Teaching Tip: First Days of Classes
Our first class meetings are not too early to preview the end of the term by discussing it in some detail. Much popular advice about the first day of classes emphasizes course content: begin it right away, say some; students dislike content on the first day, say others. Discussing, say, a sample final exam question introduces specific content in a way that might augment an outline of the course and that shouldn’t annoy our delicate students excessively. But we think there are better reasons for using the first class to gesture toward the conclusion.
A question students almost invariably have at the beginning of a term is whether their classes will meet their needs, not only for degree requirements but also for their careers beyond college. Giving students a more detailed sense of what they’ll be able to do at semester’s end helps them to answer this worry. Moreover, discussing something like a sample exam question models from the outset what we want them to be able to do with the upcoming content. In short, discussing an end-of term task in detail is a way of identifying and exemplifying course’s goals, good things to discuss on the first day. If we choose the right example, it might spark a discussion about why the content of the course matters or what we as teachers find exciting about it, something students crave.
Take care, however, in choosing a representative sample and in framing the discussion. We wouldn’t want students to panic, thinking they’ll never measure up, or to feel misled by too easy a task, such as a question that only tests their powers of recall, when the exam will require more analytical thinking.
Cautions aside, we think it’s a good idea to find ways now to anticipate the conclusion.