The first day of class sets the stage, and the tone, for the remainder of the term. How you spend that first period provides students with a sense of your teaching style, the course content, their fellow classmates, and other factors relating to the course.

The exact way that instructors choose to spend that time will, of course vary from course to course and format to format (whether online or on campus). You  may decide to jump right into a lecture on the first day. On the other hand, perhaps you recognize that the students in your particular course benefit from discussion and interaction that “warms them up” to you, the course, and each other.

However you choose to spend the time, do endeavor to use the whole period. As Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie write in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: “The first day is important, and by using it fully you communicate that you take class periods seriously. By the end of the class period, students should feel, ‘This is going to be an exciting course.'” (25)

Using these easy-to-implement ideas from their text, you can familiarize students with your course’s content and structure on the first day of class, while still allowing time for initial interactions that help you and your students get to know one another.

  • Introduce students to the topics you will cover in the course. For example: if you’re teaching an art history course, you could briefly go over each of the stylistic periods you’ll address over the next several weeks; if you teach economics, you might list the various economic theories, policies, and issues that students will learn about in your class; if you teach computing, you could share an overview of the technological skills students will gain in the course. (You could also review your syllabus as part of this process.)
  • List some of the questions that the course will answer and address. (Consider inviting students to jot down their own questions and keep track of them over the term, to see if they’ve been answered.)
  • Share examples of how course material relates to life outside the classroom. You might use news stories, engaging case studies from your field’s literature, or your own anecdotes. (25)

On this first day of class, you might also want to find out how much, or how little, your students know about the subject of your course. Svinicki and McKeachie offer the following suggestions:

  • Ask students to raise their hands if they’ve taken one course, or more than one course, in your general subject area.
  • Administer a short (and non-graded) quiz; this can help both you and your students see what they already know, as well as how much they have to learn.
  • Create a list of the key topics you’ll address in your course, and ask students to state how familiar with each of those topics. (To make this process simple, you could have them rank their understanding along a scale of one to five, with one signifying “mostly unfamiliar” and five signifying “very familiar.”
  • Provide a list of supplementary study tools and resources that will build or deepen students’ understanding of your course topics. (24)

Reference: Svinicki, Marilla, and Wilbert J. McKeachie. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers,14th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.


How do you address subject matter on the first day of class? Do you dive right into the topics or do you devote a significant amount of time to icebreakers and other warm-up activities? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.