“It’s in the Syllabus”: Best Practices for the First Day of Class

(image from Inside Higher Ed)

I recently had the pleasure of attending City Tech’s new faculty orientation, led by Professor Julia Jordan. At one point, she implored us, “Please, please do not spend the first class session reading your syllabus to your students. You know what’s in it.”

She moved on, but I didn’t, as that’s how I spend all my first class sessions. As professors, we know we have to convey how important this document is to students, that it’s a contract where students can find most, if not all, of the important course expectations, objectives, policies, and assignment due dates. We want to ensure that students have heard this information and leave with an understanding of what will be expected of them over the course of the semester.

We also know, as professors, that standing in front of a classroom reading from a document is poor pedagogy. Over the seven years I’ve been teaching at the college level, I have consistently heard colleagues complaining that students don’t read or refer to or know the syllabus. Most CUNY faculty I know also pride themselves on student-centered learning and how they work to engage and involve students in the classroom, but the first day of class sets the tone for the entire semester. If we stand up in front of our students and read the syllabus to them, are we really teaching them how to refer to important documents for information? That we expect them to do so? We know students don’t magically retain 100% of lecture material after any given class, so why do we expect them to know our syllabus after we review it once?

Instead, professors might begin to think through ways in which they can ensure students practice the skills required to read, refer to, and engage with professional documents over the course of the semester, instead of having students spend the first day of class checking their watches, hoping to get out early.

Here are a few of my own ideas on more generative ways to spend the first class session, that set the tone for a semester of engaged, collaborative learning:

  • Assign your syllabus as a reading assignment, and quiz students on it at the beginning of the next class session, as Rebecca Devers, a professor in the English department, does in her classes. After quizzing students on the syllabus individually, put them into groups and let them help each other answer the quiz questions, collaborating and learning how to seek information about the course from each other as well as their instructor. Make sure, too, that the quiz gets students writing, asking at least one short answer question as opposed to multiple choice or T/F questions.
  • Assigning your syllabus as required reading leaves room on the first day to focus, instead, on another activity that better reflects what class time will look like in the weeks ahead: an interactive lecture, a freewrite, or filling out a questionnaire that asks students to respond to questions in detailed, reflective ways (here’s my first day student questionnaire from the writing course I teach themed around dream interpretation).
  • A group activity. As a writing instructor, I’ve designed a group activity around learning the differences between an em dash, en dash, and hyphen. Students must use these quirky punctuation marks, correctly, in three sentences describing things they have in common as group members. This exercise allows them to get to know one another, but also to practice focused discussion; they must figure out which commonalities lend themselves to the drama of the em dash; the numbers that usually surround an en dash; and what compound modifiers they might share as a group in order to use a hyphen. They are also learning how to incorporate sophisticated punctuation marks into their writing.

Full disclosure: I hated group activities when I was an undergraduate. I wanted to sit in my seat, usually at the front of the classroom, and be a good student all on my own. The reality is, however, that learning is a collaborative process, and I wish that more professors had called me out on my superiority complex. I often tell my students—you have something to learn from each one of your peers, listen to one another.

  • At the very least, allow for five minutes at the end of class to have students write, on a cue card or piece of paper you collect, one question or concern they have about the course after reviewing the syllabus on the first day. I like to also ask students to articulate in writing what they are most excited about after the first day of class. This is a good practice, in general, after any class session, in order to find out what needs review and what students are taking away from your teaching. You’ll get a sense of your students as writers, as well—the more small, informal, in-class writing samples you can collect and read quickly, the more of a sense you’ll have of each writer’s voice. I always tell my students, because I read so much of their informal in-class writing, I’m able to spot plagiarism immediately. I recognize their voices on paper and miss them when they disappear in formal assignments. Let your students know from day one you listen, you hear them, and model the kind of reflective practice that allows for lifelong learning.

To that end, I’m grateful that Julia Jordan called me to reflect on how I might improve my teaching. If anyone reading is interested in a similar space for reflecting on pedagogical practice, please join WAC at our next faculty workshop, “Effective Assignment Design,” on Sept. 19th from 1-2:15 PM (location TBA).

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