Image by flickr user evmaiden / Creative Commons licensed

Because many of us are approaching a new semester, I’d like to reflect on “first day” rituals. As a section leader, instructor of record, or professor, how do you begin the first day of class, and why? This year, I’m the section leader and grader for an introductory American Studies course. Prior to this appointment, I’ve been an instructor of record for composition and literature courses for a number of years. In this post, I offer some reflections on my own first day rituals in smaller, discussion-based courses in the humanities that service a variety of majors.

Reviewing the syllabus. I view the syllabus as a contract, and thoroughly reviewing its terms is an important first-day ritual for me.  In the past, I’ve distributed a paper copy of my syllabus and have reviewed all of the policies by asking students to read sections out loud. This can be a lengthy activity; however, an in-depth review is necessary to some extent, particularly for courses that involve a number of assignments or projects. Recently, I’ve shifted away from this practice (at least in my upper-level courses).  For instance, I make the syllabus available electronically in advance of the first day, and I ask students to read the document thoroughly before coming to class. I still review parts of the syllabus; however, I spend less time educating students about course policies and more time discussing course goals as well as the rationale behind our reading/assignment schedule.

Calling roll.  On the first day, I don’t call roll at the beginning of class. For many semesters, I’ve taught mostly freshmen who often have a hard time navigating our very large campus. Because I expect to have late-comers on the first day, I delay roll call for at least 10-15 minutes. I do, however, make a note of tardy arrivals for record-keeping purposes; a late arrival on the first day sometimes is the beginning of a trend.

Participating in an icebreaker activity. In recent semesters, I’ve combined calling roll with an icebreaker activity.  In fact, I think the best icebreakers are not related to the course but rather ask students to reveal something personal—but not necessarily private—about themselves. To put students at ease, I share my response to the icebreaker first. Icebreaker activities allow students in smaller classes to become comfortable with one another (and not to mention you, the instructor). Establishing camaraderie—or at least planting the seeds for it—will ensure that future activities, particularly those that require dialogue among students, unfold more easily. Of course, icebreaker activities potentially are cringe-worthy, but a well-designed prompt can be both memorable and fun.

Completing a learning activity. In most instances, I’m dead-set against designing a first day that does not include a learning activity in which students work on something that is connected to the course; I especially like activities that ask students to work in groups as well as individually, perhaps on an informal writing assignment. Because I teach discussion and skills-based courses, I feel it is important to emphasize that my classroom is an active space that involves teamwork as well as independent exploration. A learning activity accomplishes these goals nicely. While students may balk at participating in such an activity on the first day, I’ve found that, done right, it eventually gets students excited and curious about what lies ahead.

What strategies have you used (or maybe altered or abandoned) on the first day of class, and why? I’m especially interested in hearing about icebreaker activities you’ve tried.

UPDATE, 1/5/12: Since December 2011, GradHacker also simultaneously publishes on Inside Higher Ed.  My post on first day rituals at Inside Higher Ed received a number of interesting comments, especially regarding icebreakers (inappropriate or helpful?) and the kind of information a syllabus should include. Check out the comments for more first day tips and to jump into the debate.

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7 Responses to First Day of Class Rituals

  1. Carol Anne says:

    My favorite icebreaker is to have each student describe their favorite sandwich. I usually wind up with a bunch of sandwich craving students after this exercise, so I think this year I’ll bring in some snacks on the first day, too. I teach adults and most of them have run from work to class and didn’t have time to grab a decent meal. So this is also a good time to let them know it’s OK to eat in class.

    • amy.rubens says:

      Carol Anne: Great idea! I like icebreakers like this — it seems like your sandwich question would get students talking quickly, which always is helpful. (Why spend a lot of time on an icebreaker?) Also, I bet it encourages cross-talk among students.

    • Rebecca says:

      GREAT idea…I’m going to leverage it tomorrow night, class #1 of new term. Thanks much!

  2. Brianne says:

    I really like doing a partner icebreaker where two students introduce each other by giving his or her partner’s name and one activity that he/she enjoys outside of school. Then I have them give one thing they have in common that is not obvious. Of course, they get a few minutes to talk first before presenting to the class. This has worked very well for me so far.

    Next week when I start teaching labs again, I will have to try the sandwich icebreaker. Great idea, Carol Anne.

    • amy.rubens says:


      Good idea. Putting students in pairs for an icebreaker — and also asking them to share their discussion with the class — would go a long way towards making students feel more comfortable in a small-class setting.

      Maybe I will think of a “pair share” icebreaker for this semester!

  3. Sarah says:

    The icebreaker I use is to put students in small groups (about 4-5) and they have to make a list of the things that EVERY group member has in common. Eg. They all prefer Coke over Pepsi. This requires them to do a lot of talking about a wide range of topics. At the end, they tally up a list and we go around the room and see which group wins a small prize to share (bag of lollies/candy).

  4. Megan says:

    I always do some sort of pre-course assessment, usually where I have them watch a clip of a movie and have them answer 3 open-ended questions that relate directly to course outcomes. I tell them to answer the questions to the best of their ability, that it won’t be graded. I collect them and keep them. Then at the end of the semester they watch the same clip and answer the same questions, and they and I can see how far they’ve come and what they’ve learned in the course.

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