"During the last two years, as both new and returning students nationwide balanced their college responsibilities in the midst of a pandemic, many struggled with engagement and focus. It’s imperative that we provide them with support, patience and guidance." - Provost Beth Ingram
The first week of classes is a critical opportunity to engage students actively and early, thereby setting the expectation for a high level of participation throughout the semester. The connections that students form in the first week with you and their classmates can have a profound impact on their sense of belonging and ultimately their success and persistence in the course. As you develop your syllabus and plan your first week of class, keep the following principles in mind (adapted from Lang, 2021).
Curiosity – Students may or may not have any personal interest in the content of your course, but you can use the first week as an opportunity to spark curiosity by centering your course around deep questions and problems that have the power to fascinate students.
Community – During the first week of classes, students often feel alone and nervous about the upcoming semester, particularly first-year students. Taking the opportunity to humanize yourself to students and get them talking to one another will help them feel more comfortable foster a sense of belonging.
Learning – If you want students to be actively engaged in learning throughout the semester, the best approach is to actively engage them in learning from the very beginning. Instead of a lecture, design an activity based on the content of the course that might foster curiosity and community, such as a small group discussion, a reflective writing activity, or a problem-solving exercise that previews the skills and material they will learn during the course.
Expectations – Setting expectations early helps students look ahead and plan for time management. Instead of going through the entire syllabus, consider highlighting major elements only or using an engagement activity like a syllabus reconnaissance or scavenger hunt.
Your students may form their first impression of you and your course based on the syllabus. When you craft or revise your syllabus, think about the message you are sending to students. What does your syllabus convey about how you view students – do your policies communicate trust or suspicion? Do they demonstrate that you respect students or only that you expect them to respect you? Do they imply that students are valued?
This online module from the Student Experience Project includes a wealth of practical tips for developing syllabi that promote a growth mindset and cultivate a sense of belonging.
This toolkit comprises several NIU resources focused on creating a syllabus, including a comprehensive guide to writing a syllabus, a checklist of key elements, sample statements for creating an inclusive learning environment, and more.
This article by the College Transition Collaborative provides a guide to communicating to students that they belong in your course and in higher education, despite any feelings of isolation, inadequacy, or being an imposter.
Sample strategies to choose from to implement in your syllabus
Review course policies for student-centeredness by following the steps in the Policy Review: Creating Student-Centered Course Policies guide by the College Transition Collaborative. Student-centered policies respect the diversity and complexity of students’ lives and create an equitable and inclusive learning environment.
Revise your syllabus to incorporate a growth mindset when setting expectations by following the steps in the Establishing Expectations guide from the College Transition Collaborative. Growth mindset communicates to students that they can develop their abilities over time by facing and overcoming challenging material.
The Americans with Disabilities and Non-Discrimination Statement is required and there are many other statements of support that you can consider. Incorporate at least 1 other inclusive statement in your course syllabus.
Use Heading styles in Microsoft Word to improve the accessibility of your Syllabus.Review the Create an Accessible Syllabus in Word toolkit. Use Blackboard Ally or Check Accessibility in Word to identify changes to improve your syllabus’ accessibility. BONUS: Having an accessible syllabus is the first step in earning the Fight for Good Ally badge.
Look for opportunities in your syllabus where you can share tips for students to successfully complete the required activities and assignments in your course. You might consider linking to the curated student success tips that include practical strategies and guides for student success.
The first week is the best opportunity to make a positive initial impression and present your vision of the class to your students. This is a great time to pique their curiosity in the subject matter by introducing big questions they will answer or problems they will explore. You can create a welcoming and inviting environment through introductions or ice breakers that build a sense of community. The first days of class also establish norms and expectations for the rest of the semester; use this time to demystify the course and model what is to come.
Research on student engagement and success strongly recommends including some form of low-stakes assessment in the first week. You might include a short reflective writing activity for students to share their past experience with the subject matter and any concerns they have going into the course. Another option would be a short quiz on pre-requisite knowledge or the course content, to assess their prior knowledge. This low-stakes assessment ensures that students are connected and engaged, gives you vital information about their readiness for the course, and gives students the opportunity to practice with your format for assessments (including practice using Blackboard or other technologies you plan to use during the semester).
This article by James Lang introduces four key principles for the first day of class: curiosity, community, learning, and expectations.
This article from the CITL Instructional Guide provides a foundation for a variety of ways to make the most of your first day and week of class.
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. This recorded workshop provides techniques to remember names, tips for trying out a new technology or strategies to carefully plan that first day.
Sample strategies to choose from to implement during your first week of class
Instead of reading or reviewing the syllabus with students, use a syllabus reconnaissance activity. With one activity, you help students discover key points or policies in the syllabus, you start to build community through group discussion, and you set the expectation for active participation throughout the semester.
Introductions are important for building community. If you already use introductions, try using one of the creative methods from the Equity Unbound initiative or an icebreaker activity. Your icebreaker can also be an effective way to introduce course content, activate prior knowledge, or encourage metacognitive thinking!
Get metacognitive with a reflection prompt (one minute paper) that focuses on learning how to learn. Sample topics could include reflecting on their prior experience with the subject matter, sharing any concerns they have about the course, or a student success tip they could apply to your course.
Assess students’ prior knowledge with a pre-test or prior learning activity. There are several Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATS) that you could use, such as Focused Listing, Concept Maps and 3-2-1 that can make the activity more engaging.
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