Engaging Students on the First Day of Class

When I was an undergraduate, the first day of class was frequently predictable: syllabus, expectations, teacher’s introduction, a brief lesson, and early release. I tended to be more focused on who else was in the class (Do I know and like someone with whom to sit? If I don’t know anyone else, who do I want to befriend?) than on the information being imparted.

Students in a lecture hall at UVM

Now, when I teach, I try to remember my own experiences and create a more engaging first class. I have students complete a syllabus scavenger hunt for homework (to free up in-person time). We play a 20-minute name game where every person’s name gets repeated dozens of times. Students complete a gallery walk where they share their beginner perspective on concepts we’ll delve into further in the semester.

By asking students to engage on the first day, I recognize that I am asking them to take risks and trust strangers. I’m conscious that students may be thinking, “Why isn’t this professor just handing out the syllabus and telling me about this course? Do I have to interact with these classmates and professor I don’t know? What if I mess up or look stupid?” I work to defuse anxiety by acknowledging the discomfort, being vulnerable with them (I participate in the name game and stumble my way through, too), and inviting them to be equal participants in their learning.

I have found value from three articles that illustrate interesting approaches to the first day of class:

And, I’m sure that many of you have effective and clever ways to share your enthusiasm, introduce students to new topics, and begin to build community. Please comment on this post with anecdotes of what has worked well for you! If you’re considering trying something new, what shift might you make to your first class session for greater student engagement?



Buirs, B. A. (2018, August 2). First impressions: Activities for the first day of class [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/first-impressions-activities-for-the-first-day-of-class/?st=FFdaily;s=FF180802;utm_term=FF180802&utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Activities+for+the+First+Day+of+Class&utm_campaign=FF180802

Fink, D. B. (2014, Fall). Provocation in the halls of academe: Bringing Piaget and Vygotsky into the university classroom. Thought & Action, 63-74. Retrieved from https://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/Fink1.pdf

Smith. G. A. (2008, September). First-day questions for the learner-center classroom. The National Teaching & Learning Forum, 17(5), 1-4. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ntlf.10101

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