Weekly Teaching Note
Jan 18 2011
Semester Beginnings


First Impressions matter. The first two days of class – even the first 15 minutes of the quarter – will make or break it.   The first class is your opportunity for culture-building. It’s crucial that you get students talking – that you not just hand out a syllabus and send students off to do their homework, already numbed to the prospect of another quarter of the teacher talking at them.
~ Luke Reinsma, Seattle Pacific University
Today, it is recommended that instructors use that [first] class to set the tone (anticipate challenge, but expect my support), actively engage students with the syllabus, and use activities to exemplify what students can expect.  Many instructors now create a mutual dialogue with students about what instructors expect of students and what students expect from instructors. 
~ Hawai'i Pacific University FAQ: Start-up Activities for a New Term
To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.
~  bell hooks, from Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom, London: Routledge (1994)

Try a new strategy to build trust, add warmth and increase participationA great joy of academic life is the fresh start offered by semester, quarter or term organization. Even after 45 years, I still have “butterflies” before a new class or workshop, but I thrive in the opportunity and excitement of trying new things, seeing new responses, making improvements. As you polish plans for the first days of class, consider a fresh idea.
  • Familiarize students with the value of feedback to you. In the essay “Evaluation Anticipation” (January 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education), John Lemuel notes the challenge of sorting useful from simply ego-bruising feedback: (A teaser:   I've started introducing the topic of student evaluations early in the semester, mainly to point out the folly of saving up grievances to unload anonymously after grades are in. I can't deal with problems I don't know about, and finding out about them sometime next semester won't help the students currently afflicted. So I tell students, try talking to me, and see if we can't resolve the problem. If . . . some learn self-advocacy in the process, that's a plus. But I know I won't appeal to every student, so I ask them to write only comments they could sign their names to, and some actually do. Explore the many advantages of asking students for feedback within the semester, and discover some ways to get that feedback.
  • (Jan-Feb 2009). 
  • Try some community-building activities. They help you learn student names and help students to learn each other’s names. A powerful resource for name-learning strategies is an article by Joan Middendorf, Indiana University: Learning Student Names . That article begins: :In his 1993 book, What Matters in College, Alexander Austin reviewed the literature on college teaching, finding two things that made the biggest difference in getting students involved in the under-graduate experience: greater faculty-student interaction and greater student-student interaction. Though learning student names may seem a trivial matter in the entire university enterprise, it is a powerful means to foster both of these interactions."
  • Use the first class meeting to process your syllabus. Have students read (and in groups, derive questions/concerns from) selected parts of your syllabus; then answer the questions. By using groups you preserve anonymity. By compelling students to process parts of the syllabus in class, you assure it will be reviewed even if not read in its entirety.
  • Make a strong start. Introduce rich, engaging content immediately (but make it possible for late-starters to catch up). Offer flavor by modeling strategies you will likely use again.  
  • Make expectations clear in conversation, and ask students what they expect of you. Most faculty include course expectations in a syllabus. Some engage students in discussion of the syllabus, fewer ask students what they expect of faculty. Rarely, a faculty member engages students in co-development of expectations. Mano Singham, at Carnegie-Mellon University, did an experiment in which he ditched his “rule-infested” syllabus and asked his students to build a syllabus with him. Another idea to explore is talking openly with students about (a) what is reasonable for you to expect of them, e.g. in preparation; (b) what they expect of each other in class or online (forestalls potentially uncivil behavior) and (c) what they expect of you. In the conversation, drill deeper from non-specific terms, like “well-prepared,” to what those words mean in behavior.  
  • Stay open to skill development. We often assume that students already know the skills they need to thrive in your classroom. The harsh reality: often they do not know, in operating terms, the behavior meaning of such commonly used words as participation, preparation, or listening. They commonly don’t know the fundamentals of civility in such behaviors as punctuality, use of communication tools, and discourse with teachers and peers. What, for example, are the boundaries of acceptable response when a peer makes a point you find offensive? Such skills are critical keystones of success in today’s collaborative workplaces. You can create simple activities to help forge these understandings; and you can focus on the how-to of specific skills, such as reading a textbook or listening for and understanding another’s point of view. Create a T-chart to show visually what “active listening” sounds and looks like in behavior terms. It takes five minutes to construct with student input, is a great opportunity for humor and easy participation; it can focus on any skill you need to develop. The instructor should be able to develop such a chart; but it has the most powerful effect if students develop it in class, with the instructor prompting and students modeling some of the skills.  



This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.


Michael Dabney
Director, Teaching and Learning Center
Hawaii Pacific University

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