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First Impressions Matter

Have the nightmares started yet? If you are like most teachers, you look forward to the fall term with mixed feelings. Of course you like to teach or you would pick an easier job that pays better. You have to love teaching to make it your life’s work. On the other hand, mixed in with the enthusiasm of trying new teaching methods and new material with new students, come the nightmares: those scary dreams of getting to class with the wrong notes, in the wrong building dressed in your pajamas. Add in dreams where the students get up and leave after five minutes or where they all pull out their smart phones and start surfing the web for new videos and music to download while you are teaching the most important class of your career and you show up for the first class too exhausted to think.

You have good reason to be anxious. That reason is four minutes. According to communication experts, four minutes is all you have to make a good first impression when you meet someone new. No wonder we all get social anxiety when meeting new people. No wonder you feel pressure is about that first class. You need to look your best and act your best to make a good first impression of yourself and the course.

Have you ever noticed that you feel less socially anxious when you have a prescribed role that comes with behavioral guidelines? For example, wine and cheese faculty receptions are less scary when you are sitting at the table checking in new faculty and giving out name tags. You have a job. You are trained. You know what to do. Your anxiety drops. What if we teachers had a template of prescribed behaviors for the start of a new class? After I developed the template described below, my pre-semester anxiety shrank. No more nightmares – well almost no nightmares. Last night I dreamt that the faculty I was part of had to sleep in a dorm but the dorm was really the new mattress section of a large department store. My mattress kept folding up like those adjustable hospital beds trapping me inside so I couldn’t get to class. Once I got there, the teaching went well.

In this newsletter I am going to describe a template that I have used for many years and have taught to other faculty who wanted to make a fabulously good first impression. You can adjust it to your needs and preferences but there are research reasons for each element of the template and it really works to help faculty face those first classes with less dread and more joy.

Be Prepared

The old Girl Scout motto really helps. Get your syllabus done in plenty of time. Run the hard copies or post it online. Make sure it includes the following:

  • Purpose of course.

  • Course goals or objectives.

  • Textbook references or other materials such as lab packets.

  • Your name and preferred contact information. Don’t give the students your home number or private cell unless you like having them call on Sunday afternoon to ask you how many pages you want for the 10 page term paper. To reach you by email, have the use the course symbol (Psy 101 – Sec 1) in the subject line. Then set up a filter on your computer for that symbol so that all the emails from that class drop into a folder until your schedule course prep time for that class.

  • Your office hours with the location spelled out for the geographically challenged and your email office hours, sometime each week that you promise to check and answer all emails from class members.

  • Week by week reading and other assignments.

  • Grading rubrics so that students know what qualities you are looking for in their assignments.

  • Special materials such as outlines of lab reports or formats for book reports.

  • Policies for attendance, classroom decorum, etc.

  • Grading scale for the whole course so there are no misunderstandings as to what earns each letter grade.

3-2-1 Showtime

Line up all your class materials the day before the class. Plan your wardrobe – something slightly more upscale than you will wear the rest of the semester. Since you will have some very specific things to do during the first class don’t worry about a lot of content for this first class but do prepare ahead for the second and third class so that you can relax and get a good night’s sleep before that first class.

  1. Get to class early. Sometimes this isn’t possible when you are coming to class from another class across campus but it is possible when you come from home or office. Be sure to plan parking and walking time. They always take longer than you think.

  2. Get your materials ready. Load your slides if you use them. Turn on equipment you are going to use. Check the temperature, windows seating, etc. Think of yourself as a host who wants the guests to be comfortable.

  3. Greet the students at the door of the classroom. Offer a handshake if you are comfortable with that. Offer your name and a smile and a welcome. Ask them their names. You won’t remember all of their names but you will pick up a couple of them. If you use a hard copy of the syllabus or any other written materials, give those and a 3 x 5 index card individually to each student until about 2 minutes before class time. They will be shocked and impressed that you care about them. As you start class, leave the materials in an obvious place for the latecomers.

  4. Start class on time by introducing yourself and the course name just in case people are in the wrong place. If you wait to start until a few more students straggle in, you have taught the students that class starts at 9:04 instead of 9. Introduce yourself with a short paragraph about yourself. Students often wonder all semester “what is her story?” Tell them: where you grew up or went to school, how you got interested in the field, what research or consulting or writing you do related to the class content. Include something brief about family or hobbies if you are comfortable with your students knowing those things.

  5. Ask them for some information. Put up a slide or a have a drawing on the board that formats what you want on the 3 x 5 card. Name, nickname, contact information, how many courses in the field they have had before, what work or internship experiences may be related to the course. Ask them about their hopes for the course beyond needing the credits. Faculty development consultant, Ron Berk, suggests asking the students about their favorite media such as TV shows, movies, songs. In his workshops he teaches faculty how to use the media information to drop in references of current student culture in slides, examples, skits, and assignments.

