The First Day of Class: Off to a Good Start

Whether you have been teaching for years or are about to teach your very first semester, being prepared for the first day of class takes planning. No matter how hard you try to find your course notes from last semester, discover a new technique to remember your students’ names, or begin using a new technology in the classroom, careful planning for the first day is critical to making a positive initial impression on your students (and making you feel good about the class, too).

First Day of Class: What Can/Should We Do? was developed by the Program for Instructional Innovation at the University of Oklahoma (2006). The document is utilized here with permission and has been revised and updated (2019). Additional information has been added for further explanation. Please also see the supplementary resources at the end of this document for more ideas for your first day of class.

…careful planning for the first day of class is critical to making that first impression on your students (and making you feel good about the class, too).

As you prepare for the first day or any day of teaching or presenting, try some techniques used by professionals in theatre, film, and television to warm up your voice for class. Vocal warm-ups such as yawning, humming, and warming up the tongue and jaw through some simple exercises by speaking to yourself, out loud, and slowly, such words as

hello, away, until
unique New York
red leather, yellow leather

or tongue twisters such as “a big black bug bit a big black bear, made a big black bear bleed blood.” Vocal warm-ups can help develop better voice intonation and performance in the classroom (Justice, 2006).

What can we do on the first day of class? What should we do?

One common answer is simply to start lecturing: “This is day one, here is lecture one, away we go!” Another possibility is “Here is the syllabus, go buy your books, and I’ll see you at the next scheduled class period.” Neither of these two options seems ideal. What are other possibilities?

Several years ago, a group of professors at the University of Oklahoma visited each other on the first day of class and then discussed what they saw each other doing. The discussion quickly went from what they observed to “What might be done?” They eventually identified the nine possibilities described below. Do not feel obliged to do all of these, but using even one or a few of these strategies on the first day (or during the first week) might help you begin your course in the right way.

Quickly involve students in class

You can do this in a variety of ways:

  • have students introduce themselves
  • allow students to think and write silently (e.g. why they have enrolled in the course; what skills, abilities they might be able to contribute to the course; expectations they have for the course)
  • have a whole-class or a small-group discussion
  • ask students some pointed questions the first day; this can help break the ice and allow students to feel comfortable contributing to the class early on. You may ask,
    • What have you heard about me as an instructor?
    • What have you heard about this course?

Communicating to students from the outset that they will be active participants is a good approach to beginning the semester.

Identify the value and importance of the subject

Not all students come to all classes with a clear idea of why this subject is important: you may need to help them understand the significance of the course. The sooner this is done, the sooner the students will be ready to invest time and energy in the task of learning.


Not all students come to all classes with a clear idea of why this subject is important

Set expectations

This can involve such things as the appropriate amounts of study time and homework for the class, the importance of turning in homework on time, expectations about in-class behavior, how you want to relate to students, and how much interaction among students is desired. The first day also offers an opportunity to find out what expectations the students have of you and of the class.

Establish rapport

Almost any class will be more enjoyable for the instructor and students if they know each other. This exchange can be started with introductions, sharing some background information, etc.

Justice (2006) states that even the way you walk into the classroom the first day can make an impression (or not) on your students. Read the following “scenarios” and decide for yourself which instructor you would rather have for a course:


Almost any class will be more enjoyable for both the instructor and the students if they know each other a bit.
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, making eye contact with and smiling 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 is 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.

Which instructor do you think has made the best impression on his/her students? Why do you think so? What message does the first instructor send to the students by being late and seeming unsure or unprepared? What message does the second instructor send by showing confidence and an interest in the students? What message does the last instructor send by not acknowledging or connecting with students?

Reveal something about yourself

Students might be able to relate to you if they see you as more than just an authority figure or subject-matter expert. Sharing appropriate personal stories and being able to laugh at yourself can help this process.

Establish your own credibility

Establishing credibility can happen automatically, but at other times, students need to know about your prior work experience, travel experience, or research and publication in an area. Having this knowledge can help assure students that you know what you are talking about.

Establish the “climate” for the class

Different instructors prefer different classroom climates: intense, relaxed, formal, personal, humorous, serious, etc. Whatever classroom climate you want, you should establish it early and set the tone for the rest of the semester. Ensure that you consider which classroom environment is conducive to student learning.


Establishing credibility can happen automatically, but at other times students need to know about your prior work experience, travel experience, or research and publications in an area.

Provide administrative information

This often takes the form of going through the syllabus.

  • material the students will need
  • the kind of homework that will be involved
  • your office hours
  • where your office is located
  • how the class grade will be determined
  • your policies regarding attendance, late work, make-up exams, etc.

Introduce the subject matter

Generally, you will facilitate this introduction by starting with an overview of the subject. What is it? What are the parts of the subject? How is it connected to other kinds of knowledge?

Final Note

Plan what you do on the first day to reflect what will happen during the rest of the semester. If you want students to work in small groups during the semester, find something for them to do in small groups on the first day. Set your classroom tone to help students get a feel for the course.


Plan what you do on the first day to reflect what will happen during the rest of the semester.

References

Justice, G. (2006). The art of teaching: Using performance techniques in the teaching/learning process. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Theatre Arts, Virginia Tech University.

Selected Resources

Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center. Design & teach a course: Make the most of the first day of class (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/firstday.html

Honolulu Community College, Faculty Development. (n.d.). The First Day of Class. Retrieved from https://www.honolulu.hawaii.edu/facdev/the-first-day/

Iowa State University, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. (n.d.). 10 Ideas for a Great First Day of Class. Retrieved from https://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/preparing-to-teach/10-ideas-for-a-great-first-day-of-class/

Lang, J. M. (2019). How to teach a good first day of class: Advice guide. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-firstday

Stanford University, Teaching Commons. (n.d.). Preparing for the First Class. Retrieved from https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/resources/course-preparation-resources/course-preparation-handbook/preparing-first-class

University of California Berkeley, Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). What to Do on the First Day of Class. Retrieved from https://teaching.berkeley.edu/what-do-first-day-class

Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching. (2011). First day of class. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/first-day-of-class/


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Suggested citation

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). The first day of class: Off to a good start . In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guides/instructional-guide

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