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Many students “shop” for classes and sit in on several before deciding on their final roster for the semester. Therefore, some argue, it makes little sense to say anything substantive on the first day, since much of it will have to be repeated later. That may be the case, but you will have to provide students with a basis for making a judgment about your class. At the very least, you should make your expectations for the class clear, discuss the reading assignments and the workload, and explain the examination schedule. Beyond that, you might use any of the following methods, depending on the size of the class, to establish rapport with your students.
Breaking the ice: the first day of class
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- Introduce yourself. Much of the information you give to students will be repeated on the syllabus, but give it anyway. Write the name you would prefer to be called on the blackboard, and add your office location and phone numbers. Don’t be afraid to give your home number but do not feel obliged. If you do, make it clear what hours or days calls will be unwelcome.
- Learn who is in the class. If you teach in the School of Arts and Sciences, you can get a class list in advance through SAS’s Courses InTouch. After entering your department and course number you can see a list of class members, with or without pictures, and you can communicate with the whole class via email. In small classes, you can have the students introduce themselves briefly, or pair up the students and have them introduce each other. If you repeat the names as the students introduce themselves, you might even be able to identify everyone in a day.
- Explain how the course is set up. The more you can refer to a syllabus, the better off you will be. Note exam and assignment dates for your students, point out where the reading assignments are heaviest, make clear, if you can, what the major emphasis of each part of the course will be. Of course there will be questions about whether exams are cumulative, how long assignments will have to be, and other things you may not have considered. The students are “shopping,” and may be concerned about the end of the term when your only worry is getting through the week, so think ahead.
- To help you get to know the students and get them comfortable talking with each other at the outset, you may want to ask the students to talk a bit about themselves or why they are in the class. Many will say “It fit my schedule” or “It’s required,” but you will also hear what interests students bring to the course. If you get a lot of discouraging they-made-me-come comments, you might ask what would encourage them to stay. A variation on this is to ask what students know about the subject matter you will be presenting. There could be considerable differences in students’ prior knowledge. Even if you receive only the most tentative and naive responses about your subject, be careful not to embarrass the respondents; they are letting you know where you need to begin.
- You can also do some of the talking yourself. Students will want to know what you know about the subject, how you became interested in the field, and why you think it’s worthwhile dedicating several years (or a career) to it. In many cases, students will be interested in your method and approach to the subject.
- You can remove the focus from yourself by talking a little about the nature of your subject, its methods, and its history. This introduction can begin to dispel any simplistic or mistaken notions of the field that your students may have. You can reinforce your introduction with a text or some artifact: a slide in an art course, the story of a technical breakthrough in a lab. If Penn has had an impact historically in your field, as it has in computer science for example, that could provide a beginning for discussion.
- Try to involve the students in classes as soon as possible. One strategy might be to wait to take role or explain the syllabus and instead to start with a brief “case.” Write a one paragraph problem, related to the subject of the course, and then have the students answer two questions: How can we solve this problem? What might the solution be? You might also bring copies of a recent news article to the first class, ask the students what they know about the issue, and use their responses as a springboard for a general discussion. This method is an especially useful ice-breaker in rapidly changing fields.