What are some strategies for the first day of class, to set the stage for student engagement?

posted June 20, 2017 and revised September 8, 2022
by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado Boulder

The first day is important for setting the class tone. It is especially important if you are using active engagement strategies, since students may not be expecting the energy and risk that an active classroom demands. This article focuses on activities that can be done in an active learning classroom in the first week of class, to increase student engagement throughout the semester. For ideas on how to support student engagement throughout the course see the Expert Recommendation “How can I set clear expectations and motivate students so that they engage in active learning?

Interested in more ideas on student engagement? You can see all my articles on helping students engage in active learning, and also download a PDF summary of all recommended engagement strategies.

Why is the first day of class important for creating student engagement?

The first day is particularly important in any class, but particularly in a class that will be centered on active learning.  The first day (or really, the first week) is particularly important for framing the norms, expectations, and rationale for your class approach, tapping into students’ internal motivations and creating a supportive class community. Students may need to be oriented to their role in the classroom, and you can seed productive structures and patterns of interaction. Here are some things students may be wondering as they enter your class.

  1. How does this class work? Students may enter the classroom with a range of expectations based on prior experiences. Making it clear what this course will be like (preferably by jumping into active investigations), and explaining how students will be evaluated, helps to set clear norms for engagement (Nguyen et al. 2021; Tharayil et al. 2018; Gaffney and Whitaker 2015).
  2. How do I get a good grade? When students don’t know how to be successful in your course they may be anxious or resistant. Students often fear that their grades will suffer in an active class because they aren’t sure how to succeed (Ellis 2013).
  3. How does this style of instruction help me? Students often feel that active learning requires more of their time and effort (Ellis 2013), without providing them clear learning advantages (Seidel and Tanner 2013). In one study, when instructors explained the purpose of active learning activities, students placed higher value on those activities, reacted to them more positively, and evaluated the course more favorably (Nguyen et al. 2021; Tharayil et al. 2018).
  4. Will my contributions be valued? In a traditional class, this would be a non-question, so you may need to work especially hard to set the standard for a classroom in which all feel safe and valued in their contribution, and students want to participate – because it’s the norm, and it helps them learn.

Many of these questions are directly addressed by the main article on student engagement, which we recommend you peruse for a broader perspective.

Below are several strategies to consider for the first day. 

Frame the entire course

Make sure that students know how class will be conducted, the goals of the course, and why you are teaching this way. This helps to establish clear expectations. Try some engaging strategies for framing the course.

Use a syllabus quiz

Rather than reading from the syllabus, use an interactive syllabus quiz. In a syllabus quiz, students must respond to questions about the syllabus, perhaps in collaboration with peers. This frees up class time for more interactive class techniques, offers an opportunity to discuss thorny issues, and sets an appropriate tone for the class.

Discuss the course goals

Just as you would use active learning to teach the physics, use an active learning approach to discussing the course structure and purpose. You can also discuss why the course is relevant for student lives and careers – see several examples in the Why Study [Your Course] activity. Such activities serve the dual purpose of discussing the reason and rationale for the course and setting accurate norms for engagement.

Explain to students why you have chosen to teach this way

You might explain the rationale for your use of active learning, and how this pedagogy aligns with research. Here are Sample Slides Explaining Active Learning (PPT), and a video of an instructor discussing his use of clickers with the class, and a Tutorial and Clicker FAQs handout from CU Boulder. However, we have heard instructors report that such a didactic approach can backfire  (e.g., Smith 2008), likely because students feel that they are being told what to do (Reeve 2009), and so it may be best to partner such explanatory approaches with active learning (e.g., see our Clicker Questions – How Do You Learn? (PPT)), or as a reflection after the activity, to avoid students feeling lectured to. Invite discussion about the course approach: “What are your thoughts about the approach described? How does this match your own approaches to learning? What questions do you have? What will you/I need to do for this to work?” Return to these ideas later in the course; student may not necessarily remember this introduction (Tosh et al. 2005). Note too that you will want to have a clear rationale in your mind for using active learning to be able to clearly communicate that rationale to your students!

 

Highlight the shortcomings of traditional lecture

One particular strategy is to use humor to show that learning is typically limited with traditional lecture and hold a reflective discussion about how unsatisfying this traditional course structure can be, and what you and the students can do to avoid such an outcome. For example, you can do a parody of traditional lecture, and show a video of an instructor teaching a dance class via lecture (see the activity Traxoline and Dancealot), leading to a frank and collaborative discussion of the course approach and how it can best support students’ learning.

 

Share success strategies from past students

It can be very useful to discuss the types of student behaviors that typically lead to success (Moore and Jensen 2007). One approach is to show common student responses about strategies for success, such as preparing for class and interacting with other students. See Advice to Future Students for an example. If you use Learning Assistants, those LAs can also provide such advice as undergraduate peers.

