C. Teaching Practices

C4. The First Class Session

The First Class Session

The first day is your best opportunity to give a good impression of yourself and your course and, potentially, of your subject. Also, this is where you can provide your first attention-grabbing event (see Chapter B5: Principles for Class Outline). As Gaffney & Whitaker (2015) say “First-day activities are especially important, because they need to both motivate their students and prepare them for the course.”

According to (Eberly Center, n.d.), the first class has at least two basic purposes:

  1. To clarify all reasonable questions students might have relative to the course objectives, as well as your expectations for their performance in class. As students leave the first meeting, they should believe in your competence to teach the course, be able to predict the nature of your instruction, and know what you will require of them.
  2. To give you an understanding of who is taking your course and what their expectations are.

Before the First Class

To ensure you have appropriate activities and equipment, at least one week before your first class, visit the classroom (or LMS) and make sure everything works. See Worksheet 2.2e – Classroom Check for a checklist.

Consider what you will wear based upon what impression you want to give.


  • Be early to greet students, check out room, and set-up any presentation materials.
  • Start on time. End on time.
  • Start with a welcome announcement (don’t start with ‘let’s get started’. This sounds negative).
  • Tell students the format of each class (for example, “We will start each day with XXX, then you will XXX, and I will XXX, then we will end with XXX).

Introduce Yourself & Course

Obvious topics for the first day are introducing yourself and going over the syllabus. To make this less boring, you can give a little more information about yourself such as:

  • Preferred name and/or title (what should they call you)
  • Preferred pronouns
  • A little about yourself which could include:
    • Why you are excited about this subject and course
    • How you first became interested in the subject
    • A story about how you have used this subject in ‘real’ life
    • Hobbies/spare time activities

Evaluate the Room Environment

The Vanderbilt Center for Teaching (2010) suggests that you pay particular attention to how well you can see and hear the students and how well they can see and hear you. “At the end of the introductions, ask them to move to optimize communication and make note of unexpected needs for a microphone, lighting changes, seating arrangements or other environmental controls” (Vanderbilt Center for Teaching, 2010).

Student Introductions

Asking students to introduce themselves is important to set a tone of joint learning. However, instead of just going around the room and giving their name and an interesting detail about themselves, consider other options.

Use name tents – give each student a marker and cardstock paper and ask them to write their names on both sides (so people beside and behind can see it). Consider collecting these and distributing them at subsequent sessions (students can select their names from your desk until you know them).

In asynchronous courses, ask your students to place a name tent that can be seen in the camera.

Small group or paired introductions – ask students to do a think-pair-share with their neighbor to discuss their background and interest in the subject.

Use an ice breaker. Romero (2019) suggests you remember the following 3 ice breaker elements:

  1. Keep your icebreakers inclusive
  2. Focus on learning student names
  3. Icebreakers can actually relate back to your course topic

However, remember that some cultures are not used to sharing personal information, so asking some students to share a hobby or favorite course may be more difficult for them.

Ice Breaker Ideas

Beyond ‘what’s your name and major’: From Vanderbilt University (Vanderbilt Center for Teaching, 2010):

Instead of just asking general questions concerning their name, major, and years at Vanderbilt, ask them questions that are pertinent to the subject and the atmosphere you want to build through the semester. Here are some examples:

In a geography or history class, you may want to ask students to introduce themselves and explain where they are from. You could mark these places on a map of the world as they talk.

In a math class, you may want to ask the students to introduce themselves and state one way mathematics enriches their lives every day.

You may also want to have the students break into pairs, exchange information, and introduce one another to the class.

From The Ohio State University (12 Icebreakers for the College Classroom, n.d.):

  • Draw a Picture or Doodle of a Significant Event. Students can draw a recent event in which they partook (or something recent that happened to them) and exchange their drawings with a partner. The pairs then discuss the events and then introduce each other to the larger group describing one another’s events to the class.
  • Syllabus Icebreaker. Before distributing syllabi, have students get into small groups (3-5 students depending on the size of your course) and introduce themselves to one another. In their groups, students write a list of questions they have about the class. After their questions are written down, hand out the syllabus and have the students find answers to their questions using the syllabus. This is not only an icebreaker but can also show students that many of their questions can be answered by reading the syllabus. Afterward, the class “debriefs” as a large group and discusses any questions that were not answered in the syllabus.
  • Common Sense Inventory. Make a list of true or false statements pertaining to content in your course (for example, in a Biology course, one might read, “Evolution is simply change over time”). Have students get into groups and decide whether each statement is true or false. As a large group, “debrief” by going over the answers and clarifying misconceptions.

Difficult reading: Germano & Nicholls (2020) suggest another day 1 activity – Have students read a difficult passage from next week’s course readings. Give them 5 minutes to write down why its difficult to read. In small groups, have students write down what they need to know to be able to understand the paragraph. This leads them to identifying what people in this discipline need to think about and how.

Student knowledge: ask students to give ideas on what they hope to learn, what features make up the best course they have taken, or what their concerns are. Whiteboard these and take a picture of the whiteboard. You can then use this on the last day of class to reflect on where they started and where they are now.

For more potential ice breakers, see “Icebreakers for the College Classroom Archives” (n.d.) or First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning (Weimer, 2019, available: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/first-day-of-class/).

Course Overview

“While planning the first day, consider the tone you want the class to take and try to communicate this through the activities you plan. It is important to communicate the importance of what is being learned and to show interest in the subject” (Hanson, 2016).

  • Give the students a brief synopsis of what the course will discuss and the learning outcomes.
  • Tell them why this topic matters to them. How will they use this in their major, other courses, future life, etc.


