Beyond Icebreakers: Make the Most of the First Day of Class

Johanna Inman, Director of Instructional Technology for Teaching and Learning, CAT

I have a confession to make: I used to think nothing of substance could be accomplished on the first day of class. Instead, every semester I engaged in a first-day ritual that included taking attendance, reading the syllabus, and facilitating an icebreaker to help me learn students’ names. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that the first day of class can be an essential part of setting up a successful semester. Implementing an icebreaker on the first day of class is a step in the right direction, but research suggests additional ways to use that time to engage and motivate students through activities and strategies designed to accomplish more than basic introductions. On your next first day of class, consider using these strategies to take advantage of the first-day energy and get your course and semester off to a great start!


1. Use a positive tone in your syllabus.

A common complaint among college instructors is that students don’t read the syllabus. And yet, our syllabi are sometimes more challenging to read than the fine print on credit card applications. Over the years as we experience issues or problems in a course, we tend to add a policy or a note about it in the syllabus. Then the next year we underline it, maybe bold it the following year, then the next year we make it red. We keep stressing various parts of the syllabus until students aren’t quite sure what to do with it. Although there is no denying that the syllabus is a vital tool to communicate information about the course, learning goals, assignments, grading policies, and other university policies, it is definitely underutilized as a tool to build rapport and motivate students.

The good news? Small changes to your syllabus can have a big impact. For example, simply altering terms like “instructor” and “students” to “I” or “me” and “you” or “we” can personalize the writing and help build a connection. Also, adding a few questions the course will explore can pique students’ curiosity, getting them excited about the semester to come. If you’re looking for a more dramatic change to your syllabus, you might consider writing a “Promising Syllabus,” one that revises the goals, assessments, and evaluation language into promises and discusses how the instructor and students will both fulfill the promises throughout the semester.

2. Communicate the value of your course.

In How Learning Works (2013), the authors of explain that one of the factors contributing to student motivation is value for the task at hand. Generating value for a course can be fairly easy or extraordinarily challenging depending on several variables including the course content, and whether the course is a first-year university requirement or an upper-level course within a major. Regardless, the first day of class is a perfect time to begin intentionally aligning your course with students’ personal, professional, and academic goals. To do this, implement an activity that you plan to use throughout the course such as a small group discussion about course expectations or an individual reflective writing activity about students’ hopes for the class--you might even add a few clicker questions about the way the course will be taught. Not only will these activities help students focus on the value of the course, they begin to prepare students for what is to come. In addition, explicitly outlining the relevance of course activities and assignments also helps students answer that ever-present question, “Why are we doing this?”

3. Give students a little autonomy.

Lastly, you might consider allowing students to have some say in the decision-making within the course. This could be as simple as giving students a choice in which assignments they complete or how those assignments are weighted. You might even consider using the first day of class to collaboratively write portions of the syllabus such as late assignment policies or classroom etiquette.

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

What strategies do you use on the first day of class to get the semester off to a running start?

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