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January 5, 2021

From: Denise K. Magner

Subject: The Quick Tip: How to Start a New Class on a Strong Note

Ways to make the opening session of a new course in a new semester as effective as possible.

On the first day of class, you want to give students a taste of the engaging intellectual journey they will undertake in the coming weeks — and you have great flexibility in how you go about it.

Yet too many college courses are presented to students as boxes of content: “British Literature From 1800 to the Present,” “Inorganic Chemistry,” “Principles of Sociology.” You walk into the room on Day 1, open this box of knowledge and skills for the students, hand it over, and expect them to give it back three months later in the form of a final exam. The first class meeting usually affirms that approach. You tell students all about what you will cover throughout the semester, even though they might have no particular or prior interest in your subject matter.

Instead, consider the first day as your best opportunity to spark students’ curiosity and invite them into a fascinating intellectual journey. Here are a few dos and don'ts:

  • Do not begin the first day of the semester by immediately handing out the syllabus and reading it aloud.
  • Spark their curiosity about the content first, and then demonstrate — with a review of the syllabus — how the course content can help satisfy that curiosity.
  • One of the most effective ways to spark both curiosity and learning: Ask students to try a cognitive task before they are ready. That can take many forms: It might involve attempting to solve a problem before they have the skills they need to be successful, or working to complete a challenging task that they will face again at the end of the course. The idea is to require students to draw upon whatever knowledge they might bring into the room. That way, you actively engage them right away and get a clear view of the current state of their understanding of your subject.

Continue reading: "How to Teach a Good First Day of Class," by James M. Lang

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Denise K. Magner is senior editor of The Chronicle’s advice section, which features articles written by academics for academics on faculty and administrative career issues.