Preparing for the First Day of Classes

One helpful starting point is to ask your department administrative assistant or chairperson for all available information about the courses you have been assigned to teach (e.g., recent course syllabi on file, names of faculty who last taught the class). Speak with experienced instructors and closely examine their syllabi.

If the following issues are not addressed in the written materials you have been given, make certain your conversations consider the following course planning questions:

  • What are the primary goals of the course? (e.g., What types of students typically enroll in this course? What types of degree requirements does the course fulfill? What are students expected to learn to ensure success in subsequent courses in the department?).
  • What are the basic logistical arrangements of your teaching assignment (e.g., When and where does the class meet? Where will your office be? How do you obtain a key? How do you obtain a textbook and sample tests used previously in the course?).
  • What are some important instructional issues you should consider? (e.g., Are there any formal expectations regarding how you should teach the class? What kinds of assignments are you expected to create? Are there any policies regarding grading that you are expected to follow?).
  • What is the best advice in determining one's professional priorities? (e.g., How many hours. per week should be spent preparing for class, holding office hours for students, grading student assignments, doing scholarly research and writing, serving on committees and/or attending meetings, etc?).
  • What types of administrative support will be provided to you? (e.g., media development, photocopying, and collating course handouts, texts, quizzes, etc.).
  • What are some of the most common problems encountered previously by faculty who have taught this course?

One other important planning issue involves student use of library materials. To ensure that appropriate materials are available, consultation with members of the library faculty and staff is recommended when you are planning student assignments.

In many institutions members of the library faculty serves as the liaison to each academic department. Ask your department chairperson or call the library reference desk for the name of the individual who handles library-related matters for your department.

Activities for the First Day of Class

Because students sometimes have difficulty locating their classrooms on the first day of class, it is helpful to be in the classroom five or ten minutes early. It is usually a good idea to write the title of the course, the course section number and your name on the board before students arrive. Thus, students can quickly determine that they are in the right classroom.

Giving students something during the first day of class is also a good idea. Distributing handouts or stepping students through online resources communicates that you are prepared and organized.

In addition to providing an introduction to your course and its requirements, you might also consider offering a brief personal introduction. Students are typically curious about instructors as people. Directly addressing this curiosity can reduce feelings of uncertainty. Further, communication research suggests that credibility is influenced significantly by an audience's perception of a speaker's expertise and trustworthiness. Your personal introduction can readily address both these considerations.

Indicate why you chose the field you are in and why you find your discipline fascinating. Describe how your background (i.e., educational, professional, personal) has prepared you to teach the course. To help convey that you are approachable, you might mention where you are from, where you did your undergraduate/graduate work, what type of student experiences you had, and any unique hobbies or other interests you have.

Furthermore, you may want to describe the rationale underlying the course structure, content, and assignments. Discussing why you have chosen certain teaching methods in contrast to other instructional approaches may also be appropriate. This discussion can demonstrate that you have thought carefully about your teaching and how it will enhance student learning.

Information to Include in Course Syllabi

One of the best ways to get classes off to a strong and positive start is to prepare clear, comprehensive and engaging course syllabi. Ideally, a course syllabus should be more than a simple listing of curriculum topics, assigned readings and assessment dates. The most effective syllabi outline the settings, conditions, expectations, and performance criteria for students. While many instructors enjoy preparing course syllabi with a "personal touch," a course syllabus should, at a minimum, address the following:

  1. course objectives,
  2. assignments/dates,
  3. grading policy,
  4. examination dates,
  5. attendance policy, and
  6. other requirements

In addition, it is helpful to:

  • Place the course in a larger context (e.g., Why should a student want to take the course? How does the course fit into the College's core requirement or majors?).
  • Describe the background and skills needed by students to be successful (e.g., What are the prerequisite courses, if any? What knowledge and skills are students expected to possess prior to enrolling?).
  • Highlight the primary course objectives in an engaging fashion (e.g., What will students learn in this course?).
  • Discuss how the course has been structured and organized (e.g., Why are the topics sequenced as indicated?).
  • Indicate how class time will typically be spent (e.g., What type of pre-class preparation is expected? Will class time be devoted primarily to lectures, discussion, problem solving activities, group presentations, etc.?).
  • Describe the types of intellectual activities the course will require (e.g., What expectations have you regarding student writing and/or speaking? Will assignments require students to describe, analyze, provide evidence, criticize, defend, apply? Will assigned readings emphasize primary or secondary source materials and why?) .
  • Describe significant classroom policies and procedures (e.g., Have you any formal expectations or unwritten rules governing proper classroom conduct? What are your policies regarding assignments that are submitted late?).
  • Preview the assigned textbook and/or readings (e.g., Why were these texts chosen? What is their relative importance to success in the course? How much time will the typical reading assignment take to complete?).
  • Indicate the frequency and types of exams that will be given (e.g., When are the scheduled exam dates? What types of tests-­ multiple-choice, essay will be used? Will the tests require the ability to memorize, to apply knowledge in a new context, to synthesize? What are the policies regarding make-up exams?).
  • What steps will you take to prevent and/or to respond to academic dishonesty? (e.g., What are your views about students working together on assignments? What constitutes plagiarism? How can accusations of dishonesty be avoided?).
  • Specify how course grades will be assigned (e.g., What activities will contribute to the computation of final course grades and how will each activity be evaluated?).

Being clear and explicit on these matters at the start of the term will reduce significantly the number of stressful and unpleasant grade disputes you will have to resolve at the end of the semester.