Student Perspectives on the First Day of Class

Baron Penman
Lee I. McCann

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

The faculty-oriented literature on the first meeting of a class presents many suggestions for content and process. Student data support these suggestions except those urging starting course content and students' divergent views of icebreakers. Being attuned to both student opinions and the faculty literature will help faculty prepare and teach a good first class. Based on student data, 10 of 11 participating faculty made voluntary changes in how they taught the first class meeting the next semester.

The first class meeting of any course is more important than many faculty realize. It sets the tone for what is to follow and can greatly influence students' opinions about the course and instructor for the remainder of the semester. Several authors have provided faculty-oriented guidance for a successful course beginning (e.g., Davis, 1993; Johnson, 1995; McKeachie, 1994; Nilson, 1998; Pica, Barnes, & Finger, 1990; Wolcowitz: 1984). They are unanimous on some recommended goals: setting a positive atmosphere, communicating course objectives, taking care of administrative details, grabbing the students' attention, and introducing yourself. Authors diverge on use of the entire hour for the first class meeting and in recommending covering course content.

Knowledge of students' preferences may lead faculty to modify the content and goals of their first class in ways that improve the first day and attend to students' needs and expectations, thus starting the class off on the right foot. A review of the literature revealed no data from students on these topics. The purpose of this study was to determine students' opinions of what is valuable for the first class meeting.




All full-time faculty members (n= 11) in a regional public university sampled students in all of their undergraduate psychology course sections (n = 31) during the Spring 1998 semester. Participants were 570 students (361 first year and sophomores, 209 juniors and seniors; 381 women, 189 men). Over 95% of the students had completed at least one semester of college.


Each instructor distributed index cards during the first class meeting and read the following:

Faculty in the Psychology Department are interested in maintaining and improving their teaching. To that end we are interested in the first class meeting of a course, what works well and what does not. Lf you have already done this exercise in a psychology class, leave the card blank. Label this index card Side A and Side B. On Side A put your class standing (first year, sophomore, junior, or senior), and gender (male or female). Based on your experiences as a student, what are the most useful things a faculty member can do during a first class meeting? Please list these on Side A. Based on your experiences as a student, what are your pet peeves about what faculty do during a first class meeting? Please list these on Side B.

Faculty members collected cards, thanked students, read and considered the comments during the next few days, and then gave the cards to the researchers.

Both authors met to read and code students' responses, beginning with a taxonomy based on the previously cited literature's recommendations. After reading 30 students' responses we modified the taxonomy and began anew. We resolved any disagreements on coding responses through discussion.



Table I categorizes student responses based on important issues for the first day of class listed in the faculty-oriented literature. Students listed from zero to five positive comments and zero to six pet peeves. We entered a single tally when students provided two or more different responses that fit a particular category.

What Works Well

Students wanted a general course overview spelling out requirements and faculty expectations, both verbally and in a detailed syllabus (72%). A frequent response was that students (26%) wanted information on exams, assignments, grading, and what is necessary to earn a good grade. Eighteen percent liked instructors to describe their background and teaching style, and an accessible, approachable, and supportive (7%), relaxed (5%), fun (4%) tone was important for some students. Students (8%) stated that beginning course content is acceptable if the lecture or activity includes sufficient background that they can understand it without having read an assignment and it is put in a useful context. Some students wrote that they would like the instructor to describe why they should take the course and how they may profit from it (7%). Only 1% of the respondents said beginning course content (e.g., lecture) makes for a good first class period and few students (6%) mentioned that keeping them the full class period works well.

To determine differences between demographic groups we computed chi-squares for what works well. A greater percentage of upper-class (n = 48 23%) compared to underclass students (n = 55, 15%) wanted instructors to describe their background and teaching styles, X2(l, n = 570) = 5.34, p < .01. Otherwise, under- and upperclassmen generally agreed on what makes for a good first meeting. There were no significant gender differences concerning what works well.

Pet Peeves

As expected, student peeves were the mirror opposite of their preferences (see Table 1) The greatest number of peeves dealt with poor use of class time (31%), beginning the course with content (29%), a poor overview (16%), or meeting the entire class hour (13%). More students (n = 54, 9%) disliked icebreakers than liked them (n = 39, 7%). Few students (4%) stated that they did not like faculty introducing their backgrounds. Other peeves included homework assignments the first day (9%); an uncaring, intimidating instructor (7%); poor teaching (5%); and a seating chart (3%). Ten students (2%) wrote about instructors being late or absent for the first class.

