An Instructor’s Guide for the First Day of Class

From “Tools for Teaching”


This is the second installment in my series based on one of the most highly acclaimed books on the subject of good practices for college instructors, Tools for Teaching. Enjoy! Oh, and buy the book and read it. I am only hitting a few of the highlights, though I am adding some of my own would-be words of wisdom. The current edition is around $40, but you can get a used copy of the first edition online for next to nothing. I have them both, and while there are additions and revisions in the 2009 edition which make it a valuable investment, there is a lot to be gained from the 2001 version.

If you are not sure that you want to read this installment scroll to my Closing Comments at the end of this article.

“General Strategies”

In her book, Tools for Teaching, Barbara Gross Davis provides excellent advice for getting your class off to a good start. Under the category of “General Strategies,” I find four of her recommendations of particular value. Let me address them in my own way:

Be Prepared to Teach

Davis recommends instructors “visit the classroom before the first meeting.” When the semester starts, I see confused students wondering around campus looking for their classrooms. I try not to make students feel stupid when they are in the wrong building. I feel bad for the few who are on the wrong campus. So far, I have not met an instructor who was equivalently confused.

If you are not prepared, consider what message that sends to your students. Fumble with the computer or search helplessly for whiteboard markers and your students will immediately question your competence.

If you are teaching a lab course, visiting your lab, shop or studio ahead of time is vital. A student came to me to complain that his automotive technology instructor because he didn’t know how to use the alignment equipment. Actually the instructor was an expert in this area, but he had not worked with the specific piece of equipment in our shop. That set the stage for the student to complain and criticize his instructor for the rest of the term.

Create an Atmosphere Conducive to Learning

Davis calls it a “sense of community.” Students must feel comfortable, and you must engage your students in the learning process.

“Set the tone for the rest of the term”

This is great advice, and Davis begins by recommending we greet students when they enter the classroom. What a great technique. I started using it after attending a conference workshop. The accomplished and acclaimed speaker met everyone entering the room with a handshake and introduced himself. It made me feel good, so I started using the technique. If my students felt half as good about me as I did about Dr. Dean Spitzer, the speaker who greeted me, great!

Give students what they paid for

Davis says, “Make the time worthwhile.” You may “win points” with a few students if you hand out the syllabus, give students an assignment, and dismiss the class. If you are one of my instructors, you are not making points with me. Part of setting the tone is creating a professional atmosphere displaying a dedication and concern for learning taking place. You cannot assume your students have read the first chapter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lecture or show a video or engage students in a discussion. Go for it!

“Taking Care of Administrative Tasks”

This is the title of the second section of this chapter in Dr. Davis’s book. She lists 14 pieces of advice. I will comment on a few of them.

Review your course syllabus and class schedule

In my opinion, this is the most important administrative task on the first day of class. Some of the other items Davis covers are thing you want to put in your syllabus, but that is a topic in another chapter of her book and another article for me to write. Some instructors have their students sign a paper affirming they have read and understood the syllabus. I suggest that this sends a negative message to your students that you don’t trust them to abide by the rules.

The main point I like to emphasis when I review the syllabus with students is that the syllabus is an agreement we have with each other. Think of it as a contract. I will do my part, and I expect them to do theirs.

Take attendance

Davis advises you to “take attendance if class size permits.” I encourage you to check your college policy in this regard. Taking attendance is never a bad thing to do, but not taking attendance may violate protocol. In public institutions that receive apportionment money based on attendance, you may be required to report students who have not attended or stopped attending after the first class or two.

“Explain your grading policy”

Along with your attendance policy, which Davis also mentions, this is critical information to give your students. Your policy should be clearly stated with minimal subjectivity. I like to include these items in my syllabus.

“Review any prerequisites for the course”

This does not apply to the firm “enforced” prerequisites that would have kept students from registering. Davis says you should let your students know what it will take to be successful in the course. Specify the knowledge and skills they will need and the tasks they will be expected to perform. Math skills are one area that students fall short. I encourage you to read the article I wrote on this topic entitled Students Who Lack Math Skills.

