Planning Ahead and the First Day of Class

Image of professor reading to students in a small classroom setting.

Good instructors walk into a classroom on the first day—and every subsequent day—having prepared ahead for class. Planning ahead includes research, talking with colleagues, formulating teaching and learning goals and objectives, creating a syllabus, and outlining the first day—if not the first several sessions—of the course.

Becoming Familiar with Your Classroom and Your Students

Classrooms are assigned well in advance of the beginning of each semester through the Office of the Registrar. Once you know where you will be teaching in a classroom or supervising a lab, visit the room.

  • ​Do the lights, windows, and window coverings work?

  • If you are in a lab, is the safety equipment easily accessible and up-to-date?

  • Will you have access to the teaching technology you need and does it work?

  • Have you asked the departmental or course administrative assistant about keys, photocopy privileges, and supplies?

  • What kind of chair arrangement is in the classroom? Can you move the chairs and tables? If so, what arrangement would be most conducive to student learning?

  • Where will you want students to sit in a large classroom?

  • Is the assigned room unsuitable for you or your students? If so, let your departmental administrative assistant know. Another, more appropriate room may be available. 

If you are comfortable in the space, you will be— and appear to be—more confident. If you will use a lectern, stand behind it to make sure you will be able to make eye contact with every student in the class. Then “break free” of the lectern and move throughout the room—laterally in the front, down the aisles, even behind the last row of chairs. Remember that this “real estate” is all part of the classroom; moving throughout the classroom can enliven a lecture and encourage student participation.

The OTLT Learning Spaces Team can help you learn how to use the technology in the room you are assigned, and are available to help if anything is broken or not Planning Ahead and the First Day of Class Good instructors walk into a classroom on the first day—and every subsequent day—having prepared ahead for class. Planning ahead includes research, talking with colleagues, formulating teaching and learning goals and objectives, creating a syllabus, and outlining the first day—if not the first several sessions—of the course working right. They can also work with you to make sure that any software you require for your teaching is available on the classroom computer. 

In addition to visiting and becoming comfortable in the classroom or lab, get to know your students before the first day of class.

  • If you receive a course list before the semester begins, read students’ names aloud several times.

  • During the first few class sessions, you undoubtedly will mispronounce some names. Don’t be embarrassed; just explain that it might take you a time or two to say names correctly.

  • As students pronounce their names, write phonetic spellings of names you find difficult.

  • Look at each student as they respond when you call roll. This will help you remember their names next time around. Consider doing icebreaker activities during the first week of class to learn students’ names and to build community in your class. 

  • If you have a small enough class, you can use a few minutes during the early sessions to engage in a quick conversation with each student. You’ll remember the conversation, which will help you remember their names.

Syllabus Construction

The University requires instructors to distribute a thorough syllabus during the first class session and on the course management site in ICON. Although many teaching assistants receive a syllabus from the professor teaching the course, a TA who independently teaches a course must create a syllabus. This is a crucial part of the course that should receive considerable thought.

The following tips are not meant to be the last word on constructing an effective syllabus. The Center for Teaching has many resources, including handouts, about the theory and practice of syllabus construction. Feel free to contact us or go to the OTLT website if you would like more information.

  • The University requires the following specific course information on the first day of classes. The most common method of providing this information is a syllabus:

    • The instructor’s name, office address, office hours, and directory information (telephone and email). If the instructor is a teaching assistant, the course supervisor’s name, office address, office hours, and directory information also are required. Please also include the departmental executive officer (DEO) name and office location.

    • Goals and learning objectives of the course.

    • Course content and schedule of topics.

    • List of readings and/or other anticipated course materials.

    • Expectations for attendance, assignments, and examinations.

    • Dates and times of any examinations outside of class time (the Registrar’s Examination Policies).

    • Grading procedures, including whether plus/minus grading will/will not be used.

    • Statement on availability of accommodations for students with disabilities.

    • Resources for obtaining additional help, such as tutors or teaching assistants.

    • Any changes in the information about the course from what appeared on ISIS.

  • Additional information may be required by each college. Check with the college(s) under whose auspices the course is being taught.

