How Do I Start My Class?
Your first class can be a crucial opportunity to set the tone for your semester. A good first session can help build community, establish the depth and character of your learning environment, provide hands-on engagement, give students an opportunity to connect their experience to course topics, and set an inclusive foundation for learning.
STRATEGIES & EXAMPLES
There are many ways to get your class off to a good start. Consider choosing one of the ideas below, taking into consideration the context of your course and your personal teaching approach. As usual, we recommend starting small, building on ideas that are comfortable to you, and not feeling like you need to do everything. Small changes can have big results!
Use an icebreaker. Icebreaker activities can help students get to know each other better, form community bonds, and understand each other’s prior experience that can later be used for more effective learning. You can put students in pairs (in person or remotely) and ask them to find 5 things they have in common. Or ask them to identify 3 things that are important to them but may not be obvious from external appearances. Or have students draw a timeline of life events that led to them being in the class (these can be created in Google and shared on a Learning Management System). Ice breakers are particularly helpful for classes that will involve group work. They can also be used in large classes to help students develop connections to peers and find study partners.
Start with questions. To get a better sense of students’ prior knowledge, response to course readings/videos, and curiosities, you can begin class by asking them to write down all the questions they are bringing to class (Svinicki and McKeachie, 2014). In large classes, this can be done in a shared document or as a Moodle or Blackboard assignment or survey.
Immerse them in a task right away. You can add novelty to your learning environment by making it immediately engaging. For example, students can enter a class (in person or remotely) and hear a playlist of songs related to the course topic for that day. Or, have instructions on the board or on a presentation slide that asks them to write an alternate title for the day’s readings on a whiteboard. Or you can place tangible objects (books, photographs, lab samples, ephemera, etc.) related to the day’s topic on their desks.
Share your educational biography. To make connections with students, show your passion for your field, and demystify the educational process, you can share your experiences as a student, including how and why you became an instructor, what kind of learning did and didn’t work for you, and how your approach to learning may have changed over the years. (Vanderbilt CTL) Some people do this in an opening lecture. You can also include a written biography that you can post on Moodle or Blackboard. You can also include this content as part of an introductory video.
Share successes. Ask students to share one success they’ve had in adapting to college life. Give them a few minutes to think of one, and then have them report out to the whole class. Better yet, have them identify successes in pairs, then ask them to report out their partner’s success to the larger group. In large classes, some instructors use a designated discussion board thread for successes, and pull examples from there to mention in class. These types of strategies can be helpful when teaching first-year or Gen Ed students.
Lead a breathing exercise. Students may find it helpful to begin class with a moment of silence or a simple breathing exercise. These kinds of group experiences can help students calm down, transition into their learning environment, and focus on class concepts. You can find simple guided meditation prompts on the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Resource Center website. If students aren’t comfortable doing short meditations, that’s fine. Just ask them to sit quietly. If you don’t have a background in leading breathing exercises and don’t feel comfortable leading them, you can simply start your class with a moment of silence, or with the lights off.
Svinicki, M. D. and McKeachie, W. J. (2014). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Vanderbilt Center for Teaching. First day of class. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/first-day-of-class/