Instructors can use backward introductions and front loaded content to start the first class off right.
By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT
For the last several issues, we have discussed various aspects of our professional development. For the next several months, we will return to discussing teaching strategies, starting with suggestions for beginning classes.
Most of us start the first class with some sort of introductions – we often ask students to introduce themselves – sometimes to the group and sometimes in pairs and then the partner introduces the student to the larger group. In large classes, these introductions often happen only in small groups although many of us use a biographical questionnaire so we can learn something about the students in our course.
Doing introductions backward involves focusing on the present and not the past. Instead of asking about home towns, interest in the topic, or background experience, try asking questions that focus on the immediate past or the future. Whether the students answer these questions in front of the whole class or in pairs, try asking:
- What is one of the most intriguing things that happened to you this summer?
- What is one thing you planned to do or wish you had done this summer but did not?
- Which course from last term changed your perspective?
- What do you fear about this term?
- What career or professional questions do you have this month?
- Which social media platform – Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or other – do you use most often?
- Who is your current favorite singer or performer?
The present focus and the notion that all answers are fine – something you may have to reinforce – sets a positive and encouraging tone for the course and establishes a culture of acceptance while still emphasizing assignments and goals.
Explanations of Course Policies and Activities
Some of us have seen teachers spend the first session reviewing the syllabus and the details of the course. While that information is important, it does not have to be the subject of a lecture or an entire first class meeting.
Instead, try sending the syllabus to students using your classroom management system and give them a quiz in class about the syllabus’s contents. It can even be corrected by peers! This strategy delivers the message that the information in the syllabus is important and students need to know it and will be held accountable for learning it. Wasting a first class on reviewing this information also prevents you from covering other material or sets the expectation that you will explain everything.
A second way to focus on the syllabus is to ask a few questions in class such as:
- What are the most unusual parts of this syllabus?
- What did you not expect in the syllabus for this course?
- What is the most important piece of information in this syllabus for you to remember?
- What is missing in the syllabus?
These questions get them to think about what is in the syllabus and pushes them beyond just reading it.
Another way is to provide students with a syllabus cut up into sections and ask them to put it together in order. This activity forces them to read and think about the information in the syllabus and what is more important. It also provides a small group activity (since you can do it with many small groups working simultaneously) for students to learn about each other and start to work with each other.
I ask students in the first class to fill out a 3 x 5 card with their phone number (which I cannot access on NYU classes) and the name they want to be called. They also write and sign the following statement – “I have read, understand, and accept the syllabus for this course.” It has helped with any confusion about what is in the syllabus and reduced any negotiations about course assignments and evaluation techniques.
Front Loaded Content
One way to emphasize the importance of the course material is to structure the first class to focus primarily on content and very little on the policies and details of the course. In a three hour course format, I spend 20 minutes on the syllabus and course policies and procedures and all the rest on content. I assign a reading before the first class and dive into the material with group activities, discussion groups and processing of the activities, all reinforcing the reading. If there is time, I may also question the students orally on the concepts in the reading. It is a way of engaging them in the material of the course and getting then involved in understanding the need to read and remember the information in the assignments.
One way to focus on content involves considering the ratio of time and emphasis on content versus syllabus during the first class session. Holding students responsible for learning their way around the kitchen or dining room and reading and remembering the information in the syllabus will provide you with more time to spend on content. Given that I have never met a faculty member who said there was too much class time for the content of the course, using the first class session more productively can recapture time for content. It also gets students engaged very early in the course.
Have fun starting classes in these ways. It may just be a new framework for you to continue your excellent teaching, and it might suggest other new ideas for you.
Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide.