Students on first day of classes.


I’m not going to school just for the academics – I want to share ideas, to be around people who are passionate about learning. — Emma Watson

As your students walk into your class on that first day, either starry-eyed or blurry-eyed, they will immediately begin to try to decide what you and your course are all about. As always in teaching, it’s important to act with intention. The way you design that first day sends a strong message about the students’ role in their learning. It is also a great chance to spark interest and enthusiasm about the ideas and projects ahead.

Physical space

If you happen to have a room in which the chairs and desks are not bolted to the floor, decide upon an appropriate layout – that is, appropriate to how you wish your students to interact with you and with each other. If your course is primarily instructor-focused and lectured-based, uniform rows will do nicely. However, if you expect student participation during lectures, chairs may be set up in a large circle or a horseshoe arrangement. Conversely, if at some point you expect students to interact with each other and work together on problems and projects, tables and chairs arranged for groups of 5-10 would be most suitable. How the room is set up will provide for students a first impression of your course and how they will be expected to participate.

If you do happen to be in a room with chairs and desks permanently affixed to the floor, it is still possible to encourage interaction. See the Dynamic lectures page for some ideas.

Setting a professional tone

It’s always a good idea to arrive early, get set up, and talk with your students as they arrive. It’s especially important on the first day. Throughout the first day and beyond, provide students with opportunities to ask questions and voice their ideas and concerns. After class, stay behind to answer questions and talk with your students. Use the first day to show that you are committed to helping your students learn.

One thing that you can be certain of is that students will judge you on the first day. They want to figure you out. Are you approachable? Are you likely to be a strict grader on tests and exams or firm about deadlines for assignments? Do you know your subject matter? Are you confident as an instructor or orator? One way in which you can establish your own credibility is by telling the story of your own experience as a researcher or instructor. Telling your story can bring the act of research and teaching to life and may even be a source of inspiration for some of your students.

Setting a professional tone also involves distributing a comprehensive, learning-centered syllabus during the first class. This promotes a positive attitude in students, as it shows you care about the course and have worked to plan it carefully. To promote a democratic tone, get student buy-in through involving them in creating guidelines and rules about respectful interaction and professional behaviour. Make sure to cover tardiness and distractions such as inappropriate use of phones.

An important element of setting a professional tone is the modelling of enthusiasm and excitement. Enthusiasm comes from your genuine, and possibly infectious, interest in the ideas and problems that you are sharing with your students. Keeping that fire alive and working to ignite the spark in your students is a crucial part of effective teaching. Chomsky said it best: “As any good teacher knows, the methods of instruction and range of material covered are matters of small importance compared with the success in arousing the natural curiosities of students and stimulating their interest in exploring on their own” (1992, p. 13). It’s not necessary to jump around like a crazed buffoon to demonstrate your enthusiasm or ‘arouse the natural curiosities of students’ – find a way to express your excitement for the subject matter that’s natural for you.

Get to know your students

Learn your students’ names by playing name games on the first day (if you have a small class) or by taking ‘mug shots’ or selfies with the student’s name clearly displayed in the shot. If you are asking the students to take photos of themselves, make sure you receive permission and give students other options – such as a tented nameplate in class.

Another way to get to know your students is by initiating a mandatory office hour. During the first few weeks of the term, require students to make an appointment with you. On the first day, send around a schedule indicating time that you have made yourself available. Try to free up as much time as possible, beyond your regular office hours, during those first few weeks. Divide your schedule into short, five-minute blocks of time for your students to visit you. This informal sit-down is a chance for your students to find your office and ‘break the ice.’ It’s also a chance for you to demonstrate that you are an approachable person. The whole experience will ideally ensure that students will take advantage of your office hours and seek help when they need it.

Technology tips
To create a sense of community and enhance student interaction in a large class, consider utilizing small groups in the online discussion forum for students to post their introductions and respond to others.


