"First and last class sessions are the bookends that hold a course together.” I heard or read that somewhere—apologies to the source I can’t acknowledge. It’s a nice way to think about first and last ...
First impressions are important and you can make favorable ones on the first day of class by doing things just a bit out of the ordinary. Here are some ideas.
If it’s a course where students don’t think they know anything about the content, start by dissecting course title. For each keyword, ask student to report (or write down) the first word or phrase that comes to mind. Make a collection of these on the computer or white board. Accept all associations. Then use the collection to provide an overview of the course, pointing out (where it’s appropriate) that students aren’t as clueless about the content as they may think they are. It’s also a useful way to establish a common foundation, the place on which you can start building the course structure.
Introduce yourself with a brief a slideshow or a collage of pictures that shows who you are without you having to say a word—pictures of you at work, in the lab or library, at home, with kids and pets, you in college, grade school, etc. The pictures can be interspersed with favorite quotes or some pithy sayings about learning. Maybe’s there’s an occasional caption, some humorous. Maybe there’s background music, something from your favorite group or a personal anthem. Run the slide show as students are arriving or make it available online before the course begins. A slide show introduction gives you the opportunity to invite students to send you or share with the class a couple of their own introductory pictures.
In addition to or as a supplement to the syllabus, share a short (no more than one page) teaching manifesto: “This is what I believe about teaching and learning ….” Or, write a letter to the class sharing your hopes for the course. Either of these could be posted on the course website or distributed on the first day of class. Either could be part of an introductory activity that involves students. “What do you believe about teaching and learning?” Give them a couple of minutes and then ask them to write one thing they believe about teaching and one thing they believe about learning. Or use this writing prompt, “If a teacher asked you to how she could support your efforts to learn in the course, what would you tell her you need?” Collect student comments and follow up with a summary and your responses to them.
Did you ever take the course you are about to teach or one with closely related content? Start the class by sharing some of your experiences. What were you worried about? What do you remember about the course? Did you do well or not so well? What would you do differently if you were taking the course now?