  • Clearly state the course learning goals, learning objectives, and learning outcomes. Periodically refer back to these as you teach and if students question a grade or their progress in the course. Goals reflect the broad learning targets for a course. Learning objectives include the specific content and activities that you want students to learn and the behaviors that you expect from students to demonstrate their learning. Learning objectives are phrased with verbs such as “apply,” “analyze,” and “create” that make clear to the student what is expected of him/her. These are the nuts and bolts of learning. Learning outcomes are what you measure to demonstrate student understanding and application of the material. In a nutshell, goals are where you want to go, objectives are how you get there, and outcomes are proof that you have arrived. The Center for Teaching has additional information about structuring learning goals, objectives, and outcomes.

  • The tone of the syllabus helps sets the tone of the course. A positive tone helps students engage in their own learning endeavor. An authoritarian or scolding tone does not welcome or encourage their collaboration in the teaching-and-learning process. Describe the syllabus as an educational “promise” not a “contract.”

  • Clearly state course policies and make sure they are in accordance with University and college policies.

  • Some instructors include a disclaimer in the syllabus to the effect that the schedule should be viewed as a tentative outline subject to reasonable adjustment. This reminds students that the learning process should be flexible and may be altered according to their learning needs and your teaching expertise.

  • Obtain copies of syllabi from previously taught courses to make sure you haven’t missed anything important, and invite a supervising faculty member, mentor, or experienced colleague to review your syllabus before printing.

Session Plans – The "Mini-Syllabus"

Just as a syllabus provides a road map to the course for TAs and students, so the session plan provides a guide for a single class. Devising a session plan will:

  • help you determine the important knowledge, skills, and habits of mind you want students to acquire and demonstrate during the session and force you to arrange them hierarchically and logically;
  • help you “edit” the amount of material you reasonably can cover during the session;
  • encourage you to consider alternative, “non-outline” ways to organize information such as diagrams, tables, or concept maps; and
  • ensure that you complete the mundane but critical tasks such as “write goals on board,” “hand back Bill’s paper,” “remind students about quiz.”

Provide a short outline—three to five main points would be plenty—that you can write on the board to help students follow the arc of that day’s session. After you complete each section of the day’s schedule, you can provide or ask for a three-sentence summary of:

  • what knowledge/skills were learned during that section of the outline,
  • how that section related to what was learned earlier in the course, and
  • how the material might relate to the following sections of the outline.

If you get off track, determine whether the material still proves to be a good teaching moment. Explain to students how the issue relates to the course. If it does not, acknowledge that and get back on track.

First Day Jitters

It’s natural to feel nervous the first time you teach; even many veteran teachers feel nervous the first day of the semester. Think like a concert pianist or an actor—transform that nervousness into productive energy. Here are a few points that might help:

  • Make sure your handouts, including the syllabus, are complete and that you have extra copies.

  • Practice your first-day welcome and the “substantive” teaching that you plan to do. Planning substantive teaching for the first day can help set the tone for the course and allow students to get an understanding of what the course will be like. 

  • Arrive in the classroom early and organize all your handouts, presentation materials, etc. Make sure you can access and know how to use any technology.

  • Write the day’s brief outline on the board or put it up on the doc cam or as the first PowerPoint slide.

  • Your students expect you to be a content expert, but this doesn’t mean that they expect you to know every answer to every question immediately.

  • At any point during the semester if you can’t answer a question, acknowledge that, thank the student for asking the question, and assure the class that you will find out the answer before the next session. Then make sure you do. On the course ICON site or at the next session, provide the answer, the source of the information, and explain how the information relates to the course.

  • Encourage students to keep asking questions.

A Definite Beginning, A Definite Ending

Image of archaeology students moving an artifact.

First impressions count for a lot. Give considerable thought to how you will begin the first class session of the semester. Will you use humor to break the ice? Would a short narrative about your own learning experience or a famous person in the discipline capture students’ attention? Will you set the tone by standing behind a lectern, venturing among the desks and chairs, sitting in a circle with your students?

Not only on the first day, but every day of the semester, a well-planned, brief, but clear beginning is the best way to ensure your students refocus their attention and conversation onto the learning tasks at hand. Simple actions such as saying, “Good morning,” directing attention to the day’s outline on the board or screen, and asking for a student to summarize the previous class session are quick and effective.

