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The First 4 Weeks of the Course: Extending Activities Long Enough to Establish Productive Habits

Updated: Aug 17, 2018

Todd Zakrajsek, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The first day of class is certainly important, and much has been written about that critical first meeting with your students. Less is written about what to do the next day and the day after that. There is a period beyond the first day, yet before everyone is rolling along as a community of learners that is also of great importance. This blog is written to focus on the first first-four weeks of the course.

When the first day of class comes to a close there is still a great deal of work to build a solid community of learners, to establish norms, develop mutual respect, and roll out content. Most importantly, the first four weeks of the course can be used to establish the pattern of actions that will most likely lead to success in the course for all involved. It is commonly held that it takes 21 days to form a habit, some propose it takes closer to 66 days to integrate a new behavior into your routine (Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Warlde, 2009). Regardless of whether a habit takes 21 days or 66 days to develop, it is a given that it won’t happen after one day or a few quick readings of the syllabus. Thought must be given as to how we, as faculty, will create lasting support for our students, particularly students who are less organized, less competent, and less confident as they enter our class.

Refocus the Optics from FDOC to the First Month of Class

In addition to taking steps to make the first day of class (FDOC) engaging and informative (see Table 1), rethink your faculty role as mentor, role model, and instructor by intentionally suggesting and encouraging student behaviors that promote learning across the first 4 weeks of class. Faculty can build student capacity and confidence during the first month of a course by expressing transparent expectations and policies; engaging students in course material; and building community within the classroom and across campus.

In-Class Actions Across the First Four Weeks

As the course progresses review class policies and practices, including such things as absences or make-up work as well as pointing out important institutional deadlines (e.g., midterms, last day to add a course/drop a course, and enrollment for the next term). Although these items are in the syllabus, it is helpful to remind students. Equally important and often overlooked is the need to explain terms that may be unfamiliar to first-generation students and students from other cultures. Concepts such as plagiarism, honor code, prerequisite, and add/drop period are second nature faculty members, but may seem very foreign to our students. Don’t assume that each student knows the ins and outs of the vernacular associated with college practices or policies. It’s better to explain what is meant than to assume students know how to navigate the curricular experience of progressing through degree requirements (Gabriel 2018).

It’s also important that faculty keep the students engaged with the course content. As course content is delivered in the classroom, use increasingly complex active learning strategies, make connections between theory and real-world examples that relate the text to the student, the professional world, and a global society (when appropriate). It is also important to continue to encourage student agency.

Out-of-Class Activities

Encourage students’ learning through the adoption of positive behaviors outside of the class that promote effective learning: self-care, rest-exercise balance, proper nutrition and hydration (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013). Deep learning is more likely to occur when the information being studied is meaningful, practiced with distributive learning rather than cramming, practiced transference of information, and practiced with elaboration of information through writing, discussing, and reflecting about the topic. Faculty can suggest study habits and enhanced learning methods to students, as well as effective strategies to work well together in groups.

Rolling into weeks 3 and 4, as the first exams draws nearer, continue to emphasize a growth mindset and direct energies fruitfully. One tip offered by Gabriel (2018) is to introduce students to success stories by people who have beat the odds. It is very helpful to incorporate brief bios, achievements, or quotes by former underdogs who have made significant contributions to our world and/or our knowledge base. Seeing images and hearing quotes of successful people who share similar struggles or heritage increases the at-risk student’s sense of capacity and confidence. Gabriel (2018) suggests showing one inspirational quote each week of the course.

A Sense of Belonging

Research suggests it is not enough to have a sense of community within the classroom but rather it is also to experience a sense of belonging within the larger community of the institution of higher education and profession of study. Individual faculty can encourage community within their classroom through first-year experience programs and transfer student support programs. Your institution likely offers programs and resources for students to develop a sense of belonging as they progress through the academic year and across the curriculum. For example, the University of Limerick has an institutional effort aimed to support students during their transition and adjustment to campus during the first seven weeks, using social media, on site meet and greets, listings of on campus resources that support student efforts for remediating, learning, and succeeding. Educate yourself about the programs and resources available for students on your campus and reinforce student participation during these early weeks of the course.


Making a good first impression is important and that initial meeting sets the tone for the entire course. That said, developing a habit of being a good student in the course cannot occur in a single day. We have the opportunity to intentionally nurture students to develop a growth mind set, develop positive study behaviors, and to develop a sense of belonging within the class, on campus, and within the profession of study. It is important to focus on the first 4 weeks of the course so that we can continue to build on what we do that very first day.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your primary outcome for the first day of class? How will you know if your outcome has been realized? What will you do to bring about this outcome?

  2. Explain one thing you will do after the first day of class to continue to purposefully build community among your students.

  3. What resources exist on campus to help students to transition to the college or university that might be built into your course? Is there an office or entity on campus that might benefit from what you develop in your course over the first 4 weeks of the course (perhaps something you do could be expanded for the campus in general).


  • Doyle, T. & Zakrajsek T. (2013). The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain. Sterling, VA. Stylus Publishing.

  • First 7 Weeks (2018) University of Limerick retrieved June 18, 2018

  • Gabriel, K. (2018) Creating the Path to Success in the Classroom: Teaching to Close the Graduation Gap for Minority, First-Generation, and Academically Unprepared Students. Sterling, VA. Stylus Publishing.

  • Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H, & Warlde J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. retrieved July 17, 2018.

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