First Impressions

We have heard stories from students and from listeners to our podcasts about initial impressions of professors that turned out not to be correct, but that nevertheless persisted throughout the term, despite a professor’s best efforts or intentions. Simply knowing students by name and using their names early in class (a challenge for some of us) can send a message of professorial caring and commitment to a class.  Some of our listeners have commented on the demeanor or dress of a professor in the classroom and the misinterpretations this can cause.  Remember, however, that establishing the academic tone and your enthusiasm about the academic subject matter is critical.  On the first day of classes, avoid talking about the requirements of the course.  Instead, concentrate on establishing both a welcoming and a rigorous academic atmosphere.

Some of the following suggestions are counterintuitive, but have worked for us.  We suggest you at least try them out in a course or two.   

(1) Jump into the subject matter by choosing a particularly interesting topic, and show your enthusiasm for it.  Keep in mind your range of learners and learning styles as you do this and present the materials in ways that you expect the students to be able to receive them during the course of the semester.  For example, your presentation could present expertise and content through periods of the lecture in which students are expected to take notes and to begin to understand the themes of the course.  The “text” of the class—that which you and the students will examine together, be it a book, piece of art, building, formula, experiment, etc.—can be displayed and engaged during the class session.  You may want to work into the first day a meaningful exercise in which students interact with the course material and each other in order to begin to build community.

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(2) Set aside some of the time to build a community atmosphere by allowing you and the students to get to know each other.  David does an exercise in which he (with student permission) asks them to form a line, and then shakes the hand of each, handing each of them a syllabus and taking their pictures with his smart phone so that he can more quickly learn their names.

(3) Set aside time at the end of the first class meeting to allow for student questions about the class and about the college or university generally.  You might want to invite students to walk with you to your office after class, or you might project (or distribute) a map on how to find your office.

(4) In the rush of the first few days, establish some down time outside of class to be aware of students who might need help.  Students whose first language is not English, students with disabilities, and students new to the idea of college or university have entered an environment that is set up for insiders.  A colleague of Daniel’s, despite the almost calamitous hurriedness of a recent semester’s first week, took the time to walk a particularly lost student to class.  Imagine the effect this action may have had on this student. This, thought the student, is the kind of college where professors care enough about my success to go out of their way for me on the first day of class and to even talk with me during the process.

(5) During the first days of class, do not be afraid to explain the obvious in the classroom.  Impress upon students the joys and responsibilities of being a college or university student; talk to them about the differences your class will have from their high school experiences, or from lower-level college courses in regards to subject matter and expected student skills and investment. (Daniel, for example, briefly describes the differences in expectations between a pre-college and college-level composition course as similar to advancing from Algebra 1 to Algebra 2:  students will need to use some of the skills learned in Algebra 1, but the mastery of those skills alone do not guarantee success in Algebra 2.)

(6) Remember that the first day of classes is your opportunity to gain an academic snapshot of your students.  Survey them.  Get a sense of their expectations, expertise, questions, past academic experiences in the subject matters, concerns, hopes, and fears.  The first day should be thought of as a high point in getting to know the audience that is in front of you.


Copyright ©2013 The Student Caring Project. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials on these pages are copyrighted by Dr. Daniel de Roulet and Prof. David Pecoraro, C0-Founders of The Student Caring Project. All rights reserved. No part of these pages, either text or image may be used for any purpose other than personal use. Therefore, reproduction, modification, storage in a retrieval system or retransmission, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise, for reasons other than personal use, is strictly prohibited without prior written permission.


Daniel and David discuss this topic.


We recorded this podcast on Friday, November 1, 2013

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