The First Day of Class and Writing Your Course Syllabus

Teaching Tips

The First Day of Class: A Model for the Semester

It’s almost here again!  And as you know, the first day of class blends the excitement of a new term with some trepidation – what will the classes be like…, are the students willing to learn…, can we get started on the right foot?  Perhaps you can help encourage students to get off to a good start by your approach to the first day of class.

Many educators feel that in addition to the usual first day activities (previewing the course syllabus, goals, objectives, and outcomes; introducing yourself; and getting to know students) it is important to preview what you expect students to do for the rest of the semester in your class, in actions as well as words. If you expect students to engage in active learning throughout the semester, make sure you involve them in this way on the first day. If discussion is expected, plan a discussion activity on the first day. If small group work is included in your course design, plan a small group activity on the first day.  Marshall McLuhan said that “the medium is the message” and we communicate a great deal to students by our actions and the expectations we can create with the first day’s activity.  We know that students are listening very intently on that day.

There are many other suggestions instructors can consider to take to make the most of the first class session and set the tone for the semester. The following web link provides some useful information regarding possible objectives for the first day of class:

http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/firstday.html

 

Writing Your Course Syllabus

“ A comprehensive syllabus will make you and your students feel organized and confident, and will save you effort and frustration throughout the term”(Boyle & Rothstein, 2003, p. 42).

A syllabus should develop in conjunction with the course… when the course design is complete, you should have a clear, concise, comprehensive syllabus.

Most instructors agree that the basic function of a course syllabus is to provide students with necessary information about the course such as:

 

  • Course title & number
  • Instructor’s name & contact information (phone, e-mail)
  • Days & times of office hours (office location)
  • Title and author(s) of required text(s) and a list of supplementary readings for the course
  • Class meeting times (days of week and hour) and room number
  • Length of class (50, 75 or 180 minutes)
  • Description of assignments and grading procedures

 

While the information listed above is certainly necessary; students also benefit from information that indicates what the course is about (description), what students will gain from taking the course (knowledge, skills) based on the course goals and objectives, requirements for passing the course (learning outcomes), and atentative course schedule/calendar. In addition, the syllabus is an opportunity for the instructor to preview or review institutional and course policies and provide information about how infractions will be handled.

  • Course Description
    • An accurate description of the course would provide:
      • Information about course content (topics to be covered)
      • Instructional methods (lecture, group discussion etc.)
  • Course Goals, Objectives/ Learning Outcomes
    • Goals: What students should gain from taking the course should be clearly defined (course goals). Course goals may be both content and non content.
      • Content Goal: Students will gain a greater appreciation for the works of William Shakespeare.
      • Non-content Goal: Students will become adept at using MLA publication style.
    • Objectives/Outcomes: Measurable steps that will be taken in achieving course goals.
      • Example: Students will demonstrate their understanding of grammar by writing 10 compete sentences in Spanish with a maximum of 3 mistakes.

It is helpful to establish goals and objectives/outcomes for the overall course and for individual lessons/modules/classes.

  • Schedule/Calendar
  • Make it clear to students that course schedules or calendars are tentative (subject to change due to inclement weather, illness and other unforeseen occurrences)
  • Schedules/calendars inform students of the content (chapters, readings etc.) that will be covered each week (or per class)
  • Schedules provide due dates for assignments, projects, papers, tests etc.
  • In organizing the course schedule/calendar, allow sufficient time for material and assignments to be completed in addition to work in other courses and sufficient time for the instructor to grade assignments and provide timely feedback to students.
  • Institutional and course policies (Plagiarism, cheating, adherence to format and criteria for assignments and projects, late submissions etc.)
    • Be clear that institutional policies will be adhered to in the course
    • Make course policies rigorous… students find it more acceptable when instructors start out with a hard line and ease up if circumstances warrant than vice versa
  • Other things one might include:
    • Instructor’s expectations of students (Ask students to tell you what they think instructors expect before providing them with your expectations)

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  • Students’ expectations of instructor (fill in a couple of the obvious things and have students provide the rest. Some negotiation may be required if expectations are unrealistic). Having students voice their expectations on the first day of class provides a good opportunity for the instructor to ensure that students have input and that their concerns are being considered and addressed.

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** Helpful hints:

A long and involved syllabus may be intimidating and overwhelming for students… strive to be as concise as possible and place information in tables for “at a glance convenience” where possible (for example, project/assignment schedule). If you are using WebCT to supplement your face-to-face course, placing the course schedule online will help to keep the syllabus concise.

References

Boyle, E. & Rothstein, H. (2003). Essentials of college and university teaching: A practical guide. Stillwater, Oklahoma: New Forms Press Inc.