First-Day Strategies for a Successful and Inclusive Term

How can instructors welcome all students and establish desired class dynamics on the first day of class?  What is the scholarship behind student behavior in the classroom and strategies for designing first-day exercises that will help students feel a sense of belonging and engagement, while setting the tone for a productive term?

Key Principles for a Successful First Day:

  • Engagement: allow students to directly engage the material of your course in a way that demonstrates the intellectual work ahead, sparking their curiosity and excitement
  • Community: model the way you want students to interact with each other and with you throughout the term
  • Positivity: orient students to the course in positive terms, emphasizing what they will learn, experience, discover, and achieve, rather than simply describing assignments, deadlines, rules, and responsibilities
  • Inclusivity: cultivate an atmosphere in which all students feel seen, welcomed, and capable of succeeding in the course
  • Consistency: as much as possible, make the structure of the first day consistent with every other class session, particularly in terms of the students’ input and engagement
  • Transparency: explain the underlying logic of the course itself (i.e. the major terms and concepts that define the course) and the rationale behind the major components (e.g. the role of class discussion, the placement of exams and essays, the type and quantity of reading, etc.)

Specific Techniques:

This is intended as a list of possibilities, not a checklist. You could theoretically employ all of these in a single course, but it’s not recommended.

This article in The Chronicle reiterates many of these ideas and offers examples of first-day plans from three very different courses (the article may require login via the Carleton library).

General Approaches

  • Structure the first day as much like every other day in your course as possible.  If, for example, you usually spend most of the class period in a large group discussion, then do the same on day one, rather than lecturing for the bulk of the period.
  • Be explicit about how you want students to engage in the class and why.  If you regularly employ lectures, tell students what kinds of notes they should take and what they’ll use those notes for.  If you employ small or large group discussion, address what those discussions are intended to accomplish and how students can best achieve that (e.g. why it’s beneficial for more people to talk and how, as a group, they can encourage that).
  • Model and reward the kinds of engagement you want students to maintain throughout the course.  For example, when a student asks a useful or insightful question, ask if anyone else was wondering that (or, if no one was, ask if anyone else wants to know the answer now), and thank the student for asking.
  • Acknowledge the different types of experience students bring to class, and do so in positive terms.  How might different cultural or educational experiences (different majors, different years at Carleton, etc.) allow students to bring useful insights to the class?

Before/Around the First Day

  • Email your students to introduce yourself and establish basic parameters for the course (what they should call you, how they should prepare for class, etc.).
  • Give students a short reading or writing assignment that will have them engage the course material immediately.  At the very least, you should direct them to the syllabus and ask them to read it and come to class prepared with questions about it.
  • Collect some basic data via a web survey or Moodle quiz.  This can include biographical info (preferred name, pronouns, etc.) and