Starting Strong

a group of people start to sprint

Starting Strong

Whether a new class or just a new semester, the river of your teaching experience is never exactly the same. That's what makes teaching great, and also why those first steps are important each time. (photo by Goh Rhy Yan from Unsplash)

How Can I Do This?

Students feed off whatever you bring into the classroom, so show up to class the way you want your students to show up---on time, eager to engage, happy to be there, and prepared for the task at hand.

Plan for the best.

The first day of class is the time to introduce the course, gain the students' interest, and start the semester off right. Whatever you plan to do during the semester, do during the first day. This will set the tone of the course and begin to create an effective learning environment.

  • Prepare a syllabus that students want to read. The syllabus is likely to be the first interaction your students have with you, so design it with them in mind.
  • Canvas allows you to develop an online social presence for your course, and connects you, your content, and your students.
  • Get the lay of the land (literally): check out your classroom a few days before your class is scheduled to begin.
  • Send a welcome e-mail. Connecting with students before the class meets builds rapport between you and the students, and can help set expectations.
  • Learn More about Canvas.
Tips for the First Day.

The first day is an opportunity to make an initial impression with the students about the people in your class and the content of the course. Seize the opportunity to engage your students in an activity and debunk the myth that it is only about the syllabus.

  • Set expectations for participation.
  • Warm-up with an icebreaker activity.
  • Share a personal story about an impactful learning experience you had that influenced you as a student or your favorite park or trail in Austin.
  • Find the balance: overwhelming students with too much information, or providing too little and ending class early, is counterproductive (Perlman and McCann, 1999).
  • Learn more about icebreakers.
Connect your students with the content and a taste for what happens during class.

Engage students in "myth-busting" by presenting students with a series of statements about your course content. Then, have students work in groups or use clickers to determine whether the statements presented are facts or myths. This is a great opportunity both to demonstrate clicker use and point out some common misconceptions about the course content.

  • Use a concept test to learn more about essential content that you expect your students to know upon entering your course.
  • Have students work in pairs or groups to generate a list of problems they expect the course to address (McKeachie, 2002).
Build rapport between you and your students within the first few classes.

Research shows when teachers self-disclose, and those disclosures are viewed by students as being relevant, students are more likely to actively participate in class and to ask questions that directly relate to the course (Cayanus, Martin, & Goodboy, 2009).

  • Arrive early to class, if possible.
  • Survey your students to learn more about them.
  • For smaller classes, learn everyone's name. For large enrollment classes, spend some time before class starts talking with students in different areas of the room.
  • If you teach a large enrollment course, then make the class feel smaller by having students engage with those around them.
Gather feedback from students within the first three weeks.

Informal feedback from students can offer insight into how you can adjust teaching and learning strategies during the semester.

  • One common method for gathering informal feedback is known as "stop, start, and continue," where students write down 1-2 things they would like you to stop doing, start doing, and continue to do.
  • Make sure you communicate with your students about the results (any major themes you want to highlight in the feedback, things you might change, etc) the next class period.
Create opportunities for your own self-reflection.

While ongoing management of a teaching portfolio is useful for discussions with your chair or supervisor, the informality of a journal is helpful in remembering which things worked in the class and which things didn't work, and what you may want to try next time (Svinicki and McKeachie, 2014, p. 18).

  • Start a portfolio or teaching journal.
  • Conduct mid-semester course feedback.
  • Ask a colleague to observe your class.
Remember UT provides teaching support programs and services.

The University of Texas at Austin provides many resources to support teaching and learning.

Why is This Important?

Each new semester and each new day bring an opportunity to set the stage for how the teaching and learning dance will play out. Making the investment in stepping off with the right foot pays off later.

First impressions matter.

The impressions that both teacher and student make on the first day help set the tone for the rest of the semester (Schramm, 2010). Favorable first impressions are highly correlated with positive end of semester course evaluations (Laws, Apperson, Buchert, and Bregman, 2009).

    Organization and consistency matter.

    Establishing and communicating clear expectations for student behavior early in the semester can help prevent or lessen conflict later on. Going over course expectations on the first day is viewed as a necessity by students (Iannarelli, Bardsley, Foote, 2010).

      Conceptualizing learning as emotional and social as well as cognitive matters.

      Research suggests "the social and emotional gains that students make during college are considerably greater than the intellectual gains over the same span of time" (Ambrose et al., 2010; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

        Explore More

        a hand holds out a square piece of ice

        Icebreakers with a Purpose

        Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education offers 5 tips for creating meaningful introductory activities.

        Road heading towards the mountains.

        A Syllabus They Will Read

        The syllabus is likely to be the first interaction your students have with you, so design it with them in mind.