Tuesday, August 18, 2009

First Day Thoughts

We have an hour and a half session with our Special Program For First Year Students students a day or two before real classes begin. Because some students won't be able to be there, we're not supposed to cover any course content that would put those students behind. But we're supposed to give the students some meaningful experience. Keep in mind that the students have moved into the dorms and been inundated with new information, and that they'll continue to be inundated and overwhelmed for at least the first three weeks of classes.

Here's what I generally do in those first 90 minutes:

I usually spend some time trying to begin learning names (and to get them to begin to learn each others' names). And then I talk about what a syllabus is, and how to read it.

I introduce my mentors, and they do a short intro to campus life.

And I tell them that they should never, having missed class, ask a professor if s/he said anything important. (At which point I have them exchange email/phone information with several other students so that they can email or call ahead of time to get a rundown of what happened in class.)

And I tell them that it drives instructors nuts when a student walks into a class and stands in front of the professor at the beginning of class (while 30+ other people wait) and expects the professor to solve a problem the student had with not being able to print out his/her homework just before class. (At which point I suggest that planning ahead so that you have time for computer disasters is a great idea when you can. And when you can't, the world won't end, probably.)

This semester, I'm also planning to get extra copies of the local "what's happening in town this month" newspaper and handing them out.

Imagine your first 90 minutes of class with new first year students no "content"); what would you want to do or talk about?


  1. One thing I'd probably do is have them introduce themselves. Of course, that will only take a few minutes, but I have an easier time remembering names if I hear the students give me a quick bio -- even where they're from and if they have a strong desire to major in a particular subject. One really great thing my school does, though, is that the course rolls online provide the teacher with ID photos of the students, so it's very easy to learn names if you look over that list a couple of times.

    With no content in this period, I think I'd make a list of helpful hints (TOTALLY agree with don't ask a prof if s/he said anything important in a class you missed. I hate that!!). And then providing information about the campus community and the town at large would be good. It took me months to find the best coffee shop in town when I was a freshman. Having that vital information on the first day would have been lovely. :)

  2. i like the idea of a "top ten" list of tips, drawn from the annoying things students do that drive their professors wild. this could be presented in a funny way -- maybe skit-style, with the mentors?

    * your professor can google, too, so cite your sources.

    * 8:00 a.m. is early, but it's not lethal.

    * the last week of class is too late to decide you are committed to an excellent grade for the term.

    * your printer is not my problem.

    * neither are your parents.

    * this is the last class you will attend where the content won't be important to a grade.

    * office hours: come on by, ask questions. don't email the night before an assignment asking for direction.

  3. I might give a short writing exercise, asking them to reflect on a question that bears on the whole college enterprise they're about to undertake. Not as broad as "Why am I here?" but maybe something like "Pick a trait you possess from the following list:" list of common, mildly negative traits like stubbornness, laziness, easily distracted, etc. Then write for five minutes on how this trait might interfere with success in college; discuss. Then write for five minutes on how this trait could *foster* success in college; discuss. For example, a stubborn person won't give up when she hits the first obstacle; an easily distracted person can stay open to new possibilities and might discover a new intellectual enthusiasm; a lazy person can be very efficient about application of time and energy. It's a self-examination exercise, but it's also intellectually a bit challenging.

  4. I'd say that the thing that can help them the most is making connections, and that they should talk to faculty. Since we HAVE office hours (or will meet with students outside them) students should take advantage of them. Tell them to choose one instructor each term to get to know -- a person who will be able to write letters, talk to them etc.

  5. This could be a good time to talk about appropriate ways to address professors, appropriate information to include when you contact professors via email, and the appropriate way to write such emails. Nothing inspires less confidence than a student who sends the following email at 3 AM the day an assignment is due:

    "hey, i don't know what my topic should be for the paper due 2morrow. can you help? ashley"

    The email comes from a yahoo or gmail account that in no way connects to the student's full name, and I have at least 5 students named Ashley (or, if we want a male student, say a name like John) a term. I don't know who the student is, the student clearly has not begun working on the paper until the very last minute, and there's no way I'll have time to "help" before class meets at 9 AM. The clueless student would then get bonus points for not having the paper at 9AM and saying this is my fault because I didn't get back to her/him.

    Oh, and another one with email: if a professor doesn't get back to you immediately when you email, do not assume that the email did not send. Wait at least 24 hours before sending the email again, and seriously: do not send 4-5 emails in a 5 hour period.

  6. i'm just always stunned by the stories of what students do via email.

  7. Would they feel totally infantilized by some sort of "School Facilities Scavenger Hunt Game"? Cause the bridge program here makes their students do that (find the librarian help desk at the library. Bring back the pink sheet on lists of databases back with you. And: find my officein the ____ Building where I will hold office hours. What is on the door?)

    This can totally backfire if the students feel it is busywork (our bridge program is for first-gen students and they live on the campus the summer before, so I think they like it). But on the other hand, as you point out, having tons of information pumped at you feels overwhelming and you just shut it off pretty quickly, whereas being asked to _do_ something can make it stick better.

    I was told where the library and the best coffee shop were the first week. I remember sometime during my second year vaguely remembering that but not the name of the coffee place.

  8. I used to have two such sessions in the first week, so one of the things I always did was set a piece of reading in the first one for discussion in the second, because then at least they felt as if they'd done something. While the sort of task I was asking for was related to what they would do in the module it wasn't essential. That way I seemed to be able to do the impossible and please everyone.

  9. Anonymous5:50 AM

    I've had success with having the students introduce themselves and then identify the last movie they saw & offer a brief review. This gives them "content" to talk about (other than their personal histories, which can sometimes make students shy) and builds on a common pop culture vocabulary -- can sometimes be pretty funny & interesting too.

  10. I do something similar to the movie review, but with music. Mostly because I want to make notes about anything I've missed, and have it look like the point is for them to bond.