The Most Important Day: Starting Well

By Delivee L. Wright
Teaching and Learning Center, University of Nebraska.

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Some faculty avoid the “first day anxiety” by handing out a syllabus, giving an assignment, and dismissing the class. This only postpones the inevitable. It also gives students a sense that class time is not too important. Most of all, it loses the opportunity to use the heightened excitement and anticipation that students bring that day; the chance to direct that excitement toward enthusiasm for the class.

What can you do to establish a positive beginning? How can you make sure student’s attitudes toward you, the course, and the subject matter will support a constructive learning climate for the semester? The following ideas have been gathered to stimulate your thoughts about these questions. Perhaps you will think of others, but the following are things which could contribute to this goal. They are not in a particular order, but can be sampled to fit your own preferences.

Opening communications among students as well as between yourself and students will pay dividends throughout the semester. Exercises which do this are called “icebreakers” and can take many forms such as the following:

  1. Have students raise hands indicating whether they are freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors; majors, nonmajors, or other interests; those who have had related course and those who haven’t; or other categories of student descriptors. This will immediately initiate participation and can give you useful information about the students.
  2. Have each person introduce themselves and give some information you and other students can associate with the person. This could be hometown, field, questions they have, why they took the course, what they did this summer, etc. Include yourself in the introductions.
  3. Use a “naming cycle” in which students introduce one another with each successive person repeating names of all those already introduced. This can be a device to help you learn names quickly, and this will pay significant dividends in how students feel about you as an interested teacher.
  4. Have students interview one another and then have them introduce someone else on the next day. A variation could be to write a short sketch about the interviewed person to be turned in as well as being used for introductions.
  5. Have students complete an interest or experience survey from which the teacher would provide summarized feedback for discussion the second day. A variation could be oral student responses to the survey in class or responses with a show of hands.
  6. Select a key word from the course title and have students do an “association exercise” by reporting what first comes to mind, record answers on the chalkboard and use these to give an overview of the course.
  7. Ask students to suggest what problems or ideas they would like to see included in the course, or have them tell what they have heard about the course. Post these on the chalkboard and refer to the list when the syllabus is reviewed. Students can clarify or correct perceptions they have held.
Checklist For The First Day
  1. Am I energized to be enthusiastic about this class?
  2. Is the classroom arranged properly for the day’s activities?
  3. Is my name, course title, and number on the chalkboard?
  4. Do I have an ice-breaker planned?
  5. Do I have a way to start leaming names?
  6. Do I have a way to gather information on student backgrounds, interests, expectations for the course, questions, concerns?
  7. Is the syllabus complete and clear?
  8. Have I outlined how students will be evaluated?
  9. Do I have announcements of needed information ready?
  10. Do I have a way of gathering student feedback?
  11. When the class is over; will students want to come back? Will you want to come back?
  • (Knefelkamp,L.) In Rubin, S. “Professors, Students, and the Syllabus,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 7,1985, p.85.
  • McKeachie, W. J. Teaching Tips: A Guide book for the Beginning College Teacher, 8th Ed., Lexington, Mass: Heath,1986.
  • Rubin, S. “Professors, Students, and the Syllabus,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 7, 1985, p. 56.
  • Scholl-Buckwald, S. “The First Meeting of the Class” in Teaching As Though Students Mattered
  • J. Katz (Ed.). New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 7 1, San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, March, 1985.
  • Weimer, M. G., Ed. The Teaching Professor, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 1988, p. 5.

101 Things for the First Three Weeks of Class


By Joyce T. Povlacs
Teaching and Learning Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Beginnings are important. Whether the class is a large introductory course for freshmen or an advanced course in the major field, it makes good sense to start the semester off well. Students will decide very early – some say the first day of class – whether they will like the course, its contents, the teacher, and their fellow students.The following list of “101 Things You Can Do…” is offered in the spirit of starting off right. It is a catalog of suggestions for college teachers who are looking for a fresh way of creating the best possible environment for learning. Not just the first day, but the first three weeks of a course are especially important, studies say, in retaining capable students. Even if the syllabus is printed and lecture notes are ready to go in August, most college teachers can usually make adjustments in teaching methods as the course unfolds and the characteristics of their students become known.

