What not to do on your first day of class

Are you about to teach your first class of the semester? Is your syllabus ready? Have you picked just the right texts, balancing content with cost? Are you a few PowerPoints ahead? Have you thought about how this semester you will engage your students more in discussion? Are you hoping to skate through with a minimum of effort, or are you angling for one of the big teaching prizes? Here are a few things you should not do on the first day.
1. Do not assume the day is not important, that you have the rest of the semester to reach your students. Studies show that the judgement of you that students make in the first few minutes is highly correlated with how they evaluate you after an entire semester.

2. Do not arrive unprepared, planning to give a quick summary of the mechanics of the course then leave. This might seem sensible because so many might add the course after the first day, but everyone there wants to know what this course is like and what you are like. Show them.

3. Do not focus on the syllabus. It is all right to spend some time going over the syllabus and the mechanics, but you should begin with an exciting lecture that introduces the students to the material of the course and exactly how you will deliver and interact.

4. Do not be boring. Students are used to energy and excitement. Give it to them and they will pay that much more attention to your lectures. Watch some TED talks in your field so you can see how to become more exciting. Have yourself be videotaped so you can concretely see how to improve.

5. Do not lecture the entire time. If your class is mostly of the lecture format, particularly if it is very large, it will be tempting to lecture for the entire time. Instead break your lecture into pieces about 12 minutes long. Between those pieces do something else. You should develop a regular way of signaling the changes in pace. It could be a little music. I use a question in red on the powerpoint. This question the students grapple with on their own for a minute or two, then discuss their answers with their neighbors for another few minutes. Then we may or may not discuss it as a whole group.

6. Do not seem weak, or uncertain. Students want a strong teacher. This is your class. Teach it the way you think is most effective. Do not let a noisy student that may not reflect the interests of all change the way you do things. But this does not apply to differences of opinion. Welcome them, making them teaching moments.

7. Do not ignore your own appearance. The students will be looking at you all period if you are lecturing. You want them to listen to you, not wonder if you are a homeless person, or a fashion model. When I was at Rice I had a strict personal policy never to wear shorts during the first week of class.

8. Don’t focus on your powerpoints, or boardwork. Focus on the students. Be sure they are understanding. A great set of slides is not what being a great teacher is all about.

9. Don’t cover too much material. It is much better to be sure the students can engage with the material than to race through it.

10. Don’t fear your students. Your students want to like you, perhaps not as much as kindergartners, but they do. You hold power over something they want, a good grade. Make getting this as clear and attainable as you can. Put teaching before evaluating, rewarding those that can progress, or learn the material even if more slowly.  I will have many more posts on the joy of teaching.

Have fun! Here at Wash U the semester has started and I’m excited!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in The joy of teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What not to do on your first day of class

  1. wildacademicwoman says:

    Just found your blog, and this is great advice! I’ve taught K-12 for many years, but I’m about to TA (teach my own section) next Tuesday, and it’s a 3-hour course. Thanks for writing your blog. 🙂

  2. Liz Haswell says:

    Good advice, Joan. These are things I think I learned the hard way my first few years here!

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