The first few days of class are the most important time of the semester—how we approach those first class meetings sets the tone for the rest of the course and helps students form their expectations and behaviors.  Below are some suggestions for getting the semester started on the right foot and setting a direction that establishes an environment conducive to teaching and learning.

Introduce yourself to students
As they come into class that first day, meet as many as you can on the way in. Give them a handshake and a smile, welcome them to your class, and ask them a few polite questions.  It throws them a bit, but it sets up a collegial atmosphere right away.  Make this a regular habit and you'll get to know interesting things about students.  Then kick it up a notch by introducing students to each other as you discover those connections between them, or recruit other students to help as greeters.  Make sure nobody has a chance to be an anonymous lurker in your class!

Use an ice-breaker to get students comfortable
It is easy for students to come into the room and slide anonymously into a seat. Use an ice-breaking activity to get them talking to each other and comfortable being part of this new learning community. While they introduce themselves in small groups, they might be talking about their experiences with the class topic or common preconceptions of the subject matter. It is important for them to get comfortable in the class, but it is also important for them to know it's okay to have fun talking about biology, sociology or even accounting.

Show students why this subject is important
Students don't always understand the value of a course, especially when it is a general education requirement.  Spend time early on helping students understand the real value of the knowledge and skills they will develop in the class.   What impact does this subject matter have on their lives?  If you can make their learning valuable and personal early on, you've done half the work of the course.

Have students identify their prior knowledge and (mis)conceptions about the topic
It is always good practice for both teachers and students to understand where the students are starting in a course—their prior knowledge (and misconceptions) of the subject at hand.  Having students reflect on these ideas early in the semester gives them a point to which they can connect new information and experiences.  Ask them to explain what they know about major course topics and how they relate to their lives.  Then you can bookend the course by asking them to reflect on this document at the end of the semester.

Ditch the syllabus reading and get involved with learning right away
Most teachers want to read through all the details of the syllabus on the first day, but that is a certain way to bore students and miss a great opportunity to get them hooked on your course from the very beginning.  Find a way to help them get personally connected to your topic from the first moments of class, and set the tone for learning that you want during the semester.  Think of the message you give by reading the syllabus to them: "Now I want you to be active learners and critical thinkers, so let's start by me reading you the entire syllabus and issuing a lengthy list of rules and warnings."   If you want active learners, you had better get them actively learning and participating from the first moments of class.  If you value group work or class discussions, include them in the first class meeting.  So introduce and practice the learning behaviors you want to see throughout the semester.

You can give them the syllabus to read later and have them bring up questions at the start of the second class.  Trust us, no matter how carefully you walk them through the syllabus, it's not going to magically soak in.   It's better to spend your time getting them interested and involved.  If you cannot resist going over the syllabus, wait until the end of class and just hit the highlights.

Try to learn students' names
While faculty members teaching a class of 200 students may be out of luck, many of us who teach 25-30 students per class can have some success with learning our students' names.  There are many tricks out there, but here are a few of our favorites:

  1. Read over the class roster several times during the days before your class begins.  You'll start getting used to the names, so it will be easier to put faces with them once class begins.
  2. Have students fill out 3x5 bio cards—name, contact information, major, other course-relevant information, and maybe some questions or expectations they have about the class.  Putting details to faces and names helps many people remember them better.  If students sit in assigned seats—and most will just sit in the same place on their own—you can order the cards to help yourself practice during class.
  3. Take photos of students on the first or second day of class and make yourself a study sheet.  End class a few minutes early, then take digital photos of individuals or small groups.  Having them sign a sheet as they line up gives you the right order and serves as a "permission sheet" of sorts.  Let them know why you are taking photos, but don't make anyone get their photo taken.   Maybe recruit a student worker from your department office to help.   No, you cannot get these photos electronically through the university.
  4. Engage students in conversation right away in class, make them remind you of their names as they speak, and use their names as you respond.  The more you use their names, the quicker you will remember them. And make all students use each others' names, too; don't let anybody say, "I agree with her…." It has to be, "I agree with Rachel…."  

Provide the essential details
While you do not need to walk students through the entire syllabus during that first class period, make sure they know the essentials about the class so they can get started immediately. If you hand out a printed syllabus, point out the key areas they need to pay attention to right away, like attendance an attendance policy, the first week's assignments and your contact information. If your syllabus is online, make sure they understand how to access it and when you expect them to have viewed it. Don't assume all your students know how to log into Blackboard, especially if they are freshmen.

Establish your identity and expectations carefully – a cautionary note
Several of these suggestions involve setting up a good rapport with your students, but be careful not to come across as too laid-back or chummy. Sometimes students misinterpret a friendly demeanor as an invitation to slack off without consequences. Let them know what your expectations are, and that you will hold them accountable, even though you may want to establish a collegial atmosphere in the class. The roughest thing we've seen in a classroom is when students thought the teacher was their pal, only to learn later that the friendly approach didn't mean he wouldn't give them a failing grade. So be up front with your expectations and establish your identity carefully with students.

Remember, what you do on the first day sets the tone for the entire semester, so plan that first class carefully so it prepares students for the semester that lies ahead of them. Enjoy the start of your semester; it's probably one of the most exciting times of the year for both teachers and students!