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Preparing for the First and Last Day

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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If your “plan” for the first day of your class starts and ends with “handing out the syllabus,” you need to do more planning. We need to treat the first day as the most important class of the semester, because in many ways it is.


The posting below looks gives some great tips on planning for that all important first day and last day of class. It is from Chapter 2 Preparation, in the book, Geeky Pedagogy:A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers, by  Jessamyn Neuhaus. Copyright © 2019 by West Virginia University Press, Morgantown, West Virgina. First edition published 2019 by West Virginia University Press. Reprinted with permission, all rights reserved.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Reward Collaboration and Openness Over Individual Expertise


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Preparing for the First and Last Day


One of the most common planning deficiencies among faculty, especially experienced teachers, is for the first day of class. If your “plan” for the first day of your class starts and ends with “handing out the syllabus,” you need to do more planning. We need to treat the first day as the most important class of the semester, because in many ways it is. It’s a cliché but also totally true that we only get one chance at a first impression as a person and as a professor.102 Unluckily for GINs, making a good first impression is often not our forte.103 So we need to plan and plan carefully how to best use our single most significant opportunity to establish a positive classroom environment.104 We need to deliberately plan for “orchestrating first impression,” “whetting students’ appetites for course content,” and even “reassuring students about their decision” to take this class, emphasizing that it will be a valuable investment of their time and money and will result in relevant knowledge and skills (if they apply appropriate effort, of course—no need to promise no work and all play).105 It can be as simple as saying flat out: “I love teaching this class because it’s going to be so useful to you in the following ways.”106.

First impressions and first contact with students is an essential component of establishing rapport. It doesn’t have to be unduly effusive or way outside our comfort zone. For instance, one group of researchers found that a “simple welcoming e-mail sent a week prior to the first day of class was sufficient to improve students’ attitudes above a comparison group that did not receive an email.”107We certainly can use a welcoming email to convey our enthusiasm and approachability but then we must actually be approachable. Namely, we have to be ready to answer questions cheerfully via reply emails that we already addressed in our first message but that the incoming student didn’t read or didn’t understand. “How do I get the book?” for example, when my first message very, very clearly explained how to get the book. Then there’s this predictable response from at least one future student: “I’m going to miss the entire first week of class, maybe more. That’s cool, right?” No. No, it’s not, but I’m ready with my respectful, caring, academically rigorous response, remembering that asking me any question at all is the beginning of an essential communication process.108

Whether or not you’ve contacted students via email before class starts, nothing is more important than the first class meeting. The SoTL (Scholarship on Teaching and Learning) on first class meetings is plentiful, practical, and applicable to many different types of teaching contexts.109 Here are some of the basics: 

·      Plan as carefully for the first day as you would for any other professional presentation, bringing all your intellectual prowess to bear on conveying what you need to convey to this group of people.

·      Plan to use the whole class time the first day because it shows students, right off the bat, that you highly value classroom meetings. Students will be used to instructors not doing this and may well be expecting to get out of class early, so be transparent and let them know that you are not going to waste a minute of class time. 

·      Don’t go over the syllabus in detail. They’ll lose interest and tune you out and then you’ll just get snippy when they ask you questions later in the semester about precisely those things you went over in detail on the first day. But some syllabus review can be useful. I sometimes have students get into pairs to go over the syllabus together for a couple minutes and come up with questions for me about it.

·      Consider using one or two icebreakers, depending on the class and on your students. First-year first-semester students may be more receptive to icebreaker activities than experienced students who as a rule are more likely to arrive with a higher level of academic and social skill.110

·      Seriously consider foregoing PowerPoint or any screen-based teaching tool. As discussed later in this chapter, too many GINs become dependent on classroom technology without noticing its negative impact on student engagement. There is also a practical reason for skipping the tech: if for any reason there’s a glitch in your technology on the first day, you will look inept and make an irrevocably poor first impression. 

·      Ask students “What do you want to learn in this class?” Not like a DJ taking requests, but rather as a way to encourage students to more consciously reflect on their individual learning goals (in addition to their usual external motivations such as earning a good grade or fulfilling degree requirements). Bonus: this activity can offer us important insights into student expectations, abilities, and preparation. 