A greater percentage of upper-class (n = 97, 46%) compared to underclass students (71 = 66, 18%), X2 (1, n = 570) = 51.3, p < .01, and a greater percentage of men (n = 77, 41%) compared to women (71 = 163, 23%), X2 (1, n = 570) = 20.4, p < .01, mentioned beginning course content (e.g., lecture) as a peeve. Also, a greater percentage of juniors and seniors (71 = 28, 13%) compared to underclass students (n =27, 7%) disliked icebreakers, X2(l, n = 570) = 5.32, p <.025, whereas a greater percentage of women (71 = 73, 19%) than men (n = 20, 11%), were concerned about a poor course overview, 72(1, n = 570) = 6.8, p < .01.

Table 1. The First Day of Class

Works Well







General overview, syllabus, course nature and content, requirements, expectations




Teacher specifically describes exams, assignments, and grading




Introduces self (background, teaching style) to students




First day content is put in context and understandable without having read an assignment





Describes why students should take the course and how they may profit from it





Sets tone of being accessible, supportive





Icebreakers (getting to know classmates)




Meet full hour




Sets relaxed, comfortable tone





Sets a fun tone





Beginning course content (lecture, etc.)




Poor use of class time (e.g., non-crucial information, read syllabus, unorganized)





Homework assignment





Instructor uncaring, intimidating





Poor teaching (instructor nervous, monotone, talks too fast, too much material)





Seating chart





Teacher late or absent




a Instructor fails to present this information on the first day of class, or does a poor job.

b Icebreaker may be done well, these 54 students simply do not like them. c Assumes a class meeting for about 1 hr, not longer periods.

Faculty Changes in Teaching

Ten of 11 faculty who participated in the research made at least one change in how they taught the first day of class the following semester. Five faculty took time to describe their background and professional experience, including I who put this information in his syllabus. Four faculty spent more time on course objectives and expectations, 2 decided not to begin course content, 2 who had always taught con-tent the first day put it into more of a context, 1 emphasized a more relaxed atmosphere, I changed the amount ~ time devoted to topics, and I emphasized even more why studying statistics was important.




Most student preferences are congruent with the faculty literature. From the student perspective, a good first class meeting includes a well-organized, focused presentation containing basic course information including requirements, expectations, and information on exams and assignments. Introduce yourself to the students (especially in courses with upper-class students), and set a tone of being accessible and supportive. Use icebreakers carefully, especially in upper-level courses. Students may not like them as much as faculty assume.

Many students want the class dismissed after administrative details are completed and significantly more upper than underclass, and men rather than women, expressed this view. If a student has several courses starting on a given day the information overload may be enormous and this preference understandable. Faculty choosing to begin course content should assume that students have done no reading and make the lecture or in-class exercise understandable within that context. Telling students why the material is important, how it fits into the course, and how it assists students in beginning their course reading and assignments is good pedagogy. Conversely, students may be more motivated to attend to the material once they understand why it is being presented. The choice of waiting for the second course meeting before beginning to lecture, after students have done initial assignments, is a viable one and in some ways may be good teaching.

Many students may have had opinions that they did not think of, or care to, put down on the note card, which is a relative weakness of the open-ended format. The study could be replicated using a Likert-scale format using the categories identified herein to gather more valid data and allow better comparisons of the students' opinions.

Calling faculty attention to something all had done many times, holding a first class, led our colleagues to discussion and decisions on how to improve their teaching. Simple changes in first-day content or emphasis may have a positive effect on the course and student perceptions of the instructor.




Davis, B.C. (1993). Tools for reaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Johnson, C. R. (1995). First steps to excellence in college reaching (3rd ed.). Madison, WI: Magna.

McKeachie, W. J. (1994). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and

university teachers (9th ed.). Lexington, MA: Heath.

Nilson, L. B. (1998). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors.

Bolton, MA: Anker.

Pica, T., Barnes, C. A., & Finger, A. C. (1990). Teaching matters: Skills and strategies for international teaching assistants. New York: Newbury House.

Wolcowitz, J. (1984). The first day of class. In M. M. Cullette (Ed.), The art and craft of teaching (pp.1-24). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.



1. This article is based on a poster presented at the 21st Annual National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, January 1999, St. Petersburg Beach, FL.

2. We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of our students and departmental colleagues.

3. Send correspondence to Baron Perlman, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI 54901 e-mail:


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