The first time my middle school-aged son attended a Major League ballgame, he was astounded by what the players were doing on the field before the game. He saw some of his favorite players contorting in all sorts of positions: balancing, running backwards and sideways, even lying on the ground, some stretching their hamstrings with enormous rubber bands. One player even stood on one leg with outstretched arms. He could not understand why all those moves were required, since he never witnessed a single one of those motions in the game. But even through his misunderstanding, he did recognize something significant: all the players believed in what they were doing, even if he could not see the significance behind their pregame gymnastics. Essentially, my son saw the importance of the practice routine before the big game, even if he did not fully comprehend it. And even more importantly, he witnessed the characteristics of practice the players needed even if they performed in ways not directly related to the practice.
And so it is with college teaching. Students and their professors see the importance of the first day, that big game. But often they do not make the connection with the practice routine, divorced from the look and feel of when they’re keeping score during the semester. But even those professors and their students who recognize the primacy of practice can still find it difficult, even impossible, to find enough time on the first day to initiate such practice. After all, there’s the syllabus to go over, the structure of the class to introduce, names to learn and mispronounce. There’s so many activities for professors to do. And perhaps that’s the core problem. It is professors who are explaining, exhibiting, and demonstrating. They are taking on all the activities of practice that they want their students to enact. And while professors are practicing on the field, students assume another role and become the spectators in the stands, wondering why all this practice is necessary before they have to take the field themselves and play the big game.
As professors, the pressure to produce a good first-day product mushrooms when we look at what the scholarly literature says about that first day. Worse yet, if we start with a nebulous goal of deep learning, we can find the outcome beyond our reach. For example, we know from some studies that students expect highly structured course material that they can organize in a variety of situations. Without an expansive practice rooted in the first day, the chances for deeper learning in the course are lessened considerably.
Other pedagogical literature documents what activities are the most productive for that first day. Joe Kreizinger, for example, recommends professors establish early connections among students, course matter, and instructor. In one empirical study, Frank LoSchiavo and his colleagues redesigned their introductory social psychology course so that several abstract concepts could be converted into more concrete examples. He had students demonstrate these abstractions in class starting on the first day.
Since students seldom recognize what social psychology entails, the usual rote activities like going over the syllabus waste a lot of precious time that the researchers felt was critical to delivering students to the subject they would be studying.
Similarly, Kim Case and her associates researched students’ general expectations for the first day, confirming what reflective teachers generally think about stereotypical opening activities like self-introductions. Specifically, they fail to engage new learners in the class. But perhaps we need go no further than James Lang, who argues persuasively that establishing a class ethos is paramount, and this must start from the premier class.
And the best way I know to establish that ethos is through principal practice: practicing tests, papers, reading and whatever higher-stakes activities we design in our courses. I also know it’s impossible to bring all that practice to bear on the first day. Even if professors could, students would soon be overwhelmed, and this is the dissonance we face. We can agree that the first day of class is all-important, but we cannot deliver what is all-important to the first day.
The only way out of this dilemma involves extending that first encounter by reaching out to students using Internet technologies up to one week before the course officially starts. That outreach might be through a letter invitation, an introductory video, an electronic version of the syllabus, a system of direction students can rely on, and/or a head-start homework assignment, all delivered before the first day so we can establish our course dynamic, ensuring the best possible practice on that first day.
This early outreach benefits your course in at least four ways. One: students implicitly see that, through your early communication, the low-level student activity they associate with the first day is dispensed with. Students conclude that something important must be happening on this first day. Two: students relish getting a head start, especially if they are starting college for the first time. By reaching out to them first, instead of them coming to class first, you set a model in motion for the entire semester. Three: practice becomes something integral to the course into which we guide our students. Four: when the semester officially starts, students know what to do and so we can hit the ground running.
In short, if we can reach out to our incoming students with early communications, we can better match what’s promised with and necessary for the first day. When real learning is present on the first day, we can increase the number of practice activities that very first week. For instance, instead of introducing the syllabus on the first day, we could have students read it during Week Zero, the week before classes begin, and start practicing their understanding of it. They’re discovering the depth of reading we expect them to fathom in the course. We can do the same with our tests and papers and other persistently underachieving learning events that have disappointed us in our courses, because now we have extended the timeline for practice.
Gary R. Hafer is the John P. Graham Teaching Professor at Lycoming College. He is the author of Embracing Writing: Ways to Teach Reluctant Writers in Any College Course (Jossey-Bass, 2014).
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LoSchiavo, Frank M, Justin T Buckingham, and Tricia J Yurak. “First-Day Demonstration for Social Psychology Courses.” Teaching of Psychology 29.3 (2002): 216-219. Google Scholar. Web. 1 July 2015.
Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008.
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Adapted from the Magna 20-Minute Mentor presentation, How Can Student Learning Begin before the First Day of Class?