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 actor

Most students come to the first day of class with feelings of anticipation and/or anxiety  and a lot of questions (which they may not always articulate). Students begin forming impressions of the instructor within the first five minutes of class (Merritt, 2008), and these impressions can be lasting and impactful. Therefore, it's important that whatever impression you make on the first day is intentional.

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 often suffice. However, if you expect student participation during lectures, chairs should 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 give students an idea of 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. This is especially important on the first day. During 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 both interested in your students and committed to helping them 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? How well do you know your subject matter? Are you confident as an instructor? Are you an engaging speaker? 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, which shows students that you care about the course and have worked to plan it carefully. To promote a democratic tone and get student buy-in, involve students in creating course expectations: expectations you will have of students and expectations they will have of you, the instructor. The course expectations can address topics such as respectful interaction and professional behaviour. Make explicit in your syllabus that you want students to feel welcome and safe sharing their ideas and experiences – let students know that you value their voices.

Creating a positive classroom environment

An important element of creating a warm and welcoming environment is the modelling of enthusiasm and excitement. Enthusiasm comes from your genuine  and possibly infectious  interest in the ideas and problems that you are exploring with your students. Working to ignite that spark in your students and keep that fire alive is a crucial part of effective teaching. Approach topics and assignments as a chance to explore the subject that excites you. Teachers aren't performers, but teaching takes place in front of an audience. Showing your passion for your subject is an effective way to grab and hold on to students' attention. Chomsky (1992) 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" (p. 13).

Getting 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 selfies with the student’s name clearly displayed in the photo. If you are asking the students to take photos of themselves, make sure you receive their permission and give students other options. An easy and popular option is to ask students to make ad bring to each class such a tented nameplate for their desk. In addition to their name (or what they prefer to be called), students can include their pronouns on the tent card.

Another way to get to know your students is by initiating a mandatory office hour or 'student 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 the times 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.

  • icon lightbulb

    Teaching tip

    Referring to your office hours as 'student hours' puts the focus on students and their learning. Whether or not you refer to this time set aside for students to come see you as office hours or student hours, take a few minutes on the first day of class to explain what these hours are for.

    Students sometimes think that office hours refer to the time their instructor is working in their office and doesn't want to be disturbed, so let your students know that this is time in your schedule that you have set aside for them to come and see you with any questions or concerns they might have.

  • icon support

    Technology tip

    Consider giving students the option of meeting with you during student hours in person in your office or virtually via Webex, Zoom or Teams.


An icebreaker is a short activity, at the start of a course (and at the start of a new module or topic) that gives students the opportunities to engage one another, the instructor and the course content. The benefits of icebreakers are many and extend beyond the few minutes during which an icebreaker takes place. Icebreakers are a great way for students to get to know one other – and to get to know you, their instructor, and to start to explore the course content. According to Nilson (2016), social icebreakers give students opportunities to get to know one another and co-build a class community. Subject matter Icebreakers help students connect with course content; allow you to gauge students' existing knowledge of, interest in and attitudes toward course content; and can whet students' appetite for course content.

  • icon lightbulb

    Teaching tip

    Icebreakers can help students feel more comfortable working together; however, students will feel more comfortable if they have some control over what they disclose as part of an icebreaker activity.

For examples of icebreakers/active learning activities for the first day of class (and beyond), please visit:

  • icon lightbulb

    Teaching tip

    Although icebreakers are commonly used on the first day of class, they can be used at any time throughout the course, particularly to help students engage with new course content. Be sure not to overuse icebreakers, though. As with all aspects of teaching, the use of icebreakers should be intentional.

  • icon support

    Technology tip

    To maximize in-class time for the discussion aspect of an icebreaker that requires some prep work, assign students to complete a reading or handout in advance of class using the discussion and survey features in UM Learn.

Additional resources

Center for Teaching (n.d.). First day of class. Vanderbilt University.

Eberly Centre for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.). Make the most of the first day of class. Carnegie Mellon University.

Faculty Devlopment Committee. (n.d.). The first day. Honolulu Community College.

Schwartz, M. (2021). Best practices in the first day of class. Centre for Excellence in Learning & Teaching, Toronto Metropolitan University. 

Svinicki, M., & McKeachie, W.J. (2014). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th Ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. 


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 (pp. 3-29). John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Merritt, D. J. (2008). Bias, the brain, and student evaluations of teaching. St. John’s Law Review, 82, 235-87. 

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

Contact us

The Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning
65 Dafoe Road, Winnipeg, MB
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2 Canada

To request a consultation with an educational developer, email