“The first week of classes may be one of the most important weeks,” says Kathleen Gabriel. “It is during this time that we set the tone and climate for our courses. . . . Starting off on the right foot during the first week of class is critical. Most experienced teachers will testify that trying to redirect students later in the semester or undo a climate they are not happy with is very difficult.”
So, how to get it right from the beginning? Gabriel offers some helpful suggestions.
- Clarify course information and policies in a comprehensive written syllabus. Include concrete, measurable student learning objectives. Let students know how we will evaluate their progress and calculate their grade.
- Set some ground rules for the class climate. These can be written on the syllabus and/or compiled as a result of class discussion. Should anyone skip class? Arrive late? Arrive unprepared? Engage in disrespectful speech or behavior? Use our smart phones? Leave early? Cheat? Ground rules can be determined and recorded on the first or second day–and, as instructors, we can decide beforehand which rules are so important that if students don’t set them on their own, we will.
- Learn students’ preferred names and pronouns. Help other students learn them, too.
- Treat students with friendliness and respect.
- If students add the course after the first day, take the time to initiate them regarding expectations and ground rules.
Once the tone and climate are set, we need to enforce them throughout the semester. We need to follow the syllabus and use it as a point of reference; address infractions of ground rules as soon as possible; use everyone’s preferred names and pronouns; maintain a friendly attitude; and earn respect by offering respect, living up to our responsibilities, and apologizing for mistakes.
Kathleen Gabriel is the author of Teaching Unprepared Students. If you’d like to read this book, you can request a copy by responding to this newsletter. The quotation was taken from pp. 25 and 28.
— Jocelyn McWhirter, Religious Studies
August 16, 2017
The Cutting Edge Course Design Tutorial: Design your course, starting with learning objectives and working backwards to assignments and class activities that will help students achieve those objectives.
A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning. So says Lolita Paff (Economics, Penn State Berks). Paff explains how she has moved away from a “contract” syllabus to one that sets a tone for “learning and intellectual development.”
First Day of Class Activities That Create a Climate for Learning. Mary Ellen Weimer (author of Learner-Centered Teaching) lists “a few novel activities for using that first day of class to emphasize the importance of learning and the responsibility students share for shaping the classroom environment.”
The First Day of Class: Barbara Gross Davis from the University of California, Berkeley, outlines “the three important tasks of the first day: handling administrative matters, creating an open friendly classroom environment, and setting course expectations and standards.” From her book Tools for Teaching.
The Most Important Day: Delivee Wright from the University of Nebraska discusses anxiety, introductions, and expectations.
The First Day of Class: Suggestions from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching on creating an inviting classroom and clarifying responsibilities and expectations.
Tips for Teaching Modern Learners. This Faculty Focus webinar covers topics like characteristics of millennials and how they affect the teaching and learning process, how to structure your class to accommodate their growing diversity, and how to improve student achievement by creating a learning environment that is better suited to their expectations. Join us on Thursday, August 31, from 2:00–3:00 p.m. Location TBD. RSVP to Jocelyn McWhirter by replying to this newsletter.
What Would Kathleen Do? In Jennine Capó Crucet’s novel Make Your Home among Strangers, Lizet–a first-generation Cuban-American student at a small liberal arts college–gets called out for plagiarism, fails her chemistry mid-term (she was an A student in high school), and feels like an impostor. In the book Teaching Unprepared Students, Kathleen Gabriel outlines some concrete strategies for promoting academic success for students like Lizet. We’ll discuss the issues over lunch on September 12 and after hours on September 13. Watch for details!
Teaching Reflections. Starting August 29, look in this newsletter for Teaching Reflections. Faculty and staff will contribute brief essays about teaching and learning. If you’d like to write a Teaching Reflection, please contact Jocelyn McWhirter by replying to this newsletter.