Getting off to a good start

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I'd like to hear of ideas for the first few days of classes, getting off to a good start, ways of learning students' names, activities for setting the tone of the class. I teach undergraduates at a small liberal-arts college.

I do exercises on the first day of my courses that lead to an interactive atmosphere in the class:

I ask students to take out a sheet of paper and write down the three things that professors do that most annoy them. When they are done writing, I tell them to draw a line underneath and write down three things that students do that they think annoy professors. I tell them to not write their names on the sheets and to be honest. I collect the sheets and go over the items. I let them know that I do not do most of the things they find annoying and if I do, I explain why.  I let them know that most of the student behavior that they think will annoy me I don't care about. We discuss the behaviors that do annoy me and why. There is a lot of laughter and joking during the exercise which lightens up the mood of the class.

I put a disagree sign on one side of the room and agree on the other. I read controversial statements on topics covered in the course and ask students to go to the appropriate side, depending on whether they agree or disagree with the statement. I then ask for volunteers from each side to explain why they chose that viewpoint. Then I read the next statement and so on. This leads to a class atmosphere in which students know they can speak up and I want to hear their viewpoint. (Note: it is important to set the room up in advance so there is enough room to walk to the sides of the room.)

Since ours is a small program, we like to make sure students are comfortable with each other right from the start. Before I even get to discussing the syllabus, I have students write down three statements about themselves. One is a lie, and the other two are true. We read our statements out loud (and shuffle the order so no one can easily guess) and see if we can tell the lie from the truth. This exercise really breaks the ice, and we learn interesting things about each other.

After we go over the syllabus and answer questions about assignments, etc., I have the students number off in pairs.  Then we do an interview, tied to the subject of the course I am teaching. If I'm teaching philosophy of education, I have students focus on asking each other questions about current events in schools, in addition to gaining the usual biographical information. If it is a research-methods course, I make the interview part of a write-up that is due the next week. After about 40 minutes, we re-group to share our interviews and present our summaries of the person we talked to. If there is an odd number of students, I usually volunteer to be the second person in a pair.
The benefit of this activity is that everyone knows at least someone in the class they can talk to, from day one. I've seen friendships form from this activity.

Thany you B.F. and Cat. These are very good ideas. An idea I have for learning names requires a polaroid camera. One asks the students to form groups of four or five, and then one takes pictures of the groups and has the students write their names on the print. After the instructor has the names down, the prints can be assembled into a sort of "course collage."  However, if even one student doesn't want his or her picture taken, then the exercise won't work because someone will be left out.

Although some students hate ice-breakers, I have used the lie/truth ice-breaker described by Cat, and it worked very well. Make sure you also participate in the exercise so students learn something about you as well. Students are curious about information about their professor but usually won't ask. I have come up with a list of things that I state about myself. I have a colleague that has students ask questions about her that she then answers, but I am not comfortable doing that. I prefer to present a list of things about myself.


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