Just as students need a definite beginning to class, they also benefit from a clear ending. A few ideas to help ensure you create “closure” for each session:

  • Leave enough time for summary of the session—by you or them—and questions.
  • Refrain from tossing new or altered assignments at students at the end of class. If you must give a new assignment, make sure you provide time for explanation and questions.
  • At the end of each class, pose questions or a dilemma for them to ponder for discussion (or a quiz or one-minute paper) next time. This helps bridge the distance between class periods and encourages students to think about and discuss the subject outside of the classroom and to prepare for next session.
  • Early in the semester, tell students you will end three minutes early each day so they can gather together their papers, put on their coats, etc. In return, request that they not begin to do this until you have signaled the three-minute close-out.
  • A “thank you” or encouraging comment at the end of a session can go a long way to making students feel good about their efforts in the course.
  • Remain after class for questions.

    Invite Students into the Learning Process

    Inviting students to join in the learning process can be literal—as when a faculty member greets students at the door on the first day—or figurative.

    Students—particularly those who have just graduated from high school—tend to think learning is just a process of dumping information from instructor to student. One of the most important things an undergraduate student can come to realize in college is that learning is a lifelong process in which they must be actively engaged and which requires a commitment to developing and applying critical thinking skills and habits of mind. True, a considerable amount of knowledge will pass from instructor to student. But the real beauty of higher education is learning critical thinking skills, such as how to analyze, synthesize, and critique information—in other words, learning how to learn.

    Early in the semester, begin to invite students into the learning process by:

    • explaining critical thinking skills and periodically reminding students which skills they are applying;
    • explaining that you are a guide in the educational process, but that learning is up to them;
    • periodically reminding them that “the ball is in their court”; and
    • indicating how you learn from them.

    A very effective way of inviting students to become actively engaged in their own learning process is the Four Questions Assignment. [LINK]

    Get to Know Your Students

    Students consistently say that the best teachers care about them as people as well as learners. One of the best ways to show you care about your students is to make an effort to learn their names. Of course, this task is more or less difficult depending on the size of the class. Nevertheless, even instructors who have classes with 150 students can learn most if not all of their students’ names.

    College teachers across the country have invented a multitude of ways to learn their students’ names. Here are a few of the best, tried-and-true ideas:

    • In a large-enrollment class, study photographs of students alongside their names. Instructors of record (that is, those listed on ISIS for a particular course) can access class lists and student photographs through MAUI.
    •   Use a seating chart until you feel comfortable with most names.
    • Ask students to write their names on card stock name tents and invite them to add color, designs, etc. to reflect their personalities or interests.
    • In smaller-enrollment courses, conduct “name-game” activities the first day or two of class. There are many versions of this idea, such as asking students to interview each other for three minutes and then introduce their “partner” to the class. Other ideas are available on the OTLT website.

    Teach Something

    Spend at least some time actually teaching course material on the first day. This will:

    • allow students to get a sense for the subject and your teaching style;
    • cue them that course material matters and that there is much to learn;
    • spark their thinking about course content; and
    • provide a contextual and substantive springboard for the second class.

    Guidelines for Classroom Interaction

    Early in the semester, ask students to brainstorm ideas about how best to conduct classroom interaction.

    • Explain that you want students to take responsibility for their own learning, including being responsible classroom participants.

    • Write their ideas on the board or project ideas using the document camera.

    • Write every idea, even if it isn’t something you want to include, in the list. At this point, this is a brainstorming exercise, not consensus formation. Examples might include:

      • No interrupting.

      • One person cannot speak a second time until another person speaks.

      • Debate is a healthy and important part of learning.

      • Debate does not include personal or offensive comments.

      • Cell phones, tablets, and laptops can only be used for educationally appropriate reasons. Appropriate use of laptops does not include web surfing or reading email. 

    • Offer a few ideas of your own.

    • After class, write all the ideas on a piece of paper. Later, select ten or so that you think are most important and useful. Add any that are critical but were not mentioned during class.

    • At the beginning of the next class, hand out copies of this framework for classroom interaction and post this to the course ICON site. Emphasize that this is the framework that they created and that everyone will be expected to abide by it. Ask them to keep the copy in their course notebooks.

    Creating such a framework can be a powerful message to students that you expect them to take responsibility for their own actions, their individual learning, and the creation of an interactive learning community. At some point during the semester, it’s likely that you or a student will refer to these guidelines to redirect discussion that has gone awry or to diffuse a tense situation.