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Make the Most of the First Day of Class

(Loosely based on Lyons et al. 2003)


The first day of class always creates some nervousness, even for seasoned instructors. It helps to
have a mental checklist of objectives to accomplish so that you and your students come away with
the impression that the course is off to a good start.

The first class meeting should serve at least two basic purposes:

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.

To clarify all reasonable questions students might have relative to the course objectives, as
well as your expectations for their performance in class. As students leave the first meeting, they
should believe in your competence to teach the course, be able to predict the nature of your
instruction, and know what you will require of them.
To give you an understanding of who is taking your course and what their expectations
are.
These two basic purposes expand into a set of eight concrete objectives:
Orchestrate positive first impressions
Introduce yourself effectively
Clarify learning objectives and expectations
Help students learn about each other
Set the tone for the course
Collect baseline data on students' knowledge and motivation
Whet students' appetite for course content
Inform students of course requirements

1. Orchestrate positive first impressions

First impressions can be long-lasting, and they are usually based on a thin slice of behavior. Before
you even start teaching, your students will have already made some decisions about you, so it is
important to understand what those impressions are based on and how to manage them.
Your attire. Research shows that clothing affects several kinds of judgments people
make, including but not limited to, credibility, likability, dominance, kindness, and empathy
(Raiscot, 1986; Morris et al., 1996). More formal attire communicates expertise and confidence,
less formal attire communicates approachability. Usually, it is easier to relax a more formal
impression into a more relaxed one than the other way around. These considerations are likely to
be particularly relevant for young instructors who are concerned about establishing themselves as
authoritative.
The physical environment. Students can make decisions about what kind of course yours
will be by the way the chairs are arranged. Rows signify a more formal environment, while circles
or u-shapes imply a more informal atmosphere, with more expectations of student participation.
The words on the board also indicate how interesting the course is likely to be. In addition to the
course information, consider having a thought-provoking question displayed as they arrive.
Your use of the few minutes before class. Greeting the students as they enter the
classroom communicates approachability. Franticly arriving right on time or even late
communicates disorganization, and so on.

2. Introduce yourself effectively

Your introduction should be succinct, but make sure to cover certain key areas. These questions
should help you decide what to say:
What characteristics do you want to convey about yourself?
Among other things, you probably want the students to get a sense of your qualifications for
teaching the course, how formal/informal you want to be, and how available you will be to the
students.
What will you need to say to convey those characteristics?
Consider talking about your research interests as they relate to the course, in order to establish
yourself as an authority, and to make to course more relevant. Talk about the best ways to reach
you (e.g., phone, email) and your office hour preference (e.g., set hours, open door, make an
appointment).

What do you think students are trying to figure out about you?
In addition to the categories above, students are likely trying to determine whether you are a
harsh or easy grader, and how flexible you will be with deadlines. You dont need to cater to their
agenda, but you might want to say something about your policies (more on this in the next
objective).
What should you be careful not to say?
Students do not need to know everything about you. In particular, it is not helpful to say youve
never taught the course before, or that it is your least favorite course to teach, or to disclose any
irrelevant personal information that can undermine you in the eyes of your students.

3. Clarify learning objectives and your expectations

This is probably the most important objective. Cleary laying out expectations starts to orient
students toward the kind of effort, learning, performance and classroom behaviors you expect
from them, and it helps them use their time productively. It will also help those students who are
shopping around in deciding whether to take your course or not.
Describe the prerequisites so that students will know if they are ready to take your
course.
Highlight main aspects of the syllabus.
If you followed the course design process, you should have an effective structure for the course.
Communicate that structure to the students so they will understand the decisions you made for
the course and the reasons why you made them. In particular, make sure to highlight the learning
objectives, the alignment with the assessments including the grading criteria and the
instructional strategies, the course policies, and the rationale for the structure and the policies,
and the reasons for choosing the textbook or other reading materials.
Consider a quiz on the syllabus.
To reinforce the point that understanding expectations is crucial for success in the course some
professors require students to take a quiz on the syllabus and get all answers right before they go
on with the course content. Blackboard can be used for that purpose.
Explain your expectations for student behavior (if they are not included in the
syllabus) including expectations for:
punctuality
seeking help when needed
offering feedback when appropriate
preferences for student participation (e.g., raising hands and waiting to be called
on vs. jumping in the discussion)
Communicate your commitment to the students learning experience.
Share some advice for success in your course (e.g., attendance, participation, keeping up with the
readings) and let them know you are confident in their success as long as they put in the required
effort.

4. Help students learn about each other

The classroom is a social environment, so it is helpful to start the social dynamics in a productive
way.
Icebreakers raise the energy levels and get students comfortable so that they will
be ready to focus on the material, especially if you want to foster a collaborative environment
where students will have to work in groups or dialogue with each other.
Make sure that the icebreaker is appropriate for the course.
Icebreakers work even better when they allow students to get to know each other
in the context of the course material.
Provitera McGlynn (2001) provide a variety of social icebreakers some of which can
be tailored to course content.

