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Blog and activity developed and written by Laura Sells, Communication Instructor, Nicolet College. Sells is the author of the Instructor's Manual for Joshua Gunn's Speech Craft.
At the start of every semester, I remind myself about the old saw “start as you intend to proceed.” Crucial to setting the tone for the semester, the first day of class is a rich opportunity that many instructors unknowingly misspend and then wonder why the semester proceeds with students who are disengaged or reticent to participate in discussion. If instructors kick off their class without meaningful engagement, students tend to limit their participation and investment. In online and Zoom settings, something we’re all a little more familiar with now, engagement can be difficult to cultivate, making the process of tone-setting even more crucial.
Going over the legalese of the syllabus can set a pattern that we will lecture and spoon-feed students the instructions for the duration of the course. Yet we often feel pressured to cover syllabus material in great detail. Online instructors have the right approach when they quiz students over the syllabus and policies during the first week of class, because it shows students how to take responsibility for their own learning and requires students to engage with the material. But some may think this approach impractical and heavy handed for face-to-face and Zoom-style classes.
What follows is an active-learning activity for the first day of class to get students talking in groups about the syllabus, processing policy statements, and thinking about what will happen in the course. It also serves as a productive ice breaker to get students conversing with one another. It circumvents legalistic droning, though it does not eliminate it entirely. It also reduces the number of first-day repeat questions, because students often answer their own questions for each other through their small group discussions.
Setup: Have students review the syllabus and make notes or write questions in the margins. Tell students that you will be doing an activity with the syllabus instead of going over it with them the way it’s traditionally done in most classes, so they need to read the syllabus instead of waiting for you to cover it. If they try to ask questions, gently defer them for the group activity.
Write on the board, show a document/PowerPoint, or give a handout with the three questions below. Have students write the answers to the questions. Pace them. Depending on how much time you allot for this activity, it should take about 5 – 7 minutes to answer these questions.
1. What are your hopes about this class?
2. What are your fears about this class?
3. What are your questions about this class, the syllabus, the textbook, the assignments, giving speeches, the instructor, etc.?
Put students in small groups or breakout rooms of about 4 or 5. Remember, the larger the size of the group, the longer it will take to finish the activity. Tell students to introduce themselves, discuss what they wrote,, and pick someone to report back to the class. Tell them to also pick their #1 burning question that they had for question 3. So, for example, they are usually able to figure out the answers to most of their questions through discussion, but they’ll have one or two questions left over that become their questions to ask during the class discussion.
Once students are in groups, be sure to check in at least twice to set the pattern of good group work. The first time, check for understanding, but deflect questions about class for the debriefing. The second time, check pacing and make sure the group picked someone to report back to class. This helps keeps students on task.
Step 2 can be accomplished fairly quickly, in about five minutes, but if you allow longer time, the students have an opportunity to bond over commonalities and the activity becomes an icebreaker. Pay attention to the flow of conversation and regroup when the flow of conversation has shifted to general social talk or awkward silence.
Go from group to group and call on the student who volunteered to report back to class. Have that student:
1. Introduce the group’s members
2. Summarize the answers to questions #1 and #2
3. Ask the group’s burning question
After answering the group’s burning question, the instructor can ask for a second question from the group or go on to the next group as desired. Once all the questions are asked and answered, usually all the primary points that need coverage are addressed and the instructor can cover the finer points more quickly. Although covering the syllabus in this fashion is less linear, it is more interactive, and the students have a hands-on experience with the class documents and with peer interaction. This promotes a tone in class that is less dependent on the instructor for direction. It also stands in for an icebreaker that opens the air for discussion in the next class.
Bonus Step 5:
The instructor can collect the answers and review hopes and fears aloud anonymously and talk about the commonalities, pointing out the common threads of communication apprehension, desire for a good grade, keeping up with the work, and so on, and talk about how these will be handled in the class. This can help establish community in the class.
Managing the first day of class is crucial to a successful semester. Students are wondering what they have gotten themselves into and instructors are wondering how many times they will have to say “It’s in the syllabus.” This activity acts as a fun middle ground that sets a positive tone for all.
What are your strategies for covering the syllabus on the first day? Comment and let us know!
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