I always love the beginning of a new semester. It's a fresh start with renewed enthusiasm, new faces, and new possibilities. But the excitement may not last through the work of setting up our courses, creating lesson plans, and thinking of ways to create the best class experience. How faculty approach a new semester ranges from meeting students with a fire and brimstone approach to getting to know you ice-breaker approach. I view the first week of classes as an opportunity to set the stage for the semester. As I reflect on my experiences with setting the scene, I find four strategies to be vital for creating a successful first week of the new semester.
1. Infographic Syllabus
During the first week of classes, I want students to be excited about the course and content. Reading aloud a detailed syllabus – does not fit the bill. I found a better way to engage students. Of course, the syllabus is a requirement on every college campus. As faculty, we believe the syllabus contains the most crucial course information such as contact information, policies, assignments, supports, and more! During the first week, I find students prefer a preview of key course assignments but desire to know about them in detail only before the assignment is due.
In 2014, I converted my 6-page syllabus to a front and back visually appealing infographic that resembles a wide bookmark. My students frequently complement the streamlined design but appreciate this syllabus at a glance. If you want to convert your syllabus to an infographic, there are several excellent and free platforms to consider, including Canva, Picktochart, Smore, or Adobe Spark. You can also download editable versions if you don't want to create your own template. Even though students receive the infographic syllabus, I still post my full syllabus with all the required institutional policies on our learning management system. I carefully explain to our students the infographic serves as a snapshot of the course assignments and expectations.
2. 1:1 Meetings
Researchers have found strong positive correlations between building relationships and rapport with students and academic achievement, attendance, student interest, motivation, empowerment, self-efficacy student attention, classroom behaviors and interactions (Benson, Cohen, Buskist, 2005, Houser & Frymier, 2009, Kozanitis, Desbiens, Chouinard, 2007; Myers, Goldman, Atkinson, Ball, Carton, Tindage & Anderson, 2016). During the first week of classes, I invite each student to meet with me one-on-one in my office for a 10-minute meet and greet meeting.
Meaningful interactions with students outside of classes is listed by the National survey of student engagement as a high-impact educational practice (NSSE, 2017). Approximately 95% of my students attend. During the 1:1 meet and greet meeting, my primary goal is to get to know the students on a personal level. I explain to them very simply, "I care about you first and foremost as a person – I want you to be successful in this class." The meeting encourages students to not only find my office but also helps reduce anxious feelings about meeting with faculty when they have a more serious concern.
3. Professional Learner Profiles
We know education is not a one-size-fits-all experience and with the landscape of higher education changing significantly over the past decade, faculty need now more than ever to find ways to create personalized, student-centered learning experiences (Rear, 2019). If we believe teaching is truly about the student, then faculty need to find ways to get to know students on a deeper, more personal level. Creating a personalized experience means understanding more of the whole person. At the beginning of the semester, I ask my students to self-report strengths, needs, interests, and constraints using a professional learner profile.
The learner profile assignment is more than a reflective experience for students. I intentionally use professional learner profiles as I design collaborative groups, assignments, lectures, and provide feedback. Professional learner profiles provide quick access to student's self- reported strengths at the start of the semester. Typically, it can take weeks for faculty to identify student strengths. Students record instructional and personal needs, which enables me to better differentiate and support learning preferences. Next, students share personal and professional interests. Using Tomlinson's differentiation framework, I integrate student's interest into my instructional lectures and interactive activities to motivate and engage them. Finally, students also report their constraints. This category allows students to share personal boundaries such as additional jobs or family life, that they may have otherwise never shared. It is essential to recognize professional learner profiles are not static (Wilkoff, 2015). Often students' lives change throughout the semester. To adapt, I ask students to review and update their professional learner profile at midterm, so if I need to make adjustments, I can.
Effective instruction starts with a clear understanding of what students are bringing to the learning experience. A pre-assessment is an evaluation instrument faculty use to collect baseline data on students’ conceptual understanding. Pre-assessing students’ knowledge can demonstrate clearer student learning data (Lazarowitz & Lieb, 2006). Guskey and McTighe (2016) recommend a pre-assessment include the purpose(s) for the pre-assessment, determining how the faculty will use the information, and using the pre-assessment judiciously and efficiently. I create my own open-ended pre-assessment based on my course objectives. Students are encouraged not to prepare or look up answers as I explain how I use the results of the assessment to tailor the content knowledge based on their strengths and gaps or misconceptions in understanding. I share the results with students as each topic on the pre-assessment is taught.
As faculty researchers, we know one way to determine an impact is to evaluate using a pre-assessment/post assessment model. I've chosen to implement this same model with my teaching. Having a sense of the extent to which my students understand the material as they enter the course helps me to know more effectively and efficiently meet my students’ academic needs. For example, if all of my students have a full understanding of the content from chapter two, I know I don't need to spend an entire day on it. My pre-assessment is focused on broader concepts and is intentionally fill in the blank because I want students to pull from their understanding.
I have found an infographic syllabus, 1:1 meetings, professional learner profiles, and pre-assessments are four strategies that help me to set the stage for a successful semester. These areas have shown to be related to academic success and all areas in which my students have benefited.
What is one strategy you employ during the first week of school to get to know your students?
How to you intentionally build community across the course?
How can you make connections with students both inside and outside of the classroom?
Benson, T. A., Cohen, A. L., & Buskist, W. (2005). Rapport: Its relation to student attitude and behavior toward teachers and classes. Faculty Forum. Teaching of Psychology, 32(4), 237–270. https://doi-org.bceagles.idm.oclc.org/10.1207/s15328023top3204pass:[_]8
Guskey, T. R. & McTighe, J., "Pre-assessment: Promises and cautions" (2016). Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology Faculty Publications. 17. https://uknowledge.uky.edu/edp_facpub/17
Houser, M. L., & Frymier, A. B. (2009). The Role of Student Characteristics and Teacher Behaviors in Students' Learner Empowerment. Communication Education, 58(1), 35-53. doi:10.1080/03634520802237383
Kozanitis, A., Desbiens, J.F., & Chouinard, R. (2007). Perception of teacher support and reaction towards questioning: Its relation to instrumental help-seeking and motivation to learn. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 19, 238–250.
Myers, S. A., Goldman, Z. W., Atkinson, J., Ball, H., Carton, S. T., Tindage, M. F., & Anderson, A. O. (2016). Student Civility in the College Classroom: Exploring Student Use and Effects of Classroom Citizenship Behavior. Communication Education, 65(1), 64-82. doi:10.1080/03634523.2015.1061197