Explain what it will take to be successful in your course

Davis talks about explaining the types of assignments, which is something you will probably want to cover in your syllabus. She also advises you to tell your students how much time and effort will be required on their part. I recommend you refer to that old rule of thumb – 2 to 3 hours outside class for each hour of class time – though you may want to amend this for your particular course. You want to avoid the problem I discussed in my article Are Students Blaming Their Problems on You?

Review safety and emergency procedures

There is the potential for injury in many lab and shop classes, so this issue must be covered. In chemistry labs at my college, our lab coordinator trains faculty and delivers a safety talk to their students. You may not be so lucky, which means the responsibility falls on your shoulders. I would not belabor the emergency policies and procedures at your college, but I would add one thought to Davis’s words. Some of your students may be anxious about the potential for violence on campus. I encourage you to find out if your college has an emergency response plan and to know the role you may be called upon to fulfill.

“Creating a Positive Classroom Environment”

This is the title of the third section of this chapter. Again, I will address a few of Davis’s points.

Get to know your studets

The first six of Davis’s recommendations can be summarized this way. Get to know your students, and let them get to know you. She suggests are variety of strategies for accomplishing this. I would content that the single most important strategy she lists is “begin to learn students’ names.” Davis explains that this will encourage and motivate your students by signaling them that you care about them as individuals.


A point I will add is that you must be mindful of your students’ rights to privacy. For example, you might have a young woman in your class who is not comfortable sharing personal information with others. Or, you may have a young man with a troubled past. Personally, I had student confide that he was a recovering alcoholic, and two others told me that had criminal records. They offered that information, and I kept it strictly confidential.

Use an icebreaker

Davis points out that icebreakers help your students get to know each other and help engage them in the class. She lists several game-like activities. If you go online and search for classroom icebreakers, you will find numerous suggestions. Use one that fits your style.

“Setting Course Expectations and Standards”

In the last section of this chapter, Davis identifies some very important issues. Here too I have selected a few of her suggestions to address.

“Discuss the objectives of the course”

I think this is a great idea. Davis encourages you to ask your students what they want to learn. I will warn you that the response you may get in a freshman general education class is silence followed by one brave sole covering his mouth to hide the fact he is about to talk and quipping, “a passing grade.” My advice would be refer back to the learning objectives in your syllabus and ask your students for their interpretations of those outcomes. Then ask your students how they think you should assess their achievement.

Advise students how to succeed

Some of this was covered in an earlier part of this chapter where Davis talked about helping your students understand course requirements. Many of your freshman and sophomore students will not have effective study skills. Davis advises giving your students suggestions for how to approach the material and study plus examples of questions they should think about. I know instructors who give their students study guides that cover the material they will be tested on. There are opposing schools of thought on this practice, but I tend to favor it. However, this approach does not help your student improve his or her skills as a learner. A biology instructor at my last college did an outstanding job of helping her students learn and understand material. She showed students how to take notes and organize information in tabular fashion. Her approach was extremely effective. I added the technique to what I was teaching students in my RDG110 reading and study skills class.

Assess students’ entry level competencies

Davis encourages you to give students a pretest or survey, which is a great suggestion that can prove beneficial in several ways. She explains that such assessments help students identify their own strengths and weaknesses. By re-administering the assessment at the end of the term, the instructor can identify what learning took place. I agree with the strategy Davis says some instructors follow of not grading such tests.

I would like to add two points to what Davis wrote. First, assessments like these can help instructors adjust to the needs of the students. Over the span of several terms, common deficiencies may emerge, ones that an instructor can plan for in advance. The other point is that such assessments must not threaten or discourage students. Don’t let your students think you are trying to find out how dumb they are. You would never say that, but some of your students may thing that.

Closing Comments

There you have it. The first day of class is in many ways the most critical. If you don’t set a good tone and engage the students you may struggle for the entire term. Remember what they said in the old Head & Shoulders shampoo commercial? If not, check out my article entitled Do Boy Scouts Make the Best Instructors?

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted June 6, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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