25 August 2010

Teaching Tip #1: First Day of Class

So the start of the school year is nearly upon us, which means that it would be a good time to start posting some teaching tips. I'll start at the beginning, with the very first day of class.

The teaching tactic I will describe is particularly suited to frosh/soph tutorials, but it could easily be adapted to a junior/senior seminar setting, and for the exceptionally brave it would not be hard to vary it for a lecture setting.

Let's say your objective is for your tutorial section(s) to be engaged, to critically discuss their assigned readings, to demonstrate civility towards you and the other people in the room, to work in small groups or large groups, and most of all you don't want to have prolonged periods of awkward silence as the students study the floor, ceiling and walls in search of the answer to your question.

You have to set the tone in the very first class, and here's how you do it.

  1. Have all the students take out a piece of paper and write their name on it (in the era of the laptop computer, you might have to supply the paper - about the size of a recipe card will be fine).
  2. Collect all the slips of paper once their names are written, then shuffle the slips and redistribute them.
  3. Make sure that no one has a slip with their own name on it (if they do, ask them to swap with their neighbour).
  4. Have the students get up from their seats and find the person whose name is written on their slip.
  5. Once they've located their partner they have to ask a series of questions (and then record the answers on the pieces of paper). Essential questions include: year of study, major(s)/minor(s), why they are taking the course, what skills they hope to acquire, and what knowledge they hope to come away with. In addition to the essential questions you should let the students ask two or three personal questions, and you can drop some hints as to what are appropriate questions: favourite ____, or something interesting about me is ____. The more time you have, the more personal questions you can ask them to cover.
  6. Obviously this gets repeated twice. Each student interviews someone and gets interviewed by someone.
  7. Have the students sit down again (it doesn't have to be where they started), and go around the room having each person introduce the person they interviewed to the rest of the class.
  8. Collect all the slips of paper at the end of the class.
The entire excercise takes 30 students about 15 minutes, and it is a fantastic ice breaker. Other camp games or icebreakers will work just as well. Remember to keep it light while you're doing the exercise; crack a joke or two about how silly the game is, or how they shouldn't be asking for phone numbers.

Now you're probably asking yourself: why???

There are countless pedagogical benefits to this exercise. Here are 6:
  1. Some of the students will already know one or more people in the class. Some will not. Chances are they already know, or will make the effort to meet, the person sitting beside them. This exercise forces them to meet a wider variety of people in the classroom, and if you do a good job mixing up the slips it gets them talking to people on the opposite side of the room. Students seem to have prefered seating locations (I was a back corner kind of guy), and you have to bust them out of their comfort zones and get them to interact with their classmates as peers. It will get the shy kids talking, and the know-it-alls focussed on working with their peers rather than attempting to please you.
  2. You want to have everyone in the classroom comfortable talking in small group situations - the meet and greet with two classmates will help. I have no clue just how many studies have proved that groupwork is ideal, and my own experience shows that it works.
  3. You want your class to be able to break into small groups on a weekly basis, and you don't want them to default to the 2 or 3 people sitting nearest. You have to get the students used to the idea of moving around the room. This means in future weeks you'll have to assign groups (using the counting-off system, for instance), as well as letting them pick their own groups.
  4. You want the students to be comfortable talking in front of the entire class in a structured and constructive way - having them introduce someone else to the class in the very first class establishes that everyone talks equally. If there is any participation expectation (or mark) at all for the course, then you owe it to all of your students to make the classroom a safe environment for them to share their ideas.
  5. You have to establish all of this in the very first class. Students get used to the format of a class in the first two weeks. If you spend the first week talking at them, and the second week pulling teeth, then you're in trouble for the rest of the term. Instead, spend the first week doing a mixture of talking at them (it's unavoidable) and some activities like this one, and you will find the rest of the term is a breeze.
  6. Because you collect all the slips (after hearing the students introduce each other), you can use them throughout the term any time you need a refresher about particular students. You can also use the "what I want out of this class" as a guide to the kinds of things students are looking for, and make sure you highlight these things for them as you accomplish them throughout the term (this doesn't mean you should cater to learning requests where they don't fit with your teaching philosophy or the course objectives).
There are countless other benefits, all of which fit in with the latest and greatest "best pedagogical practice."

The only downside I've noticed is with students who join the class in the second or third week of the term and miss this valuable first lesson. They sometimes find it difficult to find their place in the existing class dynamic, but this would be the case regardless of what you did in the first session. One way to overcome this might be to do a memory test with your students in the second/third week of the term to see how many names they remember of their classmates. Obviously, you have to play as well!

In short, if you want an interactive and collegial environment, then start in the very first class with an exercise like this. I learned it from some great TAs when I was an undergraduate and it has been the perfect pace-setter in all the tutorials I have ever run.

I hope to make Teaching Tip a regular posting, but I'd love to get feedback on the kinds of pointers that people would like to read. I will definitely cover some ideas for non-traditional group activities that I have tried in the past, including an indication of how successful each lesson was and how it might be improved. I have a lesson plan that I constructed that demonstrates the ideal critical preparation of the weekly readings, and plans on how to cover expectations for writing assignments. Beyond that I'm open to answering questions on just about anything to do with pedagogy (at the university level). Feel free to use the comments thread or my email link to ask your questions.


  1. Michelle Hoffman25 August, 2010 12:50

    I like this idea, Jon! I might just steal it for my TATP training session for new TAs... :)

  2. Michelle, if you practice what you preach, it'll be doubly awesome!

  3. I used to find this an annoying exercise when I was an undergrad. Mostly because of the campy feel. But as a new tutorial leader, I can see the benefits of this exercise. I look forward to your next Teaching Tip!

  4. I do a variant of this in my classes as well. Works very well. I distribute large index cards rather than paper (the index cards are better in terms of wear and tear). I bring the cards with me to every subsequent class, and I keep attendance on the back of each card.

  5. I had this done to me when an undergrad and I did it myself when a TA last year. I found it worthwhile both times...

  6. I did a variant of this for my first tutorial this term. I had half the students put their names on index cards, then distributed the cards to the other half and had them partner up. I put 4 questions on the board (one personal, 3 content-related agree/disagree) and had them discuss in partners for ~15 min. I didn't have each pair report back---just used a show of hands---mostly because there are 40 students in each tutorial section, but it still made the discussion afterwards far better, as everyone had had a chance to think about the questions and talk with a partner. So even if a student doesn't want to speak up in class they still have a chance to think about the content and talk with someone else about it.