Start the way you mean to finish (and continue)

It’s the middle of the summer and I don’t teach again until late August. But, I am thinking about first days. It’s an important day of class, but it’s easy to treat it as a throwaway class (that’s certainly how most students seem to see it).syllabus

What do you do? Most of us probably do the usual: go over the syllabus (to some degree or another), answer questions, do an icebreaker, and some of us might start teaching (to our students’ chagrin)


I do most of this, but the most important thing I do is incorporate some student engagement activity. As the saying goes, “start the way you mean to finish.” Since I use active learning techniques regularly in my classes, I always do something active on Day 1. For example, in my Introduction to Comparative Politics class, I have groups of students brainstorm a list of terms they associate with democracy, prioritize the terms, and write their own definition of democracy. The Hobbes game is another great first day activity that also helps with learning names.

Doing something active on the first day serves a few purposes. Most importantly, for me, is that it sets the tone for the semester, namely that that I expect student engagement. If the first day is a passive syllabus review and mini-lecture, then the students get the wrong idea about what the rest of the semester will be like. A bit tongue-in-cheek, I tell the students that if they don’t like these sorts of activities, this class may not be right for them. Even a brief activity shows students that the class will be interactive and that they will need to participate.

Although this is the main reason I do an activity on the first day, many of these activities can also help to identify student preconceptions/misconceptions and prior knowledge. Certain activities, like the Hobbes game, can help you learn student names; others can help the students learn each other’s names.

So, if you plan to do active learning, start the way you mean to continue.

One thought on “Start the way you mean to finish (and continue)

  1. Here’s an icebreaker that always works like a charm.

    After I go over the syllabus, I ask everyone to take out a piece of paper. I then ask them to write their name and “I love political science” on the paper. Then I ask them to stand up at their desks while holding the paper up to their chests and I wait for everyone to do it. I then tell them to sit down and ask the inevitable question, “Why’d you stand up?” They’re usually a bit flummoxed, so I usually end up asking, “What tool did I use to get you to stand up?”

    This leads at once to a discussion of power and authority. It is always so, though I often have to push them to get to the actual terms. If we are lucky, I’ve gotten them to Weber’s definition of politics by the end of class; if not, that is immediately set up for the next class. Then we can get down to business with a vengeance.

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