Handling the opening moments of a course

Classes started for us this week. It’s gotten me thinking about what profs do on the first day of class and their overall concepts for how to approach the first few days of a class, where students form those crucial first impressions about the course and the instructor. Here’s my overall approach:

  • I prefer a quick, energetic launch directly into the course material. I spend maybe the first 7-10 minutes on course structure. Then we start right into the course content through a lecture/activity combination.
  • To help with the first point, I will often create screencasts for some of the course management stuff (like this screencast for how to navigate Moodle) and email students the links to these, often before the first class meets.
  • I do not go in for icebreakers, get-to-know-you activities, exercises intended to discover students Myers-Briggs types or learning styles, or any of that. Not that I think such things are not useful. But I’d rather the students get to work and get to know themselves and each other in the context of working, rather than get to know each other instead of working.
  • I give a full-bodied assignment on the first day of class to do for the second day of class — something that would really take about two hours outside of class to do, if the class meeting took one hour. Here’s the assignment list, for example, for my calculus class. That’s about 2 hours worth of work, although if you look closely, a lot of it is watching instructional screencasts and playing around with course software, so it’s less work than it looks like. But still, students have to do stuff.

Students form their conceptions of the class — and keep that conception through the whole semester — in these first few moments of the course. I want to give students the impression that the class is something they need to take seriously, and there’s a workload that has to be managed carefully, and they cannot expect to succeed if they hold the course at arms’ length. I think jumping in, rather than easing in, to the coursework is a good way to accomplish this. A potential downside of my approach is that students often get shellshocked by the initial workload and give up before they even get started. I always get a few students coming by with drop forms, saying “I just don’t think I’m going to have the time for this course.”

How do you approach the first day, and next few days, of a course? Or, if you are not a teacher, what was the best or worst approach you’ve seen to the initial few days of a course?


Filed under Education, Life in academia, Profhacks, Teaching

13 responses to “Handling the opening moments of a course

  1. In higher level courses, I feel somewhat the same way, although I do a name circle to help me learn names. (I have a terrible memory, and hearing all the names repeated a few times helps me to learn them, which I feel is a vital connection to my students.) I try, in those courses, to get the introductory stuff done by halfway through the 50-minute hour, so there’s substantial time for material.

    But in lower level classes, I feel like there’s much more need to set the stage – to convince then that they can learn mathematics, and that math is not what they might think it is. I don’t usually get to any real material the first day. But I do still assign homework.

    I haven’t yet made an assignment before the class started, but I’d like to do that.

  2. derekbruff

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about setting the tone and expectations the first day of class, even the first few minutes of the first day of class.

    I’ve been teaching “applied” service courses lately (statistics, linear algebra), and I’m aware I have very few math majors or potential math majors in the audience. I know that I need to sell my students on the applications we’ll cover to get them interested in the course.

    In order to set the right tone right away and to “hook” students in the course material, I typically start the first day of class by sharing four or five application problems that the students will be able to solve by the end of the semester. I speak only briefly about these problems, then have the students pair up and see if they can make some progress through the problems. I don’t expect them to solve the problems–if they could do that, they wouldn’t need the course. But I want them to get a sense of where we’re going *and* the fact that they don’t know enough right then to solve these interesting problems. Plus, it gets them doing math in small groups right away, which sets the right tone for the rest of the course.

    (I’ll often craft a few clicker questions about aspects of these intro problems, too, so the students get a sense of how I used clickers right away, too.)

    The four or five intro problems all show up later in the semester when the students are ready to learn to solve them, either as in-class examples, problem sets questions, or test questions. So we close the loop with this activity by the end of the semester.

  3. Eric O.

    I think my approach is pretty similar to yours.

