up beforehand) so they can make arrangements to meet or get started on homework.

Rituals. Just like greeting rituals (see last week), you can create a moment for good-bye rituals. Shake hands, have a round of applause for hard group work, or make a simple comment like, "Thank you for a good effort today, I look forward to our next class."

Final Comments

Bringing a class (or advising session) to a good end provides greater interest in and commitment to future interactions. When a teacher takes a few minutes at the end of the class period to connect the main ideas to relevant applications, students are able to see the purpose for the work you have assigned. This kind of preparation helps students see the purpose of their efforts. They will find it easier to stay motivated between class sessions. Good closing routines set the stage for success on homework assignments and increase the likelihood that students will return to the next class session prepared to work. When planning your next class, include opening and closing routines and turn natural social patterns into effective supports for your lesson.