Teaching Hub

Five Activities for the First Day of Class

by Jessica Porter, Office of Educational Technology (eTech)

a curious fox

The first class meeting is an opportunity to clarify your goals and expectations for the course and to get acquainted with your students. Who are they, and what questions, hopes, and interests do they bring to the course? Here are a few first-day activities you can use to learn about your students and prepare them for the course.

Take an interest inventory

An interest inventory is simply a list of questions about your students’ interests and backgrounds. You might ask about their majors, study habits, interest in the course topic, or even about personal information like hometowns and hobbies. Unlike typical icebreaker questions, an interest inventory is a paper-based activity, and students don’t have to share their answers with the class (which makes it great for introverts). It’s a way to learn about your students privately and address potential hurdles.

A few possible questions include

  • How does this course fit into your major?
  • Name an author/theorist/period of history you have studied, and describe why it interests you? (This could be any content-specific question)
  • If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
  • What is one thing a previous instructor did that helped you learn?

Discuss popular culture

After covering the basics like names and majors, have students share one piece of popular culture they’re into at the time. This could be a book, movie, TV show, a piece of music — anything. The goal is simply to find common interests and establish a sense of community (plus, it’s fun). If this idea seems too silly, try connecting popular culture to your subject matter. Have students consider where they’ve seen the course topic before and how it’s usually portrayed. This is especially useful for myth-busting or changing perceptions of a topic, and it gets the ball rolling on the first day of class.

Analyze the classroom environment

If your class is in an awkward or potentially difficult setting, it’s helpful to acknowledge the classroom environment and make adjustments (where possible). As students are introducing themselves, have them comment on the setting — the acoustics of the room, the seating arrangements, whether they can see the whiteboard or projector screen. Discuss how you’ll work around tricky furniture arrangements, for example, or spend some time analyzing the furniture itself (the conversation can go anywhere!).

Discuss best and worst classes

Have students describe their best and worst learning experiences and compare notes with a partner. Then, as a class, list the qualities of these experiences and consider how you could replicate the positive experiences and avoid the negative ones. The point is to find ways you can build a productive learning environment together, and the exercise works best when students focus on why a particular classroom structure, method, or setting did or didn’t work for them. In other words, push students to evaluate the full learning experience, not just the surface details like “boring” subject matter or teachers.

Dive into the course content

Students are often “shopping” for courses during the first week of class, and while you’re not necessarily “selling” anything (nor should that be your mindset), it’s useful to show students what they’ll be learning in the course. Use the first day to introduce students to the subject matter and demonstrate your teaching style. Show them the different ideas and materials you’ll explore together, and invite them to listen, engage, and ask questions — however you typically conduct the class.

What are your favorite first-day rituals and activities?