These suggestions have been gathered from UNL professors and from college teachers elsewhere. The rationale for these methods is based on the following needs: 1) to help students make the transition from high school and summer or holiday activities to learning in college; 2) to direct students’ attention to the immediate situation for learning – the hour in the classroom: 3) to spark intellectual curiosity – to challenge students; 4) to support beginners and neophytes in the process of learning in the discipline; S) to encourage the students’ active involvement in learning; and 6) to build a sense of community in the classroom.

Ideas For the First Three Weeks
Here, then, are some ideas for college teachers for use in their courses as they begin a new semester. 

Helping Students Make Transitions 

  1. Hit the ground running on the first day of class with substantial content. 
  2. Take attendance: roll call, clipboard, sign in, seating chart. 
  3. Introduce teaching assistants by slide, short presentation, or self-introduction. 
  4. Hand out an informative, artistic, and user-friendly syllabus. 
  5. Give an assignment on the first day to be collected at the next meeting. 
  6. Start laboratory experiments and other exercises the first time lab meets. 
  7. Call attention (written and oral) to what makes good lab practice: completing work to be done, procedures, equipment, clean up, maintenance, safety, conservation of supplies, full use of lab time. 
  8. Administer a learning style inventoryto help students find out about themselves. 
  9. Direct students to the Learning Skills Center for help on basic skills. 
  10. Tell students how much time they will need to study for this course. 
  11. Hand out supplemental study aids: library use, study tips, supplemental readings and exercises. 
  12. Explain how to study for kind of tests you give. 
  13. Put in writing a limited number of ground rules regarding absence, late work, testing procedures, grading, and general decorum, and maintain these. 
  14. Announce office hours frequently and hold them without fail. 
  15. Show students how to handle learning in large classes and impersonal situations. 
  16. Give sample test questions. 
  17. Give sample test question answers. 
  18. Explain the difference between legitimate collaboration and academic dishonesty; be clear when collaboration is wanted and when it is forbidden. 
  19. Seek out a different student each day and get to know something about him or her. 
  20. Ask students to write about what important things are currently going on in their lives. 
  21. Find out about students’ jobs; if they are working, how many hours a week, and what kinds of jobs they hold. 

    Directing Students’ Attention 

  22. Greet students at the door when they enter the classroom. 
  23. Start the class on time. 
  24. Make a grand stage entrance to hush a large class and gain attention. 
  25. Give a pre-test on the day’s topic. 
  26. Start the lecture with a puzzle, question, paradox, picture, or cartoon on slide or transparency to focus on the day’s topic. 
  27. Elicit student questions and concerns at the beginning of the class and list these on the chalkboard to be answered during the hour. 
  28. Have students write down what they think the important issues or key points of the day’s lecture will be. 
  29. Ask the person who is reading the student newspaper what is in the news today. 

    Challenging Students 

  30. Have students write out their expectations for the course and their own goals for learning. 
  31. Use variety in methods of presentation every class meeting. 
  32. Stage a figurative “coffee break” about twenty minutes into the hour; tell an anecdote, invite students to put down pens and pencils, refer to a current event, shift media. 
  33. Incorporate community resources: plays, concerts, the State Fair. government agencies. businesses, the outdoors. 
  34. Show a film in a novel way: stop it for discussion, show a few frames only, anticipate ending, hand out a viewing or critique sheet, play and replay parts. 
  35. Share your philosophy of teaching with your students. 
  36. Form a student panel to present alternative views of the same concept. 
  37. Stage a change-your-mind debate. with students moving to different parts of the classroom to signal change in opinion during the discussion. 
  38. Conduct a “living” demographic survey by having students move to different parts of the classroom: size of high school. rural vs. urban. consumer preferences… 
  39. Tell about your current research interests and how you got there from your own beginnings in the discipline. 
  40. Conduct a role-play to make a point or to lay out issues. 
  41. Let your students assume the role of a professional in the discipline: philosopher, literary critic, biologist. agronomist. political scientist. engineer. 
  42. Conduct idea-generating or brainstorming sessions to expand horizons. 
  43. Give students two passages of material containing alternative views to compare and contrast. 
  44. Distribute a list of the unsolved problems. dilemmas. or great questions in your discipline and invite students to claim one as their own to investigate. 
  45. Ask students what books they’ve read recently. 
  46. Ask what is going on in the state legislature on this subject which may affect their future. 
  47. Let your students see the enthusiasm you have for your subject and your love of learning. 
  48. Take students with you to hear guest speakers or special programs on campus. 
  49. Plan “scholar-gypsy” lesson or unit which shows students the excitement of discovery in your discipline. 

