"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." — Confucius
For the intellectual journey in a college course, that first step (at least from the student's perspective) is the first day of class. We, as instructors, can send very clear messages about the course and ourselves and set the tone and expectations for the rest of the semester by what we do on the first day. What information and attitudes do you want your students to leave with after that first class session? Here are some possible first day strategies.
Arrive early and plan to stay a bit afterwards
This is good advice for any class period, but especially so on the first day because it gives you time to settle in, it allows you to talk with some of your students before and after class and begin to establish rapport, and it sends clear messages about punctuality and caring.
Find out who your students are
Start to get to know your students. Whether by administering a survey or conducting an icebreaker or both, start to learn names and find out something about their backgrounds, expectations, and perhaps prior knowledge and beliefs about the course topic. This not only also helps to establish rapport, but also gives you valuable information upon which to base future class discussions and assessments.
Share some information about yourself
Give the students some professional information such as your teaching philosophy and scholarly interests as well as some personal information about hobbies or life history. Be authentic. Once again, it helps with rapport, establishes professional credibility, and can make you more approachable for class discussions and office hours.
Review the syllabus, but not too much
Hopefully, your course goals and assessments are made explicit in your syllabus. Most students will probably not read the syllabus especially if it's completely reviewed on the first day. Consider hitting the high points (learning outcomes, key policies, grading guidelines) and then creating a quiz on specific syllabus content that students would take for credit. Students could take the quiz in groups on the first day using the syllabus as a guide or taking it individually on the second day of class.
Use the whole class period (but not more than the time allotted)
Covering all of the above may take a whole class session. Hopefully, this is not the case and you'll have some time left. If so, resist the urge to let students out early and, instead, begin teaching the class. The message -- class time is important and the course material is important. Plus, you can accomplish the next two suggestions.
Get into the content
Consider introducing course content in a way that grabs students' attention. Maryellen Weimer (editor of The Teaching Professor) recommends, "… a bit of content show-and-tell that features a surprising fact, a question the content answers, some current issue that relates to the content, or something that illustrates, better yet, demonstrates why the content in this course matters."
Model your teaching style from day one
Do you use PowerPoint to present content and provoke discussion? Do you expect that the class will be interactive with the students talking to you and to each other? Do you like to use activities like one-minute papers or think-pair-shares? Start now.
Show enthusiasm for the course, the discipline, and your students
The first day is a time to set a tone for a course and instructor enthusiasm goes a long way to getting students engaged. Show your enthusiasm in whatever way is congruent with your personality be it using humor, displaying high energy, or simply sharing your personal fascination with the subject. Be personable and deliver the message to the students that you are there to help them learn.
Have a great first day!