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Approach to Teaching Large Classes:
The First Day of Class

The first day of class is the most important of the semester.  It is a time for setting expectations and establishing procedures that will guide you, and the students, throughout the rest of the term.  Do not simply distribute the syllabus and dismiss students by telling them to read it on their own.  Many will not, while others will not understand parts of it.  A very brief session also sends a message that you do not view teaching and learning seriously.

Before You Enter

It is essential to visit your room before the first class.  You need to know the layout and what technology is available.  You should also know how to operate any technology you plan to use as well as a phone number for assistance with the technology during a class session.  Instructions, as well as phone numbers for assistance, are usually posted near the technology itself.

Keep your audience in mind.  Though some students will be comfortable in a college environment, for others this may be their first college class.  Students may have little or no sense of what to expect, or what is required of them.  Some students might have difficulty finding the room.  For others, it may be their first large class.  They might be a bit stunned at the size of the room and need some time to find a seat that will work for them.  Given these issues, consider starting the first class five minutes late.  However, tell them that from then on you will begin on time.

Prior to the class (or shortly after the start of the semester), you might want to go to the VCU webpage to pull up pictures of your students:

  1. Open the VCU Faculty page from the VCU homepage
  2. Open the VCU Reporting Center (far left column second from the bottom)
  3. Open VCU Internal
  4. Login
    1. Last 10 digits of your VCU Card
    2. Last 4 digits of your SSN
  5. Open University Faculty Reports
  6. Open Class Roll with Pictures (e.g. ENGL200001)

This is also known as the "class composite."  The usefulness of this exercise clearly depends upon the size of the class and how well you remember names.  However, learning the names of even a few students can help break down some of the distance of a large class.

You can also get your class roster from the Reporting Center.  This roster is updated regularly to adjust for drop/add.  It also shows the year in school for each student.

Things to Address on the First Day


Introduce yourself; students are likely to want to know a little bit about you.  You might consider discussing:

  • How you came to teach this class
  • How/why you became a university professor
  • What you like about teaching this class, or teaching in general
  • Research areas
  • Personal interests or hobbies. 

There are other possibilities as well.  The goal is to provide information that humanizes you in the eyes of the students. Try to get them to see you as more than an anonymous figure who comes in, leads class each day, and then abruptly leaves.  Letting a few students ask questions about these matters can be an effective tool to get students in the habit of talking in class.

In some cases, you will be working with one or more teaching assistants.  They might be graduate and/or advanced undergraduate students.  Be sure to introduce them, and explain what their role will be.  The teaching assistants are there to help you, but convey to students that they are also there to help them.  Indeed, in some cases students will feel more comfortable approaching them than you.  Students should know how to contact their teaching assistants, and so consider asking each assistant to establish an email account that will be used only for this course.

Ground Rules

Students need to know what the rules are, what the consequences will be for breaking those rules, and what, if any, rewards there will be for following them.  These should be stated in the syllabus for easy reference at any time of the semester, but the first day is the time to emphasize especially important policies.  Expectations for student behavior and course policies must be communicated clearly from the start because it is difficult, if not impossible, to change direction later in the semester.  Establish a policy and stick to it.  Students need to know if the procedures, policies, and activities in the course will work for them; if not, it is better for them, and you, that they drop the course as soon as possible. 

  • Delivering Ground Rules
    • One possible way to convey ground rules is for you to go over this part of the syllabus. 
      • Some instructors send emails to students before the first day instructing them to find the syllabus on Blackboard prior to the first class
      • Or they may email the syllabus as an attached file. 
      • Others prefer to hand out a paper copy on the first day.
    • You can have students read the syllabus for a few minutes in class and then require them to ask questions about the ground rules.
      • Some instructors call on students to ask questions though some will be shy about asking questions in front of a large number of their peers
      • You might first ask them anonymously to write down a question on a piece of paper.
      • Collect a sample of those questions from a few rows and then read and answer them for the entire class,
      • Or you could simply call on students in a few rows to share their questions and then answer them. 
      • One twist on this approach is to have students first think of a question on their own, but then have them pair up with a neighbor to their right or left, introduce themselves, and compare questions.
      • They then have to decide which of the two questions they would like to ask

As with most methodologies, each approach has its benefits and drawbacks.  Your highlighting the ground rules is more efficient; you can free up time for other things if you use this method.  On the other hand, the latter promotes greater student involvement and might help break down some of the anonymity of a large class.  If you ask them to work with a neighbor, they leave the first day at least knowing a little bit about one other person in the class. 

Course Structure

Students are also likely to be curious about what they will be doing.  What topics will this class explore?  What types of assignments and/or papers are required?  What is the format of the exams, and how many are there? How are grades determined?  Is anything relevant to this class on Blackboard?  These types of issues should be addressed, at least in part, on the syllabus, but the first day is the time to highlight the most important.  Here, too, you may do this yourself or seek student involvement as noted above.  If Blackboard or some other type of technology/web material is part of the course, consider offering a brief demonstration of how to access the site and a short overview of what is found there.  Some students will be able to do this just fine on their own, but many will not.

If you plan to promote active learning throughout the semester it is vital to get the students involved right from the start.  They need to become accustomed to doing things in class, and the longer you take to get them active the harder it will be to do so.  If you do not do so on the first day, it is imperative to do so during the next class.

Subject Matter

You might also want to offer a brief introduction to some general aspects of your discipline or to the specific subject matter for this course.  In either approach, consider exploring why your subject is important and why it is interesting.  What will students gain from your course, besides some credits and, if applicable, the completion of a requirement for graduation?  Some students are extrinsically motivated--they care almost entirely about grades and credits.  Others, however, are intrinsically motivated.  They arrive genuinely interested in the subject, or they may be persuaded that the subject is interesting and significant.  The first day can help set the tone for intrinsic motivation.

You might also look for ways to gauge students' prior experience with your discipline.  What do they already know?  A brief, but un-graded, pre-test is one way to do this.  What do they want to learn?  Here, a short in-class writing exercise might be useful.  Be aware of time constraints, however.  It might be impossible, especially in a fifty-minute Monday, Wednesday, Friday course, to do this and to go over ground rules and course structure.

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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