5. Set the tone for the course


The way you engage students on the first day sends powerful messages about the level of
involvement and interaction you expect from them.
Inexperienced instructors sometimes make the mistake of lecturing at the students for a few
weeks, then try to have a discussion when the first big unit of the course is finished, only to be

surprised at the lack of student participation. This is because students have already been
socialized to just listen in the course.
The following strategies will help you set a productive tone:
Whatever you plan to do during the semester, do it on the first day. For instance, if
you plan to use discussions, have students start talking on the first day. If you plan to use groups
frequently, put students in groups on the first day. If you plan to use extensive writing, have some
kind of short reflective writing activity. If you want the students to be in charge of their own
learning, start with an activity where they are the experts, and cannot rely on you for information.
For instance, in a psychology course on myths about human behavior, the instructor starts with a
brainstorming of myths about student behaviors in dorms.
Consider a Homework 0 voluntary-mandatory office hour. The assignment is
simply to make an appointment with you at a convenient time, find your office and visit you there
before the next class or two. This gets students to your office, breaks the ice with a short one-onone interaction, and makes it much more likely that the students will come back for help when
they need it.
Establish a culture of feedback. Let students know you are interested in how they
experience the course and in any suggestions they have. Let them know you will do formal early
course evaluations, but that they should feel free to give you constructive feedback, even
anonymously. You might not adopt every suggestion they have but you will listen and consider
them. This starts to create a partnership in learning.

6. Collect baseline data on students knowledge and motivation

This objective stems directly from the second overarching goal for the first day of class.
Collect data about baseline knowledge. This can take several forms:
Check that students have taken relevant courses in a sequence.
Give students an ungraded pretest that assesses knowledge and skills necessary
for the course.
Also rely on students self-reports about how confident they feel about particular
knowledge and their ability to apply it.
More information on several forms of pre-assessment.
Get a sense of students motivation in the course. Collect data about:
why students are taking your course
what they expect to get out of it, and
what challenges they anticipate
Decide what to do about different/inadequate prior knowledge. Depending on how
many students are lacking certain knowledge or skills, you might choose to:
tell them they cannot take the course
tell them how they can bridge the gap on their own
decide to devote one or two classes to a review of important foundational material
defer that to a review session ran by your TA

7. Whet students appetites for course content

1.
2.
3.
4.

Some instructors simply hand out the syllabus and dismiss class figuring that the enrollment has
not yet stabilized and it does not make sense to cover material. While there is truth to that
argument, the first day of class is a great chance to stimulate interest about the course and to
activate relevant prior knowledge students have about the material. Here are some suggestions for
activities that orient students to the content:
Directed reading-thinking activity. Lyons et al. (2003, p. 87) suggest the following
exercise:
On your own, list everything you can think of that might be in a book entitled [your
textbook, or the name of the course if you dont have a textbook].
Get with a partner, share your ideas, and then put the ideas you both generated
for step 1 into categories.
Give each category a name.
Get with another pair and together combine your ideas. Then arrange the
categories as a table of contents for this book and write it on the chart paper each group has been
given.

This activity gets students talking to each other, makes them realize they bring relevant knowledge
to bear, and it makes them think about a possible overarching structure for that knowledge. If that
structure is appropriate, you can capitalize on that, otherwise this exercise will expose some of the
misconceptions students possess, giving you a chance to correct them. The activity typically takes
about half an hour.
Collect data from the students about issues related to course content. This
exercise gives you knowledge about the students and is relevant in social science courses that
involve research. A statistics instructor always collects data on the first day and uses the survey
and the students responses to illustrate points about survey sampling.
Have students generate hypothesis about a typical problem in your course. This
exercise can be used to foreshadow different positions and camps in your discipline. When
appropriate, you can push the students to think about how they would test their hypotheses,
getting deeper into methods of inquiry appropriate for the discipline.
Connect course content to current events. Bring in newspaper or magazine clips that
relate to your course. Whenever you can connect your field to current events, or pop culture, or
student interests, you demonstrate relevance, which increases student motivation.
Common sense inventory. Nilson (2003) describes a Common Sense Inventory where
students need to determine whether 15 statements related to the course content are true or false
(e.g., in a social psychology course, Suicide is more likely among women than men, or Over half
of all marriages occur between persons who live within 20 blocks of each other). After paired or
small group discussions, you can reveal the right answer. This works particularly well in courses
where students bring in a lot of misconceptions (e.g., Introductory Physics).

8. Inform students of logistics

Students are also looking for answers to questions such as:


Will I be able to get in this course that I really need?
I have a conflict, is it possible to switch sections?
You might want to provide information about the following categories:
caps on enrollment and waitlists
drop-add dates
rules about course sections
safety procedures
other relevant administrative or logistic procedures
While this may seem like a lot of information to consider for one class, remember that the first day
of class sets the tone for the entire course. Time upfront will pay off in the long run.

