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Handling the opening moments of a course

February 6, 2010, 7:26 am

Classes started for us this week. It’s gotten me thinking about what profs do on the first day of class and their overall concepts for how to approach the first few days of a class, where students form those crucial first impressions about the course and the instructor. Here’s my overall approach:

  • I prefer a quick, energetic launch directly into the course material. I spend maybe the first 7-10 minutes on course structure. Then we start right into the course content through a lecture/activity combination.
  • To help with the first point, I will often create screencasts for some of the course management stuff (like this screencast for how to navigate Moodle) and email students the links to these, often before the first class meets.
  • I do not go in for icebreakers, get-to-know-you activities, exercises intended to discover students Myers-Briggs types or learning styles, or any of that. Not that I think such things are not useful. But I’d rather the students get to work and get to know themselves and each other in the context of working, rather than get to know each other instead of working.
  • I give a full-bodied assignment on the first day of class to do for the second day of class — something that would really take about two hours outside of class to do, if the class meeting took one hour. Here’s the assignment list, for example, for my calculus class. That’s about 2 hours worth of work, although if you look closely, a lot of it is watching instructional screencasts and playing around with course software, so it’s less work than it looks like. But still, students have to do stuff.

Students form their conceptions of the class — and keep that conception through the whole semester — in these first few moments of the course. I want to give students the impression that the class is something they need to take seriously, and there’s a workload that has to be managed carefully, and they cannot expect to succeed if they hold the course at arms’ length. I think jumping in, rather than easing in, to the coursework is a good way to accomplish this. A potential downside of my approach is that students often get shellshocked by the initial workload and give up before they even get started. I always get a few students coming by with drop forms, saying “I just don’t think I’m going to have the time for this course.”

How do you approach the first day, and next few days, of a course? Or, if you are not a teacher, what was the best or worst approach you’ve seen to the initial few days of a course?

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