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Setting the Tone at the Beginning of the Semester


Setting the tone early on in the course is a helpful way to manage student expectations (as well as your own). By engaging students early, you portray the behaviors you want them to exhibit, the ways you want them to engage in the material and the course, and the interactions you want them to have with you.  

Quick Tips

Consider sending a welcome announcement to your students and tell them a bit about yourself (what you're comfortable sharing). Using a video announcement in Canvas can be an effective way to send this message.

One way to increase students' perception the instructor is organized and prepared is to send the course syllabus prior to the first day of class. This allows students to preview the syllabus and get a feel for the course structure. [Note: This assumes the syllabus is ready and detailed. Sending a concise or outline syllabus that lacks details may have the opposite effect according to some studies conducted on syllabi perceptions.] Likewise, publishing your Canvas course site prior to the first day of class also allows students a chance to interact with the course early.

Make the first day count. Instead of just going over the syllabus, engage students in a meaningful activity that connects to the course content or encourages them to take a deeper dive into the syllabus. See Activities below for some ideas.  

Activities to Consider

If you're looking for a meaningful way to get students to read the syllabus, consider a syllabus discussion or reflection activity. To facilitate, you can divide students into small groups. Provide students with a series of questions related to the syllabus and course that they need to discuss. Alternately, you can have students do this individually. Individual students or student groups can submit their responses via Canvas or a Google form that you can display and discuss. Here are some sample questions you could consider asking:

  1. What assignment concerns you the most and why?
  2. What assignment excites you the most and why?
  3. Looking at the course calendar, what topic(s) are you most interested in? Are there topics you're anxious about?
  4. What weeks of the semester do you think will present the most challenge? Why?
  5. How does academic integrity apply in this course? What questions do you have about how the Honor Code applies?

If you teach a course that you know students may come in with misconceptions or preconceived notions about, why not take the time to address those on the first day? Likewise, if your subject matter generates anxiety (e.g., public speaking, statistics, writing-intensive courses), probe your students' concerns. Of course, students will likely be hesitant to openly share these during class time on the first day. To counteract this, consider asking students to respond to a prompt on an index card without their name included. Ask students to trade response cards with at least 5-6 other people across the classroom and not just in one spot. Then, call on students to read the responses on the cards they ended up with. Here are some sample prompts to consider:

  1. What worries you most about [insert your subject matter area]?
  2. If you were to summarize what you think this course will be about in three words/phrases, what would they be?
  3. What do you think the biggest challenge of this course will be?
  4. What have you heard about this course previously that makes you nervous and/or excites you?

Another idea is to ask students to draw what they think the course will be about. To facilitate this, distribute blank sheets of paper, collect the drawings (anonymously), randomly select some from the pile, and use the doc camera in your classroom to project and share. While artistic skills will vary, it would make for a fun, interesting, and insightful way to discover your students' preconceptions.

You can also gauge students' preconceptions about the course and course content using polls. If you'll be utilizing polling or interactive software in your course, this gives students an early taste of how to use the software. In addition to multiple choice responses, you could consider using word clouds or open-ended questions if your software allows. If you'd like to poll but do not want to worry about technology, consider using paper personal response cards for students to hold up their answers. (You may need to print these out for students or keep a class set.)

We know that novice learners tend not to make connections between the content they are learning. To help frame those connections early in the semester, consider showing students a concept map (or other visualization) of the major course concepts and how they are connected. This map or visualization can be revisited throughout the semester to help students organize the course content.

If you're teaching a course that builds on prerequisite knowledge, consider implementing an interactive review game during the first day of class to engage students and activate their prior knowledge. You can organize students into teams or make it an individual activity. You may want to organize it like Jeopardy (there are free templates available online), Who Wants to be a Millionaire, or another game show. This activity also provides a good opportunity to remind students where they can access supplemental resources if they have forgotten these topics or need a refresher.