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This semester will feature challenging and uncertain circumstances, so 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. Whether you are teaching in-person, fully online, or in a dual-mode capacity, the resources below will provide an introduction to designing a safe, inclusive, and interactive first day.

Safety Norms: This semester will require an extra layer of trust between members of the campus community as we all do our part to wear masks and practice social distancing. The first day of class is the perfect opportunity to set the tone for a safe semester that is based in a mutual desire to protect ourselves and our students. Remind students that their physical and mental health are priorities. Consider including a COVID-19 statement in your syllabus and spend time discussing your expectations surrounding this policy on the first day. What should students do if they are experiencing symptoms? Will there be any remote access to your course materials if students are sick or quarantined? How will you maintain social distancing and masking within your classroom? What steps might you take if a student forgets their mask or does not want to comply with social distancing? The answers to these questions will vary depending upon your course goals—think through these concerns and be prepared to address them with your students in order to alleviate any anxiety.

Active Learning and Community-building: In the midst of the presidential election, a racial justice movement, and the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, 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.

  • 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. Icebreakers need to remain socially distant, so consider activities in which students can share their experiences verbally or through a written medium (rather than by huddling into groups, passing around a shared object, etc.). For example, students could describe their life as a movie (or book, manga series, etc.) to reveal their creative interests, collaborate 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 to reinforce the relevance and importance of group discussion. (For instance, in a course on supernatural fiction, I ask my students to tell me about their favorite horror story, myth, or folklore and to explain why they think it is effective. In an engineering course, the instructor may ask students to research articles or pop culture examples about the relevancy of engineering within our current society.)
  • 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, major, etc. This semester, you may also consider including questions that prompt students to share potential health or access issues, remote learning needs, and anxieties or special circumstances. 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?” Because remote/dual-mode instruction is a possibility, you may also wish to ask your students about their technology needs: “Please tell me 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.

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.

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

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.)

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