    Providing Support 

  50. Collect students’ current telephone numbers and addresses and let them know that you may need to reach them. 
  51. Check out absentees. Call or write a personal note. 
  52. Diagnose the students’ prerequisites learning by questionnaire or pre-test ant give them the feedback as soon as possible. 
  53. Hand out study questions or study guides. 
  54. Be redundant. Students should hear, read. or see key material at least three times. 
  55. Allow students to demonstrate progress in learning: summary quiz over the day’s work. a written reaction to the day’s material. 
  56. Use non-graded feedback to let students know how they are doing: post answers to ungraded quizzes and problem sets, exercises in class, oral feedback. 
  57. Reward behavior you want: praise, stars, honor roll, personal note. 
  58. Use a light touch: smile, tell a good joke, break test anxiety with a sympathetic comment. 
  59. Organize. Give visible structure by posting the day’s “menu” on chalk- board or overhead. 
  60. Use multiple media: overhead, slides, film, videotape, audio tape, models, sample material. 
  61. Use multiple examples, in multiple media. to illustrate key points and . important concepts. 
  62. Make appointments with all students (individually or in small groups). 
  63. Hand out wallet-sized telephone cards with all important telephone numbers listed: office department, resource centers, teaching assistant, lab. 
  64. Print all important course dates on a card that can be handed out and taped to a mirror. 
  65. Eavesdrop on students before or after class and join their conversation about course topics. 
  66. Maintain an open lab gradebook. with grades kept current. during lab time so that students can check their progress. 
  67. Check to see if any students are having problems with any academic or campus matters and direct those who are to appropriate offices or resources. 
  68. Tell students what they need to do to receive an “A” in your course. 
  69. Stop the work to find out what your students are thinking feeling and doing in their everyday lives. 

    Encouraging Active Learning 

  70. Have students write something. 
  71. Have students keep three-week-three-times-a-week journals in which they comment. ask questions. and answer questions about course topics. 
  72. Invite students to critique each other’s essays or short answer on tests for readability or content. 
  73. Invite students to ask questions and wait for the response. 
  74. Probe student responses to questions ant wait for the response. 
  75. Put students into pairs or “learning cells” to quiz each other over material for the day. 
  76. Give students an opportunity to voice opinions about the subject matter. 
  77. Have students apply subject matter to solve real problems. 
  78. Give students red, yellow, and green cards (mate of posterboard) and periodically call for a vote on an issue by asking for a simultaneous show of cards. 
  79. Roam the aisles of a large classroom and carry on running conversations with students as they work on course problems (a portable microphone helps). 
  80. Ask a question directed to one student and wait for an answer. 
  81. Place a suggestion box in the rear of the room and encourage students to make written comments every time the class meets. 
  82. Do oral show of-hands multiple choice tests for summary review and instant feedback. 
  83. Use task groups to accomplish specific objectives. 
  84. Grade quizzes and exercises in class as a learning tool. 
  85. Give students plenty of opportunity for practice before a major test. 
  86. Give a test early in the semester and return it graded in the next class meeting. 
  87. Have students write questions on index cards to be collected and answered the next class period. 
  88. Make collaborate assignments for several students to work on together. 
  89. Assign written paraphrases and summaries of difficult reading. 
  90. Give students a take-home problem relating to the days lecture. 
  91. Encourage students to bring current news items to class which relate to the subject matter and post these on a bulletin board nearby. 