Rather than just reading the syllabus, try making it more interesting. Ideas for this include:

  • Use one of the syllabus-related ice-breakers above.
  • Group students and distribute one major section of the syllabus to each group (for example, Group A gets “homework assignments”). Each group studies the section then groups present that section of the syllabus to the rest of the class.
  • Give a syllabus quiz perhaps with a prize for fastest or best answers. You could also pair-up students for this.
  • Post paper around the room with syllabus topics and have students add notes about key parts of that part of the syllabus and have them write anonymous questions at the bottom (then make sure you answer these).
  • Hand out the course syllabus and divide the students into small groups to come up with syllabus, course, and content questions.  Ask one student from each group to interview you (deLuse, 2018, p. 310).

Your Expectations

“Establish high expectations and show students how to meet those expectations on the first day of class” (McGuire & McGuire, 2015).  

Either discuss rules of engagement in class or have students build a class conduct contract.

From Hanson & Advancing Student Success and Engineering and Technology Committee (2016) demonstrate your expectations:

  • In class (ex. listen and take notes, participate in group discussions, exercises / quizzes that will be submitted at the end of class, show respect for each other, etc.)
  • Outside of class (estimate of how much time they will spend on the course and what they will need to do outside of class. ex. read text, practice problems, homework that will be turned in, project, etc.)
  • Define the level of collaboration that is acceptable and what is considered an honor code violation (in many classes and on many assignments, collaboration is encouraged, students sometimes have a hard time defining the difference between collaboration and cheating)

Close the Session

  • If you want to use a quiz (such as a pre-test, group roles questionnaire, or CATs quiz), provide time for you to explain and for them to complete it.
  • Ask students to write you a brief email or letter introducing themselves, with preferred name and pronouns, their major, any concerns they have about the class, and other topics they would like you to know. Consider asking them to include a photo of themselves.
  • Make announcements about next session’s topic, homework, etc.
  • Thank them for coming

Another reference that may interest you:

Gaffney, J. D. H., & Whitaker, J. T. (2015). Making the Most of Your First Day of Class. Physics Teacher, 53(3), 137–139. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.4908079.

Online Conference Call Courses

Most of the ideas above apply to both classroom and conference call class sessions. However, the following article provides tips for conference call courses:

A Four-Step Plan: The First Day of Class on Zoom (Wong, 2020)

Asynchronous Instructor Presence

For courses where you are presenting material online (as videos, readings, etc.), you can still include the same types of information and interactions through discussion groups and chats. To ensure you help students (and meet DoE guidelines for substantive interaction), be sure to tell them when you will be available for office visits (virtual and/or physical), and when they can expect answers to emails. Remember that your emails may be to your regular email address or to an LMS mailbox. Either check both regularly or emphasize which they should use to contact you.

IDI & the First Class Session

Image indicating these concepts can be applied at steps 4 and 5.

This chapter is specific to Step 4 in the IDI model:

Step 4. How Will You Get There?

4.1 Develop & Teach Course
  1. Determine how you will review the syllabus.
  2. Identify introduction, ice breaker, syllabus coverage and other activities and approaches.
  3. Prepare for the first class session
    • If providing paper copies of the syllabus, make copies.
    • If you use a discussion rubric, make copies for the students.
    • Written guidelines on acceptable language and tone. Include the importance of freedom, charity and humility
  4. Create a class outline using Worksheets 4.1a.
  5. Tell students that if they feel overwhelmed at any point, they can contact you.

Step 5. How Did It Go?

5.1 Evaluate Course Success
  1. Follow the course outline, adapting and adjusting as needed. Use the class outline to note how various activities worked.


12 Icebreakers for the College Classroom. (n.d.). University Center for the Advancement of Teaching, The Ohio State University. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from https://ucat.osu.edu/bookshelf/teaching-topics/shaping-a-positive-learning-environment/12-icebreakers-college-classroom/.

Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). What to Do on the First Day of Class. Retrieved April 10, 2021, from https://teaching.berkeley.edu/what-do-first-day-class.

deLuse, S. (2018). First Impressions: Using a Flexible First Day Activity to Enhance Student Learning and Classroom Management. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(2), 308–321.

Eberly Center. (n.d.). First Day of Class. Eberly Center – Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved April 10, 2021, from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/firstday.html.

Gaffney, J. D. H., & Whitaker, J. T. (2015). Making the Most of Your First Day of Class. Physics Teacher, 53(3), 137–139. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.4908079.

Germano, W., & Nicholls, K. (2020). Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything. Princeton University Press.

Hanson, M. (Ed.). (2016). The Essential Guidebook to Teaching and the Classroom at UC. College of Engineering and Applied Science. https://ceas.uc.edu/content/dam/ceas/documents/facultystaff/ASSET/ASSET_New_Faculty_Teaching_Resource.pdf.

Icebreakers for the college classroom Archives. (n.d.). Faculty Focus. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/tag/icebreakers-for-the-college-classroom/.

Romero, E. (2019, July 19). Icebreaker Activities for College Students. Erika Romero. https://www.evereducating.com/ss-icebreakers/.

Vanderbilt Center for Teaching. (2010, June 10). First Day of Class. Vanderbilt University. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/first-day-of-class/.

Weimer, M. (2019, September 6). First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning | Faculty Focus. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/first-day-of-class/.

Wong, C. O. (2020, August 5). A Four-Step Plan: The First Day of Class on Zoom. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-course-delivery-and-instruction/a-four-step-plan-the-first-day-of-class-on-zoom/.