·      To wrap up, ask students to write a short (anonymous) reaction to the first day. Or include a very short preview of the course content in the first meeting—a short writing exercise or watching a film clip—conveying to students that the subject is so interesting that you can’t wait to get started.111

In every way possible, foster student buy-in on the idea that it’s not “my” (the professor’s) class, but rather “our” class, students and professors together.112 For example, you might consider having students create rules for class conduct and/or a positive classroom environment themselves.113

All the things we are striving to do when we put on our professor pants are majorly at play during the first day. The first day is foundational to building rapport, creating a positive classroom environment, and conveying our immediacy, enthusiasm, and care for student learning. It sets the tone and paves the way, but it’s only one day. Effective teaching and learning means planning carefully for all class meetings, including the last few weeks of the term and the very last class meeting. Everyone’s energy starts flagging as the term grinds to an end so it’s incumbent upon us to foresee this eventually and plan for it. For instance, we might devote a class session shortly before finals week to some in-class exercises, discussions, and pep talks designed to give everyone a little boost towards the finish line.114Revisiting the learning outcomes, demonstrating how much students have achieved thus far, helping students plan out how to successfully complete the final steps of the class—anything to inject some necessary energy into the class. 

Lastly, we need to mark the ending of the course as deliberately as we marked the beginning. Possibilities include setting a truly celebratory tone, like giving out awards and encouraging students to recognize their own achievements. We can go more intellectual and talk future resources or recommended readings. The specifics don’t matter as much as the fact that we consciously lead students in drawing our class to an end.115 Whatever is going to help us create a sense of accomplishment and closure is what we should do on the last day of class.


101. Gabriel, Teaching Unprepared Students, 25; Barbara Iannarelli, Mary Ellen Bardsley, and Chandra J. Foote, “Here’s Your Syllabus, See You Next Week: A Review of the First Day Practices of Outstanding Professors,” Journal of Effective Teaching 10, no. 2 (2010): 29-41.

102. First impressions of a professor can significantly impact SET. See Stephanie Buchert et al., “First Impressions and Professor Reputation: Influence on Student Evaluations of Instruction,” Social Psychology of Education 11, no. 4 (2008): 397-408; Dennis E. Clayson, “Initial Impressions and the Student Evaluation of Teaching,” Journal of Education for Business 88 (2013): 26-35.

103. Self-identified nerd Jessica Bodner writes: “I do not know when to stop talking until it is too late and I have overshared or inadvertently displayed elitism. … Genuinely, I’m just overly excited about being able to share what I know with someone. … It is so dear to me that my sharing knowledge is sharing a piece of me.” “A Nerd, a Geek, and Hipster Walk into a Bar,” in Age of the Geek: Depictions of Nerds and Geeks in Popular Media, ed. Kathryn E. Lane (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 25.

104. Jason J. Barr, “Developing a Positive Classroom Climate,” IDEA Paper, October, 2016: On “productive course climate,” see Ambrose et al., How Learning Works, 180-87.

105. Lyons, McIntosh, and Kysilka, Teaching College in an Age of Accountability, 80-93.

106. Gabriel, Teaching Unprepared Students, 52.

107. Wilson, Wilson, and Legg, “Building Rapport in the Classroom and Student Outcomes,” 25-26.

108. For example: “Thank you for your email. I’m very concerned that you will miss the first week of classes because we will be covering a lot of important material. In my experience, students who miss these classes are at a disadvantage for the rest of the semester, which has a negative impact on their grades. Is it possible for you to adjust your schedule to take this class next semester?” 

109. For citations on the first class meeting, see “Chapter 2 Bibliographic Essay,”

110. Iannarelli, Bardsley, and Foote, “Here’s Your Syllabus, See You Next Week,” 40.

111. Svinick, McKeachie, et al., McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 25.

112. Weimer, Learner-Centered Teaching, 149. See also Richmond, Boysen, and Gurung, An Evidence-Based Guide to College and University Teaching, 60-61; Janie Wilson and Kelli Taylor, “Professor Immediacy as Behaviors Associated with Liking Students,” Teaching of Psychology 28, no. 2 (2001): 136.

113. Jeannie D. DiClementi, “Empowering Students: Class-Generated Course Rules,” Teaching of Psychology 32, no. 1 (2005): 18-21; L. Kimberly Epting et al., “Student Perspectives on the Distinction between Ideal and Typical Teachers,” Teaching of Psychology 31, no. 3 (2004): 182.

114. Lyons, McIntosh, and Kysilka, Teaching College in an Age of Accountability, 226-37.

115. Elizabeth Bleicher, “The Last Class: Critical Thinking, Reflection, Course Effectiveness, and Student Engagement,” Honors in Practice 7 (2011): 39-51; Christopher Uhl, “The Last Class,” College Teaching 53, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 165-66; Margaret Walsh, “Five Tips for Wrapping Up a Course,” Faculty Focus, December 2, 2009,