The First Day

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

December 11, 2012

In the interest of full disclosure: I'm a very young professor. While the following tips on teaching may have the tone of seasoned advice, don't be fooled. These are simply "leading ideas" that have helped me through the terrifying process of becoming this very young professor.

And to be clear, they haven't helped me that much. It was still terrifying. But when you're truly scared—like when you have to face a class of 50 young strangers for the first time—every little trick makes a big difference. Some of these tips for the first day of class will work in courses of all sizes, and some won't. But as the fall semester ends and we prepare to break for winter, you might find these ideas worth trying in the new semester.

First impressions. There is a reason you and your students are so nervous for the first day of class. It's because you and they both know that you can really screw it up, and that doing so can make the rest of the semester really difficult. So many of the following points are aimed at structuring the first hour of interaction with your students.

Come (relatively) empty-handed. Typically, professors show up on the first day of class armed to the teeth with syllabi, handouts, and rosters. I would urge you to go unarmed. Administrative accouterment has the unsurprising effect of alienating and boring most students. Going unarmed says to your students, "I mean you no harm."

Instead, bring a pencil, a piece of chalk, and a piece of blank paper in your pocket. That is all you need for the first class. At the very least, this will set you apart from the paper-pushers down the hall.

Save the logistics. We don't begin an article or book with the most excruciatingly tedious bits of information. So why do we think it is OK to start a semester that way? The first class should be one of your best. I'm not going to tell you how to do it (if I could, I would), but I can suggest a few things that will make the opening session one of your worst. Reading the syllabus to your students, for example, is both pointless and patronizing.

You have an entire term to cultivate/earn the students' respect. No need to pretend that you already have it (you don't) and think that they will hang on your every word (they won't). Just go over the absolute necessities. For example, I'll know what assignment they are to read for next class and write it on the board (hence the piece of chalk).

Relax. You will not be able to do this next exercise if you're worried about your students thinking that you are not smart or not cool. Let me assure you: You are smart, but you are probably not ever going to be cool. Just accept it. Getting to truly know your students (something that is necessary in good teaching) turns on your ability to forget your own petty concerns. So relax.

No roster. Take attendance but don't use a roster. This may be the most important thing that you do all term, regardless of whether you're teaching differential equations or European history. Rosters, those nasty little things that you print off immediately before your first class, may be the biggest impediment to getting to know your students. And getting to know them may be the biggest factor in teaching effectively (also in student retention).

Criticizing a roster may sound counterintuitive to you, but roll call—where you call out the names and look for the hands to go up—runs against the way that we human beings come to remember information. When a teacher takes roll in the typical way, she looks for the hand and not the face. Hence, there is no opportunity to prime your memory and no personal recognition by eye contact. So don't even print out that roster.

Map it out. Instead, take out that piece of paper and pencil. Set the paper down lengthwise. You are about to make a seating chart that maps out your class. Now, take your piece of chalk and write on the board: "Who are you?" and "Why are you here?" Start in the corner of the room and go row by row, encouraging each student to give new answers to these broad existential questions.

As they talk, pay attention and write. Take notes. You've saved yourself some time by not reading the syllabus to them, so use that time wisely now. If you are unwilling to pay attention to their answers, you should not be surprised when they are similarly unwilling to pay attention to you. Don't forget to write small since you will need your entire seating chart on a single sheet of paper. You can always compare your seating chart against the roster in the event that it keeps you up at night.

Pick seven. As you take notes, pick seven students whose names you will remember right now. Your short-term memory can easily handle that number with the sort of priming that you just did, even under the pressure of the first class. Indeed, if you really pay attention, you can probably have more than a dozen names down by the end of the exercise. Make sure that you pick a diverse group of students (gender and ethnicity) and that the students are evenly spaced over the entire class. For folks new to this trick, you might just want to pick the students at the corners, and two in the center of the room

Count on habits. You might think that this seating-chart exercise is a waste of time. You would be wrong. You have just spent 15 minutes repeating and writing down your students' names. Anyone who has studied for a vocabulary test knows that repetition, writing, and using words is the best way to anchor them in memory. So do it.

Additionally, students are humans, and humans are creatures of habit. That means that they will generally sit in the same seats every day. At the very least, they tend to sit in the same quadrants of the classroom. All of which means you will have a schematic of the class that you can hold on to for the rest of the term.

Place this piece of paper face up in front of you at the beginning of every class. See how accurate it remains. Why spend so much time on learning students' names on the first day of class? Because the rest of your semester depends on it. That may seem like an overstatement to you. But the truth of this claim comes home once we consider the virtues of effective "cold calling."

Cold calling. Most students will say that they hate cold calling—a widely misunderstood pedagogical approach that involves calling on students at random over the course of a class session. The way that professors use cold calling typically seems punitive, embarrassing, or both.

That perception, I believe, has to do with two factors. First, professors generally do not use it with enough regularity. You should be aiming for 10 to 12 cold calls for each class session—just enough to make it normal. Second, cold calling without the use of the student's name is off-putting, if not simply rude. It is like pointing to a stranger, saying "hey you," and then demanding that they answer a random question. So, always start a cold call with the person's name. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, always ask a question that the student can reasonably answer.

Anchor your seven. Students will not expect to be called on by name on the first day of class. That is why you are going to do it. Right now. Do not use your roster (that will be easy since you did not print it out), and do not use your seating chart. Just look them in the face and call on your seven by name. Ask them a simple open-ended question about the class. Consider revisiting the question, "Why are you here?"

Calling on your first seven not only creates a chance to connect with the students in question, but also puts everyone on high alert. You don't know all their names yet. But they don't know that.

"Why are you here?" revisited. As you talk through this question with your seven, make it more specific and push them on their answers. Why are you in this class? We all know that there are better and worse answers to that question. By the time you get your M.A. or Ph.D. in a subject you should—I hope—have your own answer that is pretty good. Think about it.

Most students, most of the time, will not devote their lives to the academic field of your choosing. But your reason for being their professor can give them a very real sense of the subject and maybe even inspire them to be better students. So ask them questions, the type that helped you develop your answer to the question, "Why are you here?"

Save your first class from the oblivion of the past. Neither you nor your students should allow this first class session to slip away. First days are notoriously forgettable, so review the seating chart and the notes that you took as soon as you leave your first class (that's one of the many reasons that teaching back-to-back courses is less than optimal).

Glancing over the chart 10 minutes before your second class does not constitute an effective review. By then the memory of the first class is gone and cannot be retrieved by such a feeble attempt. Instead, find 10 quiet minutes after class to replay it. Picture your classroom and imagine the faces that go with the names on your chart. This exercise is an extremely important, and typically overlooked, part of teaching that first session. Bored in a department meeting? Replay the session in your head again. Tied up in traffic? Do it again. Going for a jog? Having lunch by yourself? Showering? Do it again and again.

You will be surprised what you remember, but not as surprised as your students. You remembering their names without the help of name tags and rosters may seem like a party trick to you. It is. But it is a party trick that sets the tone for the rest of the course. It tells your students, whether they like it or not, that they are accountable, that they matter. And that is a trick I am willing to master.

Some students skip the first day of class. They think that nothing important is going to happen. You can't blame them; they're usually right. Good teaching turns on defying student expectations. So go ahead: Prove them wrong.

John Kaag is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.