As the summer days draw shorter, our thought inevitably turn to the start of a new term. We spend time perfecting our syllabi, selecting readings and assignments, and developing or revising lectures. But often we neglect to think about our first day of class—until the first day of class! It’s important to remember that the first day of class will set the tone for the entire term. Too often, we waste the first day of the new term (and set the wrong tone for the rest of the course) by simply handing out and reviewing the syllabus, and then sending students on their way.
Consider instead including a discussion or activity that gets your students involved from the very beginning of the course. Research suggests that students who participate in class discussion early in the semester are more likely to continue participation throughout the semester. Conversely, students who do not participate in the course within the first two weeks of the semester are unlikely to ever participate in class discussion. Possible activities could include:
Important Events: Dividing students into small groups and asking them to identity the ten most important historical events related to your course. For example, in an introduction to international relations course, you might ask for the ten most important events in global politics, while in a course on the European Union you might ask for the ten most important events in modern European political history. Once each group has identified and ranked their ten events, you could also have class discussion where the class comes to agreement on the rankings.
Survey: Conduct an opinion survey related to the course content. I regularly use a survey I developed based on the global futures survey to get a sense of preconceptions held by the class. This way, I know if the course is comprised primarily of realists or liberals, optimists or pessimists. I also get a sense of their general interests, whether they are more interested in the economic or security side of global politics, what they think are the most pressing issues in global politics, and so on. I share the general results in the next class period, and I am able to refer back to the survey regularly throughout the course.
Break It Down: Select a recent news story and ask students in small groups to explain the driving forces behind the event. For example, you might provide students with a copy of a recent BBC story on Syria, and ask them to try and figure out why the British government is providing aid to Syrian opposition forces. Give them time to piece it together, then ask each group to offer their explanation. As they present their ideas, you can explain how the various themes they are raising (though likely without the specific knowledge and vocabulary) will be explored later in the course.
No matter what you decide to do with your first day, be sure to provide an opportunity for students to ask questions of you. And remember that the most important thing is to generate the excitement and high level of expectations that will carry throughout the semester. As elsewhere in life, you only get one opportunity to make a first impression. Make your first day count!