Teaching Tip: What to Do on the First Day?
Typical advice on how to spend the first day of class urges us to use icebreakers to create a "successful learning environment." We're skeptical. A 1999 study suggests that students generally find icebreakers less useful than other activities. Of course, the same study also found that students dislike professors to teach content on the first day, and so it concluded that the most successful first days end early! It may be that someone has confused "successful" with "pleasurable."
We have no doubts that a very valuable thing we can do on the first day is to spend considerable time on the "how and why" of a course. Students crave structures that will allow them to make sense of the semester to come. Let them hear 1) what they should know and be able to do by the end of the course 2) why it matters; 3) what your teaching methods will be and why; and 3) how you will test their knowledge and skill along with your reasons for these choices. Most of us do this anyway, and probably find ourselves repeating these hows and whys periodically throughout the semester. A thorough briefing on the course is the most important element in a successful first day — and maybe in a successful semester — and so we all could give it more time.
We'd love to hear your advice for a successful first day. What do you normally do? What do you recommend we avoid?