Skip to content
Notes on Teaching and Learning

Setting the Tone: Designing a Productive First Day of Class

August 13, 2021
Alex Oxner

This semester will feature challenging and uncertain circumstances as we transition back to in-person instruction while still considering COVID-19 safety protocols. We want to welcome students back to campus by communicating our expectations with care and transparency. This work should begin on the very first day of class as instructors establish new relationships with their students and set the tone for the semester. The first day of class presents an opportunity to share your expectations for learning, provide an overview of the course, and introduce yourself and your goals as an instructor. The resources below introduce strategies for designing an inclusive and interactive first day.

Active Learning and Community-building: In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent racial justice movements, and more, student emotions and opinions are likely to be strong. It is crucial that instructors work to generate support systems among their students. One method for building community involves active learning, or engaging students in the discovery of a learning process. This form of discovery “occurs when learners take control” and direct classroom dialogue, partly by understanding that their instructors “value both process and product” (Persellin et al. 2014). Instructors can use the first day of class to model this process by inviting students to share their ideas and experiences through multiple strategies:

  • First day icebreaker. Ask your students to participate in an activity that requires them to reveal some of their interests, attitudes, values, or thinking processes. For example, students could describe their life as a movie(or book, manga series, etc.) to reveal their creative interests, collaborate in teams to determine how they’d survive together if stranded on an island (pg. 19), or contribute to a class-wide Google Doc in which each student responds to a prompt or question set. When possible, explicitly link the icebreaker to your course material in order to reinforce the relevance and importance of group discussion and collaborative thinking.
    • For instance, in a course on supernatural fiction, the instructor could ask students to consider their favorite horror story, myth, or folklore and to explain why they think it is interesting or effective. In an engineering course, the instructor may pre-distribute an article that demonstrates the relevance of engineering concepts within our current society. Students could then be invited to discuss how the article relates to the course themes or learning objectives.
    • If your students will be working in groups throughout the semester, you may wish to incorporate a team-based icebreaker in order to the model the kinds of learning activities they will experience. Icebreakers can help to build students’ capacity to engage with one another, rather than directing their ideas and attention toward the instructor. As such, build opportunities for icebreakers throughout the first three weeks of the semester (or more) so that students can form potential connections not only to course materials, but to each other. For discipline-specific examples of effective community-building activities, explore James Lang’s “How to Teach a Good First Day of Class.”
  • Student interaction. By the end of the first day of class, each student should have spoken or interacted with at least one other student enrolled in the course. If possible, facilitate an exchange of contact information by having students share their university e-mail addresses (preferably after they’ve had some time to chat or participate in an icebreaker activity together). Research shows that collaborative learning and social interaction enable deeper thinking on course subjects and generate higher levels of student engagement.
  • Instructor introduction. It is important to greet as many students as possible – they should feel as if they are entering a learning environment in which they are seen and valued as individuals. On the first day, instructors should also introduce themselves by sharing details such as: their educational history or core teaching values; their hopes and expectations for the course; their interest in the subject matter; where they are from geographically; and any other personal details they feel comfortable disclosing.

Student Information Forms: Collecting information about each of your students can help you design a more directed and tailored course that meets your students’ learning needs. Information forms allow students to communicate individually with their instructor about their preferred name, pronouns, academic major, etc. When composing an information form, phrase questions as invitations to share information and avoid requiring students to answer all questions (i.e. avoid forcing students to disclose information). For example, rather than stating, “Please tell me about any health issues that may prevent you from attending class regularly,” you may ask, “Do you have any special circumstances you’d like me to be aware of?” “Which types of technology you will be able to use for this class (smart phone, laptop, headphones, etc.).” If students do not have access to the devices they will need to succeed in your course, direct them to the Office of Student Enrichment. Information surveys can be distributed using Google Forms or other technology platforms that collect individual responses.

Activities for Assessing Student Understanding. Instructors could use the first day of class to gauge students’ prior experiences with the subject matter or discipline. For example, if an instructor wants to learn more about their students’ existing mathematics knowledge, they could design a Classroom Assessment Technique that targets a particular skill or concept. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching recommends using a “Background Knowledge Probe,” or a “short, simple questionnaire given to students at the start of a course, or before the introduction of a new unit, lesson or topic. It is designed to uncover students’ pre-conceptions about the area of study.”

  • Instructors could also design exercises that gauge students’ understanding of course policies or university resources. For example, instructors could pre-distribute their syllabus before the semester begins. On the first day of class, they could facilitate an activity that invites students to share their reactions, propose changes or recommendations, and ask clarifying questions. This could be done individually or in teams.

References & Additional Reading:

A Concise Guide to Improving Student Learning: Six Evidence-Based Principles and How to Apply Them, Diane Persellin, Mary Blythe Daniels, and Michael Reder

Collaborative Learning,” Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation

First Day of Class,” Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

Classroom Assessment Techniques,” Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

How to Teach a Good First Day of Class: Advice Guide,” James Lang

Make the Most of the First Day of Class,” Carnegie Mellon University’s Teaching Excellence Center

Practicing Inclusion: Icebreakers and Team Builders for Diversity,” Stonehill College’s Office of Intercultural Affairs

The First Day—And Beyond,” from Stephanie Chasteen’s How do I help students engage productively in active learning classrooms?

(This post is based upon the Kaneb Center workshop “Setting the tone: Using the first day of class to establish norms for safety, conversation, and community,” facilitated by Alex Oxner and Kristi Rudenga. More resources are available on the Google Slides and Zoom recording.)