Depending on the size of the class, you might invite students to introduce themselves and share some of their background, or lead them in an informal group discussion. Help students get to know each other. Create a constructive, social environment by allowing students an opportunity to talk among themselves. Icebreaker activities can help students feel more comfortable working together. Here are a few suggestions from Linda Nielson and Maryellen Weimer:

  • Simple Self-Introductions: Have students take turns introducing themselves to the class by giving their name, major, their reason for taking the course (aside from fulfilling some requirement), and perhaps something about themselves that they are proud of having done or become. This activity may work best in a smaller class since the prospect of speaking in front of a large group of strangers can mildly terrify some students. If you have your students make oral presentations in front of the class during the term, this first-day exercise can give help them feel more comfortable with the idea of speaking in front of their peers.
  • Human Bingo: Make a page-size four-by-four table with a different requirement in each box (check the Interweb for loads of examples), and give one copy of the table to each student. Be sure your class as a whole can meet all the requirements. No one may use a given student for more than one requirement. When a student has all the boxes signed by qualified fellow students, she shouts out, “Bingo!” and gets a prize. Bring a few prizes in case of ties.
  • Reciprocal Interview: In this two-way interview, which takes about 50 minutes in small classes, you and your students exchange course-related information. You distribute a handout that asks questions like these: What do you hope to gain from this course? How can I help you reach these goals? What concerns do you have about this course? What resources and background in the subject matter do you bring to it? What student conduct rules should we set up to foster the course’s success? What aspects of a class or an instructor impede your learning? Students write their answers to these questions as individuals for the next 5 minutes and discuss them in groups for the next 10 minutes. Then each group spokesperson reports these responses aloud to the class (15 or so minutes, depending on the class size). For the second part of the exercise, your handout should also suggest questions to pose to you about your course goals, your expectations of students, and your views on grading. (Students can ask other questions as well). First as individuals, then back in their groups, students select and develop questions for you, which requires about 10 minutes. Then each group spokesperson reads these questions aloud, which you answer over the next 10 minutes.

Technology tips
To maximize in-class time for the discussion aspect of a reciprocal interview, assign students to complete the handout in advance of class using the discussion and survey features in UM Learn.

Source: Nilson, L. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Syllabus Speed Dating: Two rows of chairs face each other (multiple rows of two can be used in larger classes). Students sit across from each other, each with a copy of the syllabus that they’ve briefly reviewed. Ask two questions: one about something in the syllabus and one of a more personal nature. The pair has a short period of time to answer both questions. Check to make sure the syllabus question has been answered correctly. Then students in one of the rows move down one seat and ask the new pair two different questions. Not only does this activity get students acquainted with each other, it’s a great way to get them reading the syllabus and finding out for themselves what they need to know about the course.

Source: First day of class: Activities that create a climate for learning. (Faculty Focus).

Teaching strategies and activities – for the first day and beyond

Think, Pair, Share: Pose a question, problem, or scenario to your students and ask them to think about it individually for a few minutes. Next, have your students form pairs in which they discuss their respective ideas. Invite students to share the results of their paired thinking with the entire class.

Case Studies: Students consider problems situated in the complexity of their fields. Good case studies, like good stories, are realistic, reflect the complexity of the situation, and involve a conflict or dilemma. For more on case studies see What are case studies? [google: eberly center case what are good case studies]

Opinion Line-Up: The instructor introduces an issue or scenario such as the following: while buying groceries, a dermatologist notices that an elderly man standing next to her seems to have a cancerous mole on the back of his neck; should she inform him of this concern? The instructor then asks the students to line up according to where they stand on the issue: one end of the classroom represents “Yes, she should absolutely tell him,” the opposite end represents “No, she absolutely should not tell him,” and the space in between represents positions such as “I’m not sure,” “It depends,” “probably yes, “probably no,” and so on. Once the students have finished lining up, the instructor asks them to discuss their opinion with those around them. Or, alternatively, the instructor asks each student to pair up with a student who is “far away” to discuss their diverging opinions with each other.