    One thing I did this semester is show them a histogram of the previous semester’s grades. Informing them that 50% of students drop/fail my class seems to have set the tone rather well this semester…

  4. What does it say about one’s class and/or teaching if it seems necessary to put the “fear of Gauss” into students (particularly regarding grades, of all the meaningless things!) before even engaging them in the mathematics? Gee, I tend to hope there’s something going on in my classrooms that would make it worth being there. I think that at the college level, I’m not too concerned about whether students will decide to do the work necessary to succeed, once they see what the course entails. Either they will choose to do so, or they will choose less. As adults, that’s a choice they really do have to make, all the time.

    Seems like what an instructor in a college mathematics course should be doing is motivating the material in a way that motivates the students (or gives them the option to bail based on an informed decision). While I dream of K-12 math teachers who can do this, it seems fairly trivial to expect a college mathematics teacher to have a broader and deeper understanding of how the mathematics in their courses connects to other mathematics and, where possible, some applications. There might even be some conversation towards some aesthetic aspects of what the course content will treat.

    I do like the idea of getting students engaged in doing mathematics right away. Perhaps it’s even possible to get at motivating the mathematics through having students investigate something that will dovetail with a little bit of lecture AFTERWARDS. Imagine not going through the syllabus, the grading policy, and similar things right at the beginning. Imagine not doing business as usual.

  5. Derek, I like your idea – showing them some serious problems that are worth solving, and can’t yet be solved. I think I’ll try to find a good set of those for calc II (which I’m teaching in the fall).

  6. derekbruff

    I’m glad you like my idea, Sue! I hope it goes well for you. I’ve been very happy with it since I started using it 6-7 years ago. I hate spending time reading my syllabus to students, so this gives me something useful to do during the first part of the first class period.

    Michael, I can’t speak for Robert, but it seems to me that his use of challenging assignments on the first day was more about letting his students make an informed decision about the course than scaring them off. Giving students a “typical” assignment on the first day gives them very early in the process an idea of what the course will be like for them. I think that’s entirely reasonable. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting something you or Robert said, however.

    • I interpreted Mike’s comment to be directed towards Eric, not me. But at any rate, I’m certainly not trying to scare anybody. My point was that I don’t feel like I need to give a light assignment, or none at all, on the first day just because it’s the first day. If I didn’t really have anything for the students to do before the second day, I also wouldn’t feel the need to jsut invent 2 hours’ worth of work for them, either. Give them what they need to get done, regardless of what day of the semester it is.

      The thing is, the workload for my class doesn’t really ever get much greater on a per-day basis than that first assignment. So it’s WYSIWYG from the very beginning.

  7. Ξ

    My goal is to get everyone to laugh at least once.

    Actually, I didn’t realize that was my goal until just now, but I think it’s pretty accurate. For about half my courses I’ve never seen the students before (either it’s calculus or, more likely, a non-majors course) and I want them to be comfortable with me. A lot of my students are nervous, and I want them to be able to ask me questions.

    I do go over the syllabus, with lots of apologies because a syllabus is so BORING (that’s usually the laugh), and I focus less on the overall structure (there are exams, blah blah blah) and more on what is often subtle: what the students can call me, what things teachers might or might not care about (e.g. I don’t care if they eat breakfast in class, but I do care if their work has a paper clip and not a staple), and I try to point out the biggies, like that I don’t accept late work unless there’s a big thing, like you’re actually IN the hospital. These things are not very interesting, but I do my best to phrase it in terms of paying attention to the quirks of each teacher, since we all have different things we’ll let slide and things that we won’t. In theory I’d like to skip all this and have them read it for homework, but in reality going over it on the first or second day of class is the best way to make sure they read and understand those details.

    I do try to do some content, but in lower level classes I try to make it fun (with math majors, I often already know them so we just dive right in after I’ve explained what that particular course is really one of the coolest topics in math that there is). I’ve certainly given 2-hour assignments, but I’ve also given no homework — really, it depends on whether I think diving in so completely will inspire them to work harder to inspire them to write me off.

    The idea of presenting problems they can’t solve is intriguing. I misread part of that conversation and thought it was presenting open problems, and actually I kind of like that idea — it doesn’t show them what they’ll be able to do (at least, not that semester) but it would at least let them know that there is math out there that no one can yet do, which I think they don’t really believe. Hmmm.

