Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The First Day of Class

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rob Jenkins today talks about going over the syllabus on the first day of class:
"Perhaps the most important thing to do on Day 1 is to go over your syllabus and hit all the key points. You don't have to walk students through the entire document—much of it they can read for themselves. And you definitely don't need to project your syllabus up on the screen and read it aloud, word by painful word. You'll have students lining up at the registrar's office to drop before you get to Page 2.
"There are three main things that students want to know on the first day of class: what they're going to be expected to do, how their final grades will be determined, and what the instructor's policies are regarding attendance, make-up work, etc. I always try to include a short speech on plagiarism and a little bit of my philosophy on teaching writing, although I generally save most of the latter for Day 2. But whatever else I do, I make sure to cover those three main items on the first day."
Last year I began making an exception to this for one of my classes: World History I, which is required of all first semester freshmen at Shippensburg University.  First semester freshmen, especially those who live on campus and have weak high school preparation, are often simply overwhelmed by the entire first semester of college, let alone the few days which span orientation and the start of classes.  If anyone has even spelled it out for them, they have often not internalized that there will not be as much hand-holding in college classes as there was in high school, and they do not appreciate the significance of the syllabus as a document.

I owe this insight to a staff member who works with several student workers, including new freshmen, as well as conversations with students themselves after they gain some seasoning and our department's peer tutors who work with the world history students.  I deal with it by keeping the first day of class in that course made up almost entirely of new freshmen strictly to what they need to know for the second day of class, such as how to figure out what the readings are, how to access them, and my attendance policy.  On the second day, when they are getting what they need for their first graded assignment, I explain the grading system.  My syllabus also breaks down the major course themes and skills, and these I introduce as they become relevant.  I go over plagiarism as we approach the first major writing assignment.

This slow syllabus roll-out does not just allow them to better assimilate the information on the syllabus, it reinforces the syllabus as a foundational document to the course, a font of information they should continually reference.  The fact I also tell students why I'm taking this approach makes them feel more comfortable in the class, and my evaluations comments included some that they found it a good forum for getting used to college.  Upperclassmen have more college experience, and so recognize the significance of the first day overview.  For my freshmen, that's something that still needs to be taught.

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