Solicit student ideas about the course

Ask students what they expect in the course and respond honestly and respectfully to any concerns. For example, solicit rumors about the course or pre-existing ideas about the content or fears of math or science (see the activity Rumors). This strategy creates positive expectations and establishes your credibility. However, set realistic expectations about how much say students really have in the course structure (Slezak 2014), and trust in your curriculum – especially on the first day.

 

Ask students to reflect on their learning

Ask students about how they can best achieve their personal goals for the course, steering the discussion towards the utility of engaging in higher-level learning activities in class. In the First Day Questions activity, we give examples of how instructors ask students about their study strategies and personal goals – and how best to achieve them.

 

Use active learning

Beginning the semester with active learning strategies sets clear classroom norms for interactivity. Below are several approaches for introductory active learning strategies which set the stage appropriately for an active classroom.

Open the floor for questions

Invite students to ask questions and spend the first day answering any question, even crazy questions, about your subject (see example activity Ask Me Anything). This establishes your credibility and creates rapport with students.

Engage students in accessible course content

There are several ways to jump into course content without requiring prior knowledge. You might ask students to solve an estimation problem in a group (see example activity Fermi Questions), or use an activity on the nature of science (examples: Nature of Science activities, Make a Paper Airplane, or several geoscience examples that could be adapted for other disciplines).

Structure groups for success

See the article “How can I help students work well in small groups” for more suggestions on structuring group work and tasks for engagement.

Create a positive classroom environment

Student engagement is heavily influenced by the culture and norms of the classroom. Think about how to set those norms and begin to generate an environment that feels welcoming to all students, and establish yourself as a trustworthy instructor who will listen to students.  See more ideas on creating a positive classroom climate in our article “How can I create a classroom community, so that students feel encouraged to engage?”

Break the ice

You might ask, “I want everyone in this class to know each other by their first name. I need ideas of how to accomplish this.” Then, use the strategies that students suggest. You might start class with practice clicker questions to generate a sense of community (such as, “How did you arrive to school today?” “How many of you hate math?”) Use this opportunity to demonstrate productive discussion styles. Use early icebreakers for students to become acquainted. For example, ask them to introduce themselves to their neighbor, and then introduce their neighbor to two other students. You can use the “whip around”, where each student is asked to give a 30-second response to a question (such as “what is your favorite memory of learning biology?”). In large classes, you might do a whip-around by row or by group (Tanner 2013). For more icebreaker ideas, see this link. By focusing an icebreaker on emotional content, you create a respectful, personal atmosphere from the outset. If you feel that there are issues with students not feeling that they belong in your course (e.g., a minority of women), consider a Social Belonging Intervention.

Learn student names

This is easier said than done, especially in a large class. However, even if you learn just a few names and show that you are always trying to learn names, it sends a powerful message. On the first day, you can ask students to write their names and a few pieces of information on an index card. Carry these around, perhaps adding a photo of the student, and use them to call on students during class discussions. Another idea is to use Table Tents for students to introduce themselves to classmates and keep their name visible for you and other students. Both of these items (index cards or table tents) can be sorted to create small groups (Tanner 2013).

Call on students at random to share their ideas

If you want students to participate in class discussions, students need to feel a responsibility for doing so. “Random call” is one way to generate this accountability. There are two kinds of random call, individual and group. Some studies find that individual random call generates a sense of responsibility for speaking up and increases students’ comfort with participating in class discussions (Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt 2012), and results in more equitable participation of female students (Eddy, Brownell, and Wenderoth 2014), but also has drawbacks. Individual random call has been found to increase students’ anxiety because of fear of negative evaluation (Cooper, Downing, and Brownell 2018). Another study found that group random call (calling on a small group of students instead of an individual) also had a positive influence on the quality of certain aspects of the groups’ conversations in anticipation of the random calling of their group (Knight, Wise, and Sieke 2016). If you want to use random call to help with accountability, consider calling on small groups of students (instead of individuals) to mitigate student anxiety, and ensure that you have a healthy classroom culture where students are respected and their ideas are valued. Warm students up to the idea of random-call by telling students in the first class that you will be doing this, but that you will give students a chance to reflect and prepare their answers in advance. If you choose to use individual random call, you can use a randomized class list, dice, a deck of cards with student names on them, or phone applications such as Names in a Hat.

Connect to students’ motivation and goals

From the first day, and onward through the course, seek to learn about your students’ interests and clearly connect the course to those interests and goals. This strategy is very powerful for engaging students’ intrinsic motivations, as well as helping them to feel a sense of identity and belonging in the course. See more information about student motivation in our main article on student engagement.

Find out about your students

It is difficult to target activities to student interests if you don’t know what those interests are. What you find interesting may not be as fascinating to your students as you would expect. You can ask students to answer a few questions about themselves on the first homework assignment, use a brief survey, or ask them to write on an index card (name on one side, answers to a few questions on the other side). This index card can then be used for randomly calling students to respond to discussion questions (see below). For examples, see this discussion of first day surveys on SERC. 