  8. Robert, you’re correct: I was particularly addressing the comment about using previous grade distributions to (essentially) scare students and/or make them thing that the instructor is ‘serious’ and the course to be approached with trepidation. Seems like math courses kind of get that “free” just for being math courses. If the course is remedial or very low level, most students there are not all that thrilled to be in the class to begin with.

    If it’s calculus, well, some folks may need to be shaken up about their work ethic perhaps (those who had AP calculus but didn’t score high on the exam, for instance, often have an attitude about calculus that can be counter-productive), but I’d still be unlikely to use the grade distributions of the past as an opening move.

    If the course is for majors, again, my suggestion is to motivate (truly) the mathematics, but I would love to see that done more often in all mathematics classes, to whatever extent possible. Connections, applications, history, intriguing problems that may catch the curiosity of students all seem potentially good things to try early and throughout.

    As for open problems, if their statement is easy to understand for the uninitiated and they are likely to be interest to even non-majors, maybe that’s a good thing to mention. But solved problems they don’t yet know how to do is hardly controversial or radical: I think of Fred Roberts’ text on graph theory as one example of a book that does just that. And that is not a lone case.

  9. Ξ

    I actually think it can be a really good thing to share a grade distribution to the class, especially early on. I’ll admit that half the students dropping or failing would unnerve me, but I suspect it depends on context: I think for students who think a course will be an easy A, or that coming regularly means you’re entitled to a C, it’s good to know what the reality is. Likewise, if a class is likely to intimidate, it’s good to know that it’s possible to get an A and that most people do pass the class, if that’s the case.

    (Obviously it can be used in an intimidating fashion, but I don’t think it automatically means that — it can serve the same purpose as diving right into the class and showing students what will be necessary to do well.)

  10. Eric O.

    Some additional context to my earlier comment:

    The class in question is a General Education course that has had a historical reputation of being easy to get through. This past year we ramped up the content of the course in order to bring it in line with what area colleges and universities do in comparable courses. One of the points I make in showing the grade distribution is that those who did well were those who invested themselves in the homework. Those who failed/withdrew were those who thought they could just show up to class and get through the course. More than anything, I use the distribution to demonstrate that there are real consequences for not doing the work outside of class.

    While the distribution is a shocker for some, my class demeanor and eagerness to help students outside of class seems to quickly convince them that success is in their own hands.

    Of all bizarre things, even though I have the highest drop/fail rate of all the instructors who teach this course, I have a lot of students who seek me out and try to enroll in my sections.

    On the whole, I think students are looking for professors who will be compassionate, yet brutally honest, because many of these students have been fed the “self-esteem is everything” garbage their entire lives.

  11. Eric, I’m so glad you wrote back and clarified. You sound like a different person! I read exactly the wrong sort of things into your first comment.

    Although I don’t think I’d ever use the fail rate as my wake-up call, I ‘get it’ now.

  12. derekbruff

    The conversation about sharing grade distributions in order to clarify expectations has been an interesting one. I do something else along these lines, not on the first day of class, but in the second week of class. I teach using clickers, and I ask my students via a clicker question how many hours it took them to finish the first problem set. The clickers allow the students to answer anonymously, so I think they’re fairly honest when they answer. I show the distribution of answers to the class so that the students can see where they stand in relation to their peers.

    If a student only spent a couple of hours on the problem set, did poorly, and finds out most of his peers spent 4-5 hours on the problem set, that’s a clear message to the student that he needs to invest more time in the course. On the other hand, if a student spent 6-7 hours on the problem set, did poorly, and finds out that most of his peers only spent 3-4 hours on the problem set, then the student knows he’s in for a tough ride in the course. I invite students in this position to come see me during office hours to discuss study strategies.

    This process has the added benefit of giving me some feedback on the difficulty of the first problem set. If the average amount of time is more than 4-5 hours, then I know that I made the problem set perhaps too difficult.