When I taught a graduate leadership class I also asked them to pose a “Seinfeld question” on their cards. The comedian often began his stand up routine with the question, “What’s with the (topic)?” For example, he might ask “What’s with people who park in spots reserved for drivers with disabilities when they don’t have a disability?” In the class, I asked the students to pose the question about a topic related to the course that interested them. They came up with topics such as “What’s with women not filling out the top leadership roles at our organization?” What’s with pay not being a motivator in the work place?” Later in that class when we go to the part on the syllabus about the term paper, I suggested they consider that they already had a topic – the question they posed on their cards.

By now you have made a good first impression. The students know that you care enough to get to know them and they know something about you as an instructor. You might be about 10-15 minutes into the class. Now it’s time to create an atmosphere of learning with them.

Community of Learners

Studies on the best college teachers show they create an atmosphere of learning in their classes (see books by Walvoord, Baine, Nilson and others). In this first class, help the students connect with each through a learning activity. Some examples:

  • Have the students introduce themselves to a partner on a topic related to the course purpose. For example, in an art class have the students talk to a partner about their favorite art media and why it is their favorite. In a literature class, have students talk about their favorite piece of literature from high school classes.

  • Give them a problem to work on related to the content.

  • Have the students meet a partner they don’t know and interview each other about what they might have in common other than being students. They will enjoy finding out that they are both one of 7 children or belong to the same church or own a motorcycle. Then ask each dyad to find another dyad and introduce their partner to the other dyad. They will meet three classmates and find out that they have some things in common with each other.

  • In a small seminar class, I do a warm up game in which the students stand in a circle and learn each other’s name. Students always comment on the final course evaluation that no other professor in their graduate program learned their names or asked them to learn names in spite of the fact that class size in the program averages 10-20. This exercise, which takes about ½ hour, is particularly good for classes that meet once a week for 3 hours.

  • In a large lecture section, ask the students to take out a piece of paper (or you can provide card stock), fold it into three sections to make a name tent. They put their favored first name or nick name on the card stock front and sit the tent on the desk or lab table in front of them. Call the students by their names when they ask questions or respond to your questions. At the end of the class have the students flatten the place cards and collect them. For subsequent classes bring the name cards back and put on a desk or table near the door so that the students can pick up their name tags as they come in. If you count class attendance in your grading, pick up the remanding name cards of the absent students left on the table and keep in a separate pile at the end of class.

Course Information

After the warm-up activity, you are ready to cover the business side of the course. There are many ways to handle this. Reading the syllabus to the students will put them to sleep. A fun alternative would be to give students a chance to read the syllabus and then have a game-show quiz on the content with individually wrapped candy mints as prizes. In my graduate class I would give the students time to read the syllabus and then announce that as of right at the moment they all have “A”s and would have to work hard to lose that grade. Then I list what they could do if they really want a lower grade: fail to come in class, turn assignments in late, insist that the textbook is irrelevant, ignore the assignment guidelines, etc.

Leave some time for questions at this moment and also at the start of the next class. Taking time at the beginning of the semester to get clarity about assignments and grading will save you time in class, office hours and email.

Learning Activity

  1. Create an activity relating to the course content that will engage the students. In my intro biology class the teacher asked us why bars serve free salty snacks. We all guessed that the salty snacks made the customers thirsty so they would buy more drinks. When he asked what biological processes cause thirstiness and led to the extra drink orders we were stumped. We spent the whole first class puzzling and pondering while the professor gave us hints. In that little lesson, we learned all about cell membranes, osmosis, permeability, kidney functioning, etc. The fact that I still remember that class is testimony to the creativity and effectiveness of that method and that teacher.

  2. Give a mini-lecture on one of your best introductory topic and then have a learning exercise connecting you, the students, and the material. Examples might include: a race to finish a math problem that you have just demonstrated, a think-pair-share, or a write-pair-share.

  3. Tell a story about a person related to the course. Examples might be how a scientist discovered a finding or how an author’s childhood experience led to her writing a piece of literature we will be studying.

Assessment and Evaluation

Find out how the class went for the students. Ask them to raise their hand if the class taught them anything they didn’t already know. You can use numbers if you like. Have the students raise their hands if they would give the class a 90 or above, 80-89, etc. An alternative is to have then fill out a one item evaluation on the class and turn in without their names. Another is to have them take a two item multiple choice or true/false quiz on the class material and turn in with their names.

Soon after the class ends, jot notes on either your paper or electronic class notes about how the class went and the timing of the exercises. You are now better prepared for the first class for next semester. In addition, you have made a great first impression by introducing yourself to the students, the students to each other, and the students to the course structure and content.


Using a template for your first classes will help you approach the new term with increased enthusiasm and decreased anxiety.

© Copyright 2010 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

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