Make explicit connections between the course content and students’ live

You can discuss the relevance of the course to students’ lives or careers, describe career opportunities related to your subject, or have students build their own lists of what scientists in your discipline do. See First Day Questions for examples of discussions about students’ personal goals in your course, and Why Study [Your Course] for ideas on how to discuss the relevance of your course.

Strategies for Mid-Semester “pick me ups”

You will likely find that student engagement needs a few boosts throughout the semester, as fatigue sets in, and students are distracted by other obligations. Here are a few ideas for mid-semester interventions to help boost morale.

Solicit student feedback

Use a mid-semester evaluation, such as the 3-question Stop Go Change, after the first 3-4 weeks of the course.This will let you show you are responsive to student ideas, address early issues, and to re-confirm the reasons that you are using active learning.

Have students reflect on their learning

Help students to recognize that active learning is useful for them. Consider asking students to complete a weekly insight. You might ask students to reflect on their first exam results, using an exam wrapper. Discuss the role of active learning, and periodically ask students to complete a self-reflection rubric where they assess their learning skills. See our separate article on “How can I help students become more expert learners” for more metacognitive strategies.

Inject a highly motivating task

Do you have a task or topic that is highly motivating and engaging, or deeply relevant to students’ lives? Pull it out mid-semester as an energy booster. 

Re-invigorate your use of other strategies.

Are you still using productive, supportive feedback? Are students still using their Table Tents with their names? Are you continuing to use language that supports a positive classroom culture? Do students need more support in working productively with their groups? Do you need to remind students of your reasons for using these teaching strategies (see for example Rich Felder's “Sermons for Grumpy Campers.”)Don’t overwhelm yourself but choose a few strategies to try. Look through the main article on student engagement for more ideas.

Summary and Action Items

When students come into your class, they may not be expecting the energy and risk that an active classroom demands. The first day (or really, the first week) is particularly important for framing the norms, expectations, and rationale for your class approach, tapping into students’ internal motivations and creating a supportive class community. Here are some activities that can be done in an active learning classroom in the first week of class, to increase student engagement throughout the semester.

General approaches

Specific strategies

Frame the entire course

Make sure that students know how class will be conducted, the goals of the course, and why you are teaching this way. This helps to establish clear expectations.

  • Discuss the course approach or goals.
  • Explain to students why you have chosen to teach this way.
  • Highlight the shortcomings of traditional lecture.
  • Share success strategies from past students.
  • Solicit student ideas about the course.
  • Ask students to reflect on their learning.
Use active learning

Beginning the semester with active learning strategies sets clear classroom norms for interactivity.

  • Open the floor for questions.
  • Engage students in accessible course content.
  • Structure groups for success.
Create a positive classroom environment

Student engagement is heavily influenced by the culture and norms of the classroom. Think about how to set those norms, and begin to generate an environment that feels welcoming to all students, and establish yourself as a trustworthy instructor who will listen to students.

  • Break the ice.
  • Learn student names.
  • Call on students at random to share their ideas.
Connect to students’ motivation and goals

Seek to learn about your students’ interests and clearly connect the course to those interests and goals. This strategy is very powerful for engaging students’ intrinsic motivations, as well as helping them to feel a sense of identity and belonging in the course.

  • Find out about your students.
  • Make explicit connections between the course content and students’ lives.

This article is a product of the Framing the Interactive Engagement Classroom project, led by Stephanie Chasteen (University of Colorado Boulder), with collaboration from Jon Gaffney (Eastern Kentucky University) and Andrew Boudreaux (Western Washington University).  Many thanks to University of Colorado reviewers Rebecca Ciancanelli and Jenny Knight, plus undergraduate assistant Maya Fohrman.  This work was generously supported by the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative and the University of Colorado Center for STEM Learning, via a Chancellor’s Award. Please contact Stephanie Chasteen with any comments or questions.

 

Further reading on this topic

Reading List

  1. See the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative tips for the first day of class: http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/files/First_Day_of_Class.pdf
  2. Smith, G.A., First-day questions for the learner-centered classroom, Nat. Teach. Learn. Forum. 17(5), 1–4 (Sept. 2008).
  3. Gaffney J. and Whitaker, J. T., Making the most of your first day of class, The Physics Teacher. 53, 137-139 (2015).
  4. Gavrin, A., Respecting our students, The Physics Teacher. 53(7), 412 (Oct 2015).
  5. Lang, J.M., Small changes in teaching: The first 5 minutes of class, The Chronicle of Higher Education. (January 11, 2016).
  6. Ormond, C., The first day of class, Ormond, SERC, Carleton College.

Image courtesy of PhET Interactive Simulations, University of Colorado Boulder

References