First Day of Class Activities

August 15, 2016

By Lynn Bartels

There is a lot of pressure to get your class off to a good start on the first day. You may have heard that students' impressions of you during the first few minutes on the first day are highly correlated with their course evaluations at the end of the semester (Ambady and Rosenthal, 1993). The three main things I try to accomplish on the first day of class include: getting to know the students, distributing the syllabus, and creating expectations.

Getting to Know the Students

A good place to start is trying to learn students’ names which may be difficult in large classes.  I’ve seen faculty in my department videotape students’ introductions so they can watch them and memorize the students’ names.  Mary Clement (2008) recommends arriving early to class and asking students to introduce themselves and pick up a syllabus.  I like this tip because students say their names first and I don’t have to guess how to pronounce them.  As I check their names off the class roster, I make notes about how to correctly say their names.  Did you know that you can see student photos in the Starfish link in Blackboard?  This might be helpful in connecting names with faces.

Like many faculty, I ask students to fill out a questionnaire with information such as their name, major, goals, contact information, something that will help me learn your name, hobbies, interests, what helps you learn, etc.  Learning more about your students might help you get to know them a bit and suggest ways to help them understand the content.  For example, if you learn that you have a lot of nursing majors in your class, you might think about examples that involve nursing.

Icebreakers are great too.  Icebreakers can help students’ learn each others’ names.  I’ve used the Human Scavenger Hunt to successfully get students to identify their previous experiences with the course content.  For example, in my graduate Employee Development class, I’ve given students a sheet listing things like:  Participated in online training, Received performance appraisal feedback, Designed an employee training program, etc.  and asked them to find someone in class who has had that experience and ask students to sign their names by their experiences.  Students have to get up and move around and ask people about their employee development experiences.  It’s a fun way to help students identify their relevant past experiences and start thinking about the course content. Elizabeth Barkley’s book, Student Engagement Techniques, has several other ideas for icebreakers. 

The Syllabus

Kevin Gannon (aka The Tattooed Professor) had an interesting piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education recently called “The Absolute Worst Way to Start the Semester.”  He observes that on the first day of class, many faculty distribute the syllabus, make a few comments, and let students go after 10 or 15 minutes.  He suggests several ideas about better ways to start your class.

To encourage students to read and learn what’s on the syllabus, he suggests announcing that there will be an upcoming quiz over the syllabus. Another suggestion is putting students into groups and asking them to generate questions about the class prior to distributing the syllabus.  Then, distribute the syllabus and ask students to answer as many of their questions as they can from the syllabus.  Class discussion can focus on any unanswered questions (Gannon, 2016).  This can also give you some helpful feedback about your syllabus—what’s clear and what’s not, things that you left out, etc.  A related benefit is that students see that the syllabus is a place to look for answers to their questions.

Creating Expectations

On the first day of class, you need to establish what types of class behaviors are acceptable.  You can give them a list of expected behaviors.  Alternatively, you might consider allowing students to generate the rules for the class.  The first time I tried this, I was surprised at how closely student-generated rules matched the rules I would have set for the class. A benefit of this approach that Kevin Gannon notes is that when you are pressed to remind students of the rules, they are the class’ rules, not just yours.


I hope that all of your classes get off on the right track.  Feel free to share any first day activities you like with us below.


Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431-441.

Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco:  John Wiley & Sons.

Clement, M.  (June 10, 2008).  How to make the first day and the rest of the semester successfulFaculty Focus,

Gannon, K. (August 4, 2016).  The absolute worst way to start the semesterThe Chronicle of Higher Education.  

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