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First Day of Class: The Voice of Experience

Members of the 2002-2003 TA Liaison committee generated the following pieces of advice and accompanying examples and stories.

Tell students something about yourself.

Adina Giurgiu, Mass Communications TA

"Instead of going on and on about my research interests and academic background, I usually say I'm from Romania, from the center of Transylvania and how long I've been in the U.S. In my case, I see people smiling when I mention Transylvania, so I always add ‘... and no, Dracula is not Romanian.’ That usually brings some smiles on the students' faces. It makes me more down-to-earth in their eyes, without jeopardizing my credibility in front of them."

International TAs may want to acknowledge the possibility of misunderstandings due to language or cultural differences.

First Day Tips for International TAs

Learn student names (and how to pronounce them!).

Masaya Nishioka, Physics TA

"What TAs in our department (Physics) do in their first classes is the following:

Before the class, the TA checks his/her students' names and photos on the "one-stop" web pages so that he/she can remember their names easily. On the first day, the TA brings name tags for their students and himself/herself, and asks his/her students to write their names on tag sand attach them. It helps the TAs learn students' names quickly."

Learn about your students.

Edward Rhoads. Astronomy TA

"On the first day of class I give students a short questionnaire. It usually has 5 or 6 questions with questions such as:

  • What do you expect to learn about?
  • What would you like to learn about?
  • How much math have you had, etc.

This semester I started something new where at the end I asked them to give me any burning questions related to astronomy that they had and hoped could be answered. I then answered the questions (to the best of my ability) on a web page which the students could access."

Sample First Day Student Survey

Learn where students are in terms of the subject matter

Tiffany Muller, Geography TA

Tiffany gives the following assignment on the first day:

In narrative form*, please write 1-2 pages (typed, double-spaced) about yourself and your expectations for this class. While you are welcome to include anything that you feel is relevant for me to know, make sure you answer the following specific questions:

  • How did you come to be at the University of MN?
  • What are you looking forward to in the coming semester?
  • What are your fears about this semester?
  • What is one thing you would like to get out of this class?
  • What is your experience with geography courses?
  • What does "geography" mean to you?
  • How do you feel about writing?

*Narrative form: I'd like to read your responses as a story, not simply a set of answers to the questions above. Your final product should read like an essay that incorporates the answers into your story, as opposed to a grocery list that strings one answer after another.

"This method has provided me with some good insight about student comfort with both writing and the course subject matter. (I've used a similar set of questions for Composition classes.) It also gets them thinking about their own expectations, and sets the tone for a fast-paced, writing intensive class."

Help students get to know each other and begin building a learning community

Adina Giurgiu, Mass Communications TA

"When I met for the first time with the seminar students, in a smaller group, I didn't want to make them uncomfortable about just saying their names and majors. But I did want to hear them speak, to learn their names and get a better picture of how they would interact as a group. So I asked them to tell me the worst thing that had happened to them that day. I started with an example about me - I had just been to Boynton's for the routine tuberculosis test, and I hate needles! It was a pretty effective method!"

Stimulate interest in the content

Laura Jacobi, Communication Studies TA

"I teach Public Speaking, Interviewing, Business Comm, and Interpersonal Communication, and in order to stimulate interest in the content, I always try to use some sort of icebreaker relevant to the content. For example, with Public Speaking, I have students get into pairs and interview one another on either their most embarrassing moment or their most fond memory. Then, they must each give a mini-speech pretending to be their partner, and sharing that person's story. Then we discuss how through this activity they used interpersonal communication (through the interview process), intrapersonal communication (by attempting to memorize the info),and public communication (through the speech)."

Chaitra Hardison teaches a senior thesis course in psychology. On the first day, she uses an exercise to pique their interest in the course and start the process of interesting research topics for their thesis.

Provide students with an explicit, inclusive syllabus

Sample syllabi:

Talk with students about important and/or unusual aspects of your syllabus. Don't just assume they'll read it. If you are leading a discussion or lab section and do not create the syllabus for the class, you should still go over all areas that you have some control over, e.g. grading, lab policies, etc.

University of Minnesota's Syllabus Tutorial

Jeanne Willcoxon-Rebhan, Theater TA

"I go over the syllabus (maybe link to her syllabus here rather than above) with the students on the first day and highlight these points:

  • our class will involve physical activity, so I need to know if anyone has any conditions that inhibit such activity.
  • the due dates for assignments
  • the policy for late assignments — basically, don't do it
  • I go over the grading and the extra credit possibility
  • I really highlight the policy of four missed classes and you flunk, as this is somewhat unique to this course.
  • As we have had problems with plagiarism in the past, I go over what plagiarism is and what the consequences are when a student does it.
  • Students must attend two university productions, so I briefly go over the performance dates and the requirement.

Students then have the opportunity to ask questions about what is expected of them in the course and raise questions about the specific assignments."

Have student experience what the class will be like.

If it's a hands-on class, be sure they're involved in hands-on activity on Day 1. If it's a class where discussion is expected, have students discuss on day 1.

Jeanne Willcoxon-Rebhan, Theater TA

"Since my classes are in the theatre department, I think it is important for the students, from the first day, to know that we will be working physically as well as intellectually in the course. This means that I always plan to do an exercise that will get the students moving and, in some way, facilitate name- learning.

In TH1101, we start out talking about representation, what it is, how it is used in theatre and in life. So, for my first exercise, usually after having gone over the syllabus and introducing myself and my expectations for the course, I have the students group themselves according to shirts and to do this without talking. Once in this group, I have the students first introduce themselves to each other and then create a tableau of what the shirts represent, or what message people read about the shirt-wearer's identity through the medium of the shirt. I then ask the students to walk around and then, again, ask them to group, but this time according to shoes. I then repeat the same process as before. This can go on for however long it seems worthwhile. Usually, at the end, I ask the students to group themselves by what kind of music they like -- they have to do this without talking. This then allows us to really address how we "read" people at every moment of our lives and then enter into some rather thorny questions about representation and identity."

Let students know that you're accessible and open to their feedback.

Laura Jacobi, Communication Studies TA

"To let students know I am open to their feedback, I try to present options on the syllabus (i.e., choice of paper or test). I also simply ask them for their feedback in terms of their expectations of the class and how they feel those can be met."

Additional Ideas for the First Weeks of Class