Thoughts on the First Day

I’m a fan of doing something beyond going over the syllabus on the first day of class.  In fact, I’ve pared my syllabus down to a front-and-back handout that I call the Top Ten Things You Need to Know About [Insert Class Name Here].  This has seemed to work well in the past, as I save paper and time, and I can focus on actually beginning to talk about the content of the class.

This semester, though, I’m not sure it worked as well as it has in the past, so I’m rethinking my approach.  One problem may simply be that I need to put different information on the shorter handout.  While I listed the goals for the class, I left off the textbook information, thinking students would simply go online to look at the full syllabus and get that information there.  Many of them do, but they’re often confused if I haven’t talked about the books in some detail, which I forget to do if it’s not on that sheet.

My first-year writing class, though, is more problematic.  The spring semester is different than the fall, as these students are ones who tested into the lower level writing classes and have worked their way up to this one.  They’re typically not as strong of students, in general, as those in the fall.  Even if they’re good writers, they struggle with time management, which prevents them from doing as well.

Also, our school has a reasonably high percentage of first-generation college students (around 35%), and those students struggle with how to manage being a college student, not out of any lacking on their part beyond a simple lack of knowledge of how college works (quick side example: I had a student ask if he requested transcripts through me this past week).

Thus, I’m beginning to wonder if I do need to spend more time going over basic course information, especially in the first-year writing class.  Those students might need more explanation of the basics of a college course, such as how to read the schedule.  They definitely need me to talk about the textbooks more than I have done in the past, so that change will happen, regardless of what I decide to do.  Perhaps I can still get by with a shorter syllabus, but I might need to spend more time talking about that syllabus.

Some people suggest talking about the syllabus, but doing that on the second or third day of class, especially at places where the enrollment shifts rather dramatically during the first week or two.  I’ve thought about that, as well, but I like to get moving on the material, and talking about the syllabus on the second or third day of class delays that.  Also, I’ve found that students are anxious if I don’t cover basic course material on the first day.

Perhaps what I need to do is simply shorten the amount of actual course material we talk about the first day, then spend the rest of the time talking about the syllabus and logistics of the course.  This is the first semester I’ve seen the problem this pronounced, so it might be an aberration.  Still, it’s something worth paying attention to.

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