The first day of classes is never an exciting one. Most students expect to get done early, no one is really “ready to work,” and most teachers try to give an extra day in case students add the course late. Because of this, we all know the first day of regular classes (meaning: excluding classes that only meet once a week, typically) is really just Syllabus Day.

Oh, Syllabus Day. You are a dreaded thing.

Here’s what I found is typical, both from my experiences as a student and as a teacher:

(1) Roll Call. Teacher inevitably mispronounces names and calls students by names they don’t actually go by. There is confusion over which “John” is present. Sometimes ice breaker activities make attendance more tolerable, but usually students just provide the bare minimum information (name, major).

(2) Pass Out And Go Through the Syllabus. Teacher attempts to avoid “reading at” students but there is no good way to do this. Teacher identifies key parts students always ask about (assignments, attendance policy, grade procedures, schedule, textbooks, etc.) If we’re lucky, 50 percent of students pay attention. Even though textbooks have been ordered for months and teacher sent e-mail about needing to purchase them, there are still several students who don’t have the book and want to know “when we need it.”

(3) Either (a) Teachers let students go early, or (b) Teacher attempts to engage students in an activity, and students spend the rest of class watching other students walk by in the hall, off to eat lunch or watch TV or do anything that isn’t sitting in this classroom, right now, with this teacher, who doesn’t seem to understand that the first day of class is always Syllabus Day.

And there you have it. That’s Syllabus Day, and I’m sure most of you are familiar with it from one side or another (or both). My least favorite part is talking at my students. They are all fully capable of reading the syllabus, without me.

The one refrain all college-level instructors seem to be repeating is “It’s in the syllabus.” There are, seriously, so many jokes about frustrated teachers telling students the answer to their question is in the syllabus. I try not to be too cranky about it, but it is unnerving to have students e-mail you with questions they could easily answer on their own, especially when they seem to need the answer ASAP and you don’t get the e-mail until the next morning.

So, this week I tried something new. Instead of Reading The Syllabus At My Students, I gave them a group activity to help them get acquainted with each other and class.

After attendance and giving a brief spiel about myself and the course, I asked students to get in groups of 3-4. Then, I told them to get to know each other. “Your teacher is saying, ‘Talk about anything that isn’t related to class!'” I joked to mine. Some of them laughed.

Then, I asked students to come up with five questions they have about class, the textbook, what they’ll be learning, or me. I had them write these down with all of their names, so that I can collect these to compile an FAQ later.

After students have questions, I showed them where to find the syllabus and schedule online (I don’t provide printed copies of anything). Then, I told them to use those documents to find the answers to their questions.

At the end of the activity, I took questions students couldn’t find the answers to. Some of them were just things I don’t think about including (“Can I eat in class?”) and some of them were things I might purposely leave off until detailed information is needed (“What are the blogs going to be about?”). In general, though, most students found the answers to their questions in the syllabus and schedule.

Before I dismiss students, I take a few minutes to direct their attention to thing I think are important. I like to make sure that I reiterate my attendance policy and why coming to class matters, as well as my late work policies. I also point out any out-of-the-usual features on the schedule, such as class cancellations for conferences or when we are meeting in other locations. I also remind them that the syllabus and the schedule are the best places to find information, and they should look there before they e-mail me because they can probably answer their own questions.

After getting through all of my first-days for this semester, I feel like this worked reasonably well. In my very first class, I had students who had actually read the syllabus prior to Day 1, so they either didn’t have many questions or were asking things I didn’t anticipate (like the eating question). But when students had not looked at the syllabus prior to coming, I could tell that they had more “basic” questions that were typically answered in the syllabus.

Overall, this was a fun activity that took a lot of pressure of me on the first day of class. It also sets the expectation that students are responsible for their own learning and that they will need to put in work and effort on their own. I like being able to set that precedent.

How do you spend the first day of class? Any advice or ideas for engaging students while still making sure they get the information they need?

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