Fishbowl: The instructor asks for four or five volunteers from the class to step forward to perform a given task. The task might be a physical procedure such as preparing a specimen slide for a microscope, or an analytic activity such as debating the pros and cons of an issue. As the group of volunteers engage in the task (in a virtual “fishbowl”), the other students observe, taking notes or assessing their performance. The instructor can ask the observing students to focus on specific aspects – for example, if the students in the fishbowl are engaging in a debate, the instructor might ask the other students to jot down the assumptions that those students are tacitly making. Or, if the task is a physical procedure, the instructor might ask the observing students to identify ways that the task could be performed more effectively, or simply differently. After the students in the fishbowl have completed their task, the other students report on what they observed or what they learned from watching.

One-Minute Reflections: Give your students one minute to jot down a response to a question such as “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?”, “What is still unclear?”, or “Summarize the unit we just completed in one sentence.”

Technology tips
To maximize in-class time for the discussion aspect of a reciprocal interview, assign students to complete the handout in advance of class using the discussion and survey features in UM Learn.

Structured Debates: The instructor selects four students to represent the pro side of an issue and four for the con side. The remaining students serve as the audience or “judges” of the debate. The two teams take turns putting forth arguments, making rebuttals, and summarizing, as in any standard debate format. After the debate is over, the students who are acting as judges report on their assessment of the debate.

Mitten Discussion: The instructor tells the students they are about to begin a discussion of a specific issue or problem, but they are allowed to contribute only if they are holding the “discussion mitten” (or a similar item such as a stuffed toy). The instructor begins the discussion by tossing the mitten to one of the students. After contributing to the discussion, that student throws the mitten to another student, who also contributes. That student then throws the mitten to yet another student, and the discussion continues in this way until the issue or problem has been sufficiently explored.

Source: Active Learning Activities from the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence.

References and resources

Angelo, T. A., and Cross, K. P. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Center for Faculty Excellence. (2009). The First Day of Class… Your Chance to Make a Good First Impression. For Your Consideration, 1.

Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. Breaking the Ice with your Students. University of Michigan.

Center for Teaching. First Day of Class. Vanderbilt University.

Chomsky, N. (1992). On Nature, Use, and Acquisition of Language. In M. Putz (Ed.), Thirty Years of Linguistic Evolution: Studies in Honour of René Dirven on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday (3-29). Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Erickson, B. L., and Strommer, D. W. Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. Make the Most of the First Day of Class. Carnegie Mellon University.

Fink, L.D. (1999). The First Day of Class: What Can/Should We Do? Teaching Tips, University of Hawaii.

Indiana University Teaching Handbook. Preparing to Teach: First Class Survival Tips. Indiana University at Bloomington.

Learning & Teaching Office. (2011). Teaching Large Classes Workshop/Discussion Panel. Ryerson University.

McKeachie, Wilbert J. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002: 21-28.

Office of Educational Development. (2009). Ten Ways to Make Your Teaching More Effective. University of California at Berkeley.

Schwartz, M. (n.d.). The First Day of Class. The Learning & Teaching Office of Ryerson University.

The Teaching Center. (2014). Tips for Teaching on the First Day of Class. Washington University in St. Louis.

Weimer, M. (2013). Five Things to Do on the First Day of Class. Faculty Focus.

Weisz, E. “Energizing the Classroom.” College Teaching, 1990, 38(2), 74-76.

Wolcowitz, J. “The First Day of Class.” In M. M. Gullette (ed.), The Art and Craft of Teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Magna Campus Video and Supplemental Materials Resource

How Can Student Learning Begin Before the First Day of Class?


  1. Log on to UM Learn
  2. Under My Courses, select All Roles under Role, and All under Term.
  3. Scroll down to Development Courses and select The Centre – Magna Campus Resources
  4. Select Magna Campus > Open Menu > Seminar Libraries > 20 Minute Mentors
  5. In the search box, type in “How Can Student Learning Begin Before the First Day of Class?”

Top five books for post-secondary teachers

Brookfield, S. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lang, J. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Nilson, L. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life (10th anniversary ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.