The first day of a class is always interesting. You hand out your syllabus, and try to get a feel for your students. I know students shop around for their instructors, but I sometimes wonder what attracts these particular students to my classes. Inevitably some students will show up for the first day, and I will never see them again that term. Whether they just found that my classes demanded too much work (possible) or whether they discovered they have important business for the next 11 weeks, I always wonder what becomes of these students.
Then there are the students who want to negotiate. This week, one particular student complained that I was asking them to do so much work that it was equivalent to a part-time job. My response was “Welcome to college. If you don’t like this amount of work you need to do, imagine needing to do it again next quarter.” He didn’t look pleased.
Most of the work in the first week of class is getting the students used to the class. Things in the first week that I think help:
- Establish your position. Basically, let the students know that you are in charge but they are not powerless. I’m more apt to be authoritarian in the first week just so people don’t try to push back later in the quarter.
- Let them convince themselves that they need the class. It is impossible to force people to want to learn, but they are already halfway there when they show up in your classroom. In my class, I have them introduce themselves and tell me what their dream jobs are. Then I try to link that dream to passing the class later.
- Give structure and tools. Some classes benefit from being free-form, but I find that most students need to have a clear idea of what is expected of them. So, I give it to them: everything from classroom expectations, how much work they should expect to put in, to how they can earn the various pieces of their grades. After that, I give them the extras: where to find tutoring, counseling, and financial help on campus if they need it. My syllabus is a dense document.
- Start building class culture. A classroom culture is something that will come about on it’s own from the personalities inside it, but as the teacher they will follow your lead. I let people know that the things that are valued are patience with their own process, and hard work. It isn’t just about work, though. I also get excited about math (letting them geek out too), as well as being patient with them to encourage them to ask questions. Having some inside jokes help too.
- Get them thinking about excelling, not just passing. Extra credit is one of the things that is controversial in some classes, because it can artificially elevate mediocre or failing grades. I do like to offer things to the class to get them thinking about not just how to pass, but how to excel. If they expect to excel (by doing extra) then they start to value themselves as good students, and become good students in the process. (Ah it is fun to play with people’s’ brains)
I’m pretty happy with how my classes look this term. I’ll know more about them next term.
The game is afoot!