References
Lyons, R., McIntosh, M., & Kysilka, M. (2003). Teaching college in an age of accountability. Boston:
Allyn and Bacon.
Provitera McGlynn, A. (2001.) Successful beginnings for college teaching: Engaging students from
the first day. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
Morris, T., Gorham, J., Cohen, S., & Huffman, D. (1996). "Fashion in the classroom: Effects of
attire on student perceptions of instructors in college classes." Communication Education, 45, 135148.
Nilson, L. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.).
Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
Raiscot, J. (1986). Silent sales. Minneapolis, MN: AB Publications.

Asking questions in lectures


Home > Student life > International students > Asking questions in lectures

When can I ask a question?

What sort of questions do students ask during lectures?

What if my English is weak?

When can I ask a question?


The usual time to ask questions is when the lecturer asks for them. That may be at the
beginning, during, or towards the end of the class. In large lectures not many students
interrupt with a question while the lecturer is talking. Listen for the lecturer to invite
questions in words as shown in the table below.

THE LECTURER SAYS

EXPLANATION

This question comes at the start of the


Last week we discussedDoes anyone lecture. If you have read your lecture notes
have any questions about that ?
and still don't understand them, now is the
time to ask.

Is everything clear so far?

This question comes during the lecture. You


can ask about something the lecturer has
just said.

Here the lecturer has explained something


Would anyone like me to go over that
difficult. If you didn't understand, now is
once more?
the time to ask.

Does that help?

This question follows the lecturer's answer


to a question. Students usually say "Yes
thanks" but if they haven't understood this
is the time to ask.

Sometimes you are not sure whether or not to ask a question. Maybe the lecturer says:
Now if thats clear well move on to the next topic
without stopping talking long enough for anyone to put up their hand. Then look at the
'body language'. If lecturers put down their notes and look round the class that probably
means they really do want questions.
Some students always wait until the class is finished to ask their questions. You often
see a little crowd at the front waiting to ask questions that the lecturer was ready to
answer earlier. If there is time for questions in class, then that's the best time to ask
because everybody can hear the answers and because there is very little time at the end
of class. If the room is needed for the next class your questions have to be answered
quickly or in the corridor. Also the lecturer may have to go to teach somewhere else. If
you still have an unanswered question then you are better to contact the lecturer at
another time.

Let's say that the lecturer has invited questions and you have something to ask. What
happens next? How do you know if it's your turn to ask a question? Just watch for the
first couple of weeks and you'll soon see what everyone else is doing. In small classes
the student might look at the lecturer and then the lecturer names that person, but in
bigger classes the most common way of getting a turn is:
1. Put up your hand.
2. Wait for the lecturer to point to you.
3. Call out your question clearly when your turn comes.
Usually lecturers answer the question immediately. Occasionally, though, they might say
something like this, "Good question. We're coming to that in a few minutes". Perhaps the
lecturer will check first how many people want an explanation by asking "How many of
you would like me to explain that?". If nobody else puts up a hand, the lecturer might
ask the questioner to stay for a moment at the end.
What sort of questions do students ask during lectures?

Questions about details

If you don't understand a word or phrase that is repeated during the lecture and seems
to be important, then you can ask:
What does mean ?
Do you mean by X ?
Other questions remind the lecturer that something has not been quite clear. Notice the
word 'please' in the second sentence below, which is often used in English to show
politeness. Students who don't have a word like this in their own language think that
English speakers overuse it, but it's a quick way of making yourself sound polite and
friendly.
Would you mind explaining the point about?
Could you say that last bit again please?

Questions about the textbook

Lecturers like questions that show students have been thinking and reading between
classes. Here are some examples:
On pageof the course book it says How is that related to today's lecture?
Could you explain the point about in our book?

What sort of questions is it better not to ask?

Some students ask a question that has just been answered. This can happen if you have
been waiting for some time to ask your question and have forgotten to listen to what the
lecturer is saying while you wait for your turn. Students also ask questions which have
been answered in other ways, such as asking "When is the next assignment due?" when
the date is written on the board. Some questions are better asked in tutorials such as
asking about the lecturer's feelings or personal opinions:

How do you feel about?


What do you think about?
What if my English is weak?
Some students who speak English as a second language worry that nobody will
understand their questions. Here are three ideas for asking clear questions.

Speak loudly

In a large lecture room you need to speak up. When people feel shy about their English
they sometimes whisper their questions and the lecturer has to ask them to repeat what
they have said. If you want to be heard the first time round, speak loudly.

Make the question short and simple

Clear questions are usually short. Plenty of native speakers of English ask questions that
are unclear because they are too complicated. Look at the difference between these two
questions:
I was wondering about what you just said and I was thinking that maybe that's why.
but on the other hand maybe it's not.
Is that why?
In the first example the student is really thinking aloud rather than asking a question.
This kind of thinking is helpful in a tutorial where there is time for people to think and to
hear one another's views.

Keep to the topic

Try to make your question on today's topic rather than one that will be covered in one of
the next lectures. Again, tutorials are the place for asking more general questions.
Don't worry about your English
When you ask a question, the lecturer is interested in what you are saying rather
than how you are saying it.
For further advice, see Chapter 8 of Study Skills for Speakers of English as a Second
Language, by Marilyn Lewis and Hayo Reinders.