If you don’t lecture, what do you do in class on the first day?

In a couple of hours my students will be forming their indelible first impressions of me and my wonderful teaching assistants. Studies show that their opinion after the first 10 minutes correla

Why can't college classes feel like this?

Why can’t college classes feel like this?

tes highly with their opinion at the end of the semester, so make it a great first 10 minutes!

If I lectured, I’d be dusting off last year’s lecture, changing 2012 to 2013 all over the place, and perhaps putting in a new example or two. I might even have to restructure a lecture that didn’t go too well last year. When class time came, I would go over the syllabus and then give that great first lecture, trying to be more animated and responsive than comes naturally.

But I don’t lecture, or not much anyway. I’m determined to let them, even encourage them, to use their laptops, tablets, or cell phones to learn.  I will go over the syllabus and stress the importance of this document to the official course and to the hidden curriculum. (I’ll have more to say on the hidden curriculum in another post.)

My youngest son had a history teacher that played rock as the students walked into class. He loved that teacher and learned a lot from in during those teenage years when students are not at their most open. I’ll play behavior videos. Today I’m going to start with a rather amateurish one I made from footage in the Galapagos, available on YouTube. This will be playing from before they get there. I hope no one teaches in the room before me.

Then the first serious assignment starts. We’ll do great egret behavior today. I’ll start with early in the season and move to later.  Here is the 31 March 2008 video of nest 5. Here is the 7 April 2008 video of nest 5. One of the things that is important, is that the students see variation between nests and across the season, so I’ll show some of several nests on the same day and different days, ideally holding time of day constant. Here is a nest from 29 April. The sound is visitors to High Island and my students talking as they videotaped, very nostalgic for me. Well, you can see all the videos of birds and wasps at the YouTube channel strassm and choose some others for yourself.

I’ll ask the students what the birds are doing, why they are doing it, and how it differs among nests, sexes, and ages. We’ll see how they do. I’ll have them work on their own, then discuss.

Now I have them thinking about behavior, I’ll go over the expectations of the class, including the syllabus, the honor code, and the discussion sections.

Finally I’ll have them go to Wikipedia and start looking at entries since this is what most of the class will be about. And I’ll remind them there is a test over The Selfish Gene on the second Thursday of the semester, and there are study questions for it. Oh, and permissions for photos are needed, and I’ll do that today. Wish me luck!

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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
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4 Responses to If you don’t lecture, what do you do in class on the first day?

  1. Dave Angelini says:

    This last series of posts has been a rallying call for innovative classroom approaches. I’m teaching intro bio this fall and plan to incorporate many of these ideas (within many constraints). Given your teaching philosophy, Joan, I would love to see a sample of your syllabus– from this or any class with a similar approach. What’s your policy on sharing syllabi? Have you posted past syllabi online anywhere?

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