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Meeting Your Students as Learners: An Activity for the First Day of Class

Sal Meyers

Director of Faculty Development, Professor of Psychology - Simpson College

Brian C. Smith

Division Chair, Professor of Psychology, Division of Social Science - Graceland University

The first day of class sets the tone for the entire semester. We recently found that both students’ and instructors’ satisfaction with the first day of class increased with how much time was spent on introductions and with how much time the instructor devoted to the “how’s” and “why’s” of the course (Meyers & Smith, 2011). Why are introductions important? Introductions serve as the beginning of the relationship between the students and the instructor. The closer students feel to the instructor, the greater their self-reported learning (Wilson, Ryan, & Pugh, 2010). In addition, positive student-instructor relationships predict greater instructor job satisfaction (Graham, West, & Schaller, 1992). Having a positive impression of one’s students is also important. The self-fulfilling prophecy suggests that students often come to behave in ways that are consistent with the instructor’s views of them, whether or not the instructor’s views are accurate (e.g., Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

How can instructors get to know their students on the first day of class in a way that engages students and provides instructors with a positive view of the students? Our strategy was inspired by a technique used to generate philosophy of teaching statements: have people select photographs that resonate with them and explain how those photos reflect who they are as teachers (Bo-Linn & Meizlish, 2013). We have put together a collection of photographs on Flickr that have Creative Commons licenses (available at

To do this yourself, print the photos and then ask students to select the photo that best represents who they are as learners and write an explanation of how the image reflects them as learners. Have students share their photos and reasoning with a partner and then have some of the students share with the entire class. We recommend that you record their responses on the board or a flip chart. You can then introduce your course by linking the characteristics of the course to the characteristics of the learners that had been written on the flip chart.

We recently demonstrated this activity at the 2014 Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching and Learning in Bethesda. Sal shared a graphic version of the syllabus she used in her first year experience course “Canine Connections.” She then pointed out that students in the first year course would be writing a series of papers about how to train a dog. For the participant who said that learning involved digging deeper, Sal pointed out that the students would be doing their own digging into sources about dog training to identify the way they thought was best to train a dog. For the person who preferred working individually, this assignment allows the student to focus on what he or she finds most important. For the person who identified being curious, this assignment allows the student to explore the things he or she is most curious about.

Our session attendees brainstormed a wonderful collection of ways of adapting this activity. For example, because Sal’s first year seminar is a writing intensive course, she asked students “If you were to select a photo that represents who you are as a writer instead of who you are as a learner, would you have selected the same photo? Why or why not?”

Some of the other adaptations discussed included:

  • Having have students use cell phones to take their own photos.

  • A design instructor pointed out that he regularly uses magazines in class. Images from those rather than images from Flickr could be used.

  • Rather than printing photos and distributing them to students, photos could be projected on the screen and students who resonate with that photo could be asked to stand.  Students would then be able to identify other students who shared similar views of learning.

  • Students could complete this task in an online discussion forum. Students could embed a photo from Flickr and type the explanation of how that photo reflects them as learners.

  • Students could identify a photo that resonates with their idea of a teacher or an ideal teacher.

Another great online tool that we recently discovered is Students can explore the gallery, select a picture, and insert words and phrases that describe their learning and then email or share their image. This tool is limited to 72 keywords per image so students have communicate concisely. (Click here for an example.) This could make this exercise work well in an online course or in situations where technology is readily available for each student.

Utilizing an interactive activity on the first day of class helps to develop rapport between the instructor and the students – and between the students themselves. This sets the tone for the entire semester, encouraging dialogue and self-reflection. How could you adapt this technique to your classes? What other activities do you use to engage students from day one?


Bo-Linn, C., & Meizlish, D. (2013).  Guiding and assessing faculty teaching statements for reflective practice.  Presentation at the 38th annual POD Conference. Pittsburgh, PA.

Graham, E.E., West. R., & Schaller, K. A. (1992).  The association between the relational teaching approach and teacher job satisfaction.  Communication Reports, 5, 11-22.

Meyers, S., & Smith, B. C. (2011).  The first day of class: How should instructors use class time?  To Improve the Academy, 29, 147-159.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968).  Pygmalion in the classroom.  In Teacher expectations and student intellectual development.  New York: Holt.

Wilson, J. H., Ryan, R. G., & Pugh, J. L. (2010).  Professor-student rapport scale predicts student outcomes.  Teaching of Psychology, 37, 246-251.

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