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The Opportunity To Establish Rapport With Your Students
Many teachers spend the first class meeting giving an overview of the course and its requirements and, after answering questions about the course, either start lecturing or don’t leave the class early. But there are many things you can do on the first day that will help establish rapport with students, prepare them for the semester’s work, and generate excitement about the course topic. According to surveys of undergraduates, students want to know two types of information on the first day of class. They want to learn as much about the nature and scope of the course as possible so they can decide whether they want to stay in the course or so they can better anticipate the work requirements for the semester. They are also interested in the teacher as a person. They want to know if you will be fair and reasonable with them, if you care about them as individuals, and if you care about the course itself.
A well-written syllabus, distributed in the first class, can do a lot to develop a positive attitude among students, because it shows that the teacher cares about the course and tries to plan it well. . At a minimum a syllabus should contain course objectives, topics, grading and examination procedures, reading assignments, attendance policy, and your office location and appointment times. By preparing a comprehensive syllabus, you simplify the matter of reviewing the course requirements on the first day. Also, students who join the course late have all the important information they need to succeed in the course.
Undergraduates, especially in large classes, want to feel like they are people and not just a name and ID number on a registration roll. Course evaluation research has shown a strong correlation between positive instructor evaluations and student perceptions that the instructor cares about them as individuals. In addition, the same body of research shows that a positive attitude towards the course and instructor motivates students to work harder and achieve more. Therefore, there are good reasons to show students from the beginning that you see them as individuals and care about them as people.
Apart from the benefits already mentioned, there are other reasons to learn students’ names. Your ability to call them by name will help create a relaxed and friendly atmosphere in the classroom. This enables you to encourage class discussion by asking students to personally express their points of view. Also, it can transform a group of isolated and unknown individuals into a community of people working together to explore ideas and knowledge.
In small classes learning student names may not be difficult. If you teach a class of less than twenty students, you can ask the students to identify themselves in individual rows and repeat what each student said to you. Using the preregistration list, call the roll at the start of each class. After collecting the index cards, spend time on the first day and the following days reading the names on the cards, looking at each person and trying to make an association between the names and hometowns, facial expressions, hair color, or any other unique characteristics. All of these methods are effective in classes with small enrollments, but they share one common drawback: they use up class time that could be devoted to other purposes. Some faculty members have found ways to avoid these drawbacks in courses with large student enrollments.
In large classes ask your students to give you photos (labeled with their names) at the beginning of the second week of class. Review these photos as soon as you receive them and as often as you can until you have learned their names. It won’t take long before you know every student in your class. You should return the students’ photos at the end of the semester so they can be given to other teachers who use this technique. By having a seating chart and photos you will know who your students are in no time regardless of class size. This method can have an additional benefit: you can probably notice when someone misses some classes and contact the student to discuss any problems he is having. By helping in this way, you show that you care about the student as an individual.
On the first day of class, give each student an index card and ask them to write their names, local addresses, phone numbers, hometowns, and majors. Then ask them to write about their interest in your course and other courses or life experiences they have had related to the course topic. You can also ask them who their heroes or heroines are, what hobbies they enjoy, and skills or talents they are proud of. When asking for personal information you should emphasize that students are not required to reveal anything they are not comfortable sharing. Once you have collected these index cards they can be used in many different ways – they can give you some idea of the interests and prior knowledge that students bring to the course. Using this information, you can improve your understanding of the material so that you neither overwhelm the more knowledgeable students nor completely confuse or lose the less knowledgeable students in class.
Another method that can be useful to you and your students is an ungraded short essay written on the first day of class. If well structured, short essays can reveal many important student characteristics, including perspective, knowledge and attitude about the subject, analytical and conceptual skills and overall writing ability. If you are teaching an art history course, show a slide of a lesser-known work and ask students to identify and describe the work’s style, symbolism and period. If you are teaching about a foreign country, ask students to write about their views and beliefs about that country. Reading their essays will help you understand what the students’ preconceptions, attitudes and prior knowledge are about the subject and help you identify themes that you can emphasize as you teach. When they have finished hand over the first essay and ask them to compare their two answers. This will give them concrete evidence of how their thinking will or will not change as a result of the semester’s work. You can collect the papers and compare them yourself, to find out how much your course has contributed to the intellectual development of your students.
Designing and administering a non-graded diagnostic test is another way you can measure student knowledge, perceptions, and ideas about the course. The more you know about your students’ knowledge or understanding of the subject, the easier it is to focus on what you need to teach them. Many of the questions asked in the diagnostic exam can be used as questions in the mid-term and final exams – this enables you and the students to compare their knowledge at the beginning and end of the course. You have a basis for judging how much each student has gained by participating in the course.
The above suggestions are designed to help you learn as much as you can about your students. Just as you have good reason to want to know more about your students, students will appreciate knowing more about you than is printed on the course syllabus (name, office location, office hours, and phone number). . Your willingness to reveal something about yourself will help overcome the classroom hierarchy that inhibits communication between you and your students. The first day of class is a good time to tell students about your personal or professional life. Each teacher must decide what self-disclosures are acceptable and relevant in the context of the teacher-student relationship, but some topics are relatively safe and easy to discuss – for example, your educational background and research interests. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about yourself in class, there are other ways to convey the same information. You can distribute an abbreviated personal resume or CV.
One way you can show students what to expect in the course is to give them a sample of the course content. A natural science professor shows a fifteen-minute video introducing his subject. The film is colorful, exciting, and inspiring and she reports that students come into second class excited to start learning more. A social sciences teacher asks students to think about questions they want the course to answer for them. Providing samples of course content can be done in many ways, but the more successful methods are creative methods, which both introduce course concepts and stimulate student interest in the course content. In literature classes, ask students to think about who they would like to be if they could be any writer or fictional character in the book they read.
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