Welcoming Students on the First Day of Class
Around six thousand students will be starting at FSU on Monday: your class may be their first experience in a college classroom. What kind of impression do you want to make?
These new students (as well as our returning students, and our transfer students) are probably both eager and trepidatious. Classrooms crackle with emotion; positive ones, like excitement and attachment, can enhance learning, while negative feelings, like fear and isolation, can make learning almost impossible (Hammond, 2015; Verschelden, 2017). Since emotions are contagious (Cavanagh, 2016) and since students’ first impressions tend to shape their experience of a whole semester (Ambady and Rosenthal, 1993), it’s valuable to anticipate and influence how students might feel in these first encounters.
Next week is our opportunity to kindle excitement and assuage anxiety, setting high expectations for our students and for the learning that’s in store for them this fall. If ever there was an occasion to reveal your passion for the subject you teach, the first week of class is the time. When students feel your enthusiasm, it piques their interest. Conversely, if they sense that you’re bored or harried, they can’t risk seeming any more engaged than they perceive you to be.
If the first day of class is just an administrative day, dedicated solely to policies, logistics, standards, etc., we sacrifice our best opportunity to shape how students feel about the learning they’ll be doing. They’ll be off to a better start if we can provoke wonderment, stir curiosity, and foster a sense of belonging.
Here are a few practical strategies for cultivating an environment for learning:
Introduce your students to the “big questions” your course will answer. What makes something alive? Why do some people have power when others don’t? How can you tell a story without words?
Get students interacting with each other. Students often feel isolated in their classes. First-year students in particular may experience the university only in huge classrooms, where they never speak. Chamblis and Takacs (2014) insist that a sense of social connectedness is a prerequisite for learning. Asking students to complete some tasks in groups or pairs, right from the start, will habituate them to collaborating and working actively.
Convey confidence in their ability to succeed. Especially if your course has a reputation as intimidating, you may need to alleviate students’ anxieties. You need to communicate high expectations and confidence that students can meet them. Then you can show them how you’ve designed the course to support their learning, with plenty of opportunities for practice and feedback, and you can steer them toward resources that will help them learn.
Humanize yourself. It’s often difficult for us to understand how intimidating we may seem to students. Students learn more when they trust their instructors, however (Arum and Roksa, 2011), so we should work actively to build rapport. You don’t have to get overly personal: just explaining how you fell in love with your field can be pretty endearing. It’s even more important to show that you care about your students and their learning, so welcoming them to your course, encouraging them to visit you during office hours, and inviting their questions goes a long way.
Get to know your students. If your class is small enough, you can start learning names, and NameCoach can help you pronounce them. Even in a larger class, you can learn a lot about who’s in the room. You can poll the class, using clickers or an app like Kahoot, to learn their interests, how far away their families live, how many languages they speak, or what prerequisites they’ve taken. You might want to find out what they already know about your discipline or subject, so you can help them build on this prior knowledge throughout the semester. Your interest in them, and your willingness to see them as individuals rather than “seats,” will actually help them learn.
We hope the first day is enjoyable for you and your students, and we wish you a happy start to a productive semester.
We look forward to working with you. Welcome back!