Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Engaging Students on the First Day of Class

When I was an undergraduate—back in the olden days—the first day of every class was always the same. The professor would come in a few minutes after the published start time, hand out a stack of syllabi still fresh with the fumes of the spirit duplicator solvent, and tell us about all the course policies and procedures (anticipating that we would not really read the syllabus). Perhaps there would be a few questions answered. Possibly, we'd get a content-based lecture that first day, but more often we'd just get an early release from class.

When I started teaching college, I did the same thing. I thought that this was how it was supposed to be done. And, despite having had some courses in how to teach effectively, I just fell into the ritual with which I'd grown up.

It didn't even occur to me how boring or pointless this activity was until I was at a HAPS meeting decades ago and went to a workshop entitled something like Engaging Students on the First Day of Class. Although the title was mildly intriguing, the main reason I went was to support my friends Richard Faircloth and Michael Glasgow from Anne Arundel Community College, who presented the workshop. Those of you who've given workshops know that it helps to have a few folks in the crowd who can be counted on to smile back at you even when you're sweating!

It turned out to be one of those many how-did-I-survive-without-knowing-about-this-before-now moments that one experiences at a HAPS Conference. I learned that I could make that first day into something much, much better than the traditional "here's what I expect" sermon.

Richard and Michael had us form small groups and showed us how we could make "syllabus day" a fun, active learning experience for students. An experience that could be far more effective in getting the essential messages across than what I had been doing. It must have worked because I can still see and hear some of what happened nearly two decades ago in my small group—and I took their message home and implemented it.

Their method boils down to this:
  1. Get your students into small groups. Right away—before you've handed out the syllabi or other materials.

  2. Give them a brief handout outlining what they are to do. Or you can project the directions on the screen. For example:

    1. Have them introduce themselves and briefly explain why they are taking A&P.

    2. Have them discuss and write down what pressing questions they have about the course.

    3. Tell them to send someone up to the professor to grab enough syllabi for everyone in the group.

    4. Ask them to use the syllabus and try to find the answers to the questions the group had written down.

  3. It's important NOT to answer their questions as you stroll around to chat and listen in on the groups—they have to find the answers in the syllabus.

  4. Have them re-assemble into a large group and ask them what questions they had that were not answered by their search or that need additional clarification.

By doing this, the students get to know a few other students right away—even the introverts. They get to be active, instead of passively sitting there "absorbing" from an active professor. Students are forced to think about what's important for them to know as they begin a new, perhaps scary-sounding, course. They learn how the syllabus is constructed as they explore it collaboratively looking for critical information. So they know how to find answers to questions they have later in the course. How many times have we wondered if they even looked as the syllabus once?

This method allows the professor to focus their efforts that day on the information that students really want to hear from them at that moment. And it tells you where your syllabus needs to be corrected or clarified!

I was very happy with the way my first experiment with this approach worked. Perhaps more importantly, my students were very happy with it. Ever since that first time, I've regularly had students tell me, "that was fun, I wish all my profs did their first day this way." It even shows up on the end-of-semester course evaluations—so it must have made an impression!

Over the years (nearly twenty), I've tweaked the process and adapted it to my particular course quirks. Because I always get certain questions, I often follow up with a demonstration of how to login to their course in the LMS, how to access the publisher website, and how to register their clickers. I also introduce them to the idea of human science—anatomy and physiology in particular. Ask them to think about why are here—and we discuss those goals and how they can be acheived. I sometimes even give them my secret methods for finding a parking space quickly.

If you'd like a starting point for creating your own first-day experiment, download these example handouts:

Photo (top): Griszka Niewiadomski
Photo (bottom): Gokhan Okur
Updated 6 January 2016


pat said...

I remember that same workshop… Now that we have syllabi on the computer for the students, this method doesn't work as well since they can look the questions up as they generate them. So I give them a scavenger hunt of things to find out about the class. It works pretty well!

Sandie Cee said...

Great ideas! Thank you for sharing.

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