    Building Community 

  92. Learn names. Everyone makes an effort to learn at least a few names. 
  93. Set up a buddy system so students can contact each other about assignments and coursework. 
  94. Find out about your students via questions on an index card. 
  95. Take pictures of students (snapshots in small groups, mug shots) and post in classroom, office, or lab. 
  96. Arrange helping trios of students to assist each other in learning and growing. 
  97. Form small groups for getting acquainted; mix and form new groups several times. 
  98. Assign a team project early in the semester and provide time to assemble the team. 
  99. Help students form study groups to operate outside the classroom. 
  100. Solicit suggestions from students for outside resources and guest speakers on course topics. 

    Feedback on Teaching 

  101. Gather student feedback in the first three weeks of the semester to improve teaching and learning.

Community College Spotlight: How to Raise Graduation Rates

Community colleges need to engage in broad institutional reform, said CCRC director Thomas Bailey.

“Successful stand-alone programs in isolation will not do enough to improve outcomes for large numbers of students. Strategies must work in concert across the institution, and faculty need to be at the center of sustained, college-wide efforts to improve student success.”

K. Gabriel Biography and Index of Workshops and Presentations for Faculty

Short Bio

Kathleen F. Gabriel, Faculty Development Specialist

Dr. Kathleen Gabriel
began her career in the educational field right out of college, accepting a secondary teaching position as a high school Social Science teacher. Not long after that, she started working with students with learning disabilities. During her 16 years of high school teaching, she was also an advisor to several student organizations, selected as a mentor teacher for her district, and received the “Teacher of the Year” award.

Gabriel earned her doctoral degree at the University of Kansas, where she developed an academic support program for at-risk college students. She also implemented the same support program at the University of Arizona. After much success, she became a Faculty/TA Development Specialist at the University of Arizona where she created and facilitated workshops for faculty and teaching assistants.

Currently, Gabriel is an assistant professor at California State Univeristy, Chico in the Professional Studies in Education Department.

Gabriel lives in Northern California with her husband, Michael. They have three children.

Index of Workshops and Presentations for Faculty:


Joe Cuseo

Marymount College

One way in which colleges can improve both the academic performance and retention of first-year students is by increasing their utilization of campus support services, because research clearly suggests that there is a positive relationship between utilization of campus-support services and persistence to program or degree completion (Churchill & Iwai, 1981; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). In particular, students who seek and receive academic support have been found to improve both their academic performance and their academic self-efficacy—that is, they develop a greater sense of self-perceived control of academic outcomes, and develop higher self-expectations for future academic success (Smith, Walter, & Hoey, 1992). Higher levels of self-efficacy, in turn, have been found to correlate positively with college students’ academic performance and persistence; this is true for Hispanic students in particular (Solberg, O’Brien, Villareal, & Davis, 1993) and underprepared students in general (Lent, Brown, & Larkin, 1987).

Unfortunately, it has also been found that college students under-utilize academic support services (Friedlander, 1980; Walter & Smith, 1990), especially those students who are in most need of support (Knapp & Karabenick, 1988; Abrams & Jernigan, 1984). At-risk students, in particular, have trouble recognizing that they are experiencing academic difficulty and are often reluctant to seek help even if they do recognize their difficulty (Levin & Levin, 1991). These findings are especially disturbing when viewed in light of meta-analysis research, which reveals that academic-support programs designed for underprepared students exert a statistically significant effect on their retention and grades when they are utilized, especially if these services are utilized by students during their freshman year (Kulik, Kulik, & Shwalb, 1983).

Taken together, the foregoing set of findings strongly suggests that institutions should deliver academic support intrusively—by initiating contact with students and aggressively bringing support services to them, rather than offering services passively and hoping that students will come and take advantage of them on their own accord. Academic advisors are in the ideal position to “intrusively” connect students with academic support professionals, who can provide students with timely assistance before their academic performance and persistence are adversely affected by ineffective learning strategies.

Read the article in its entirety “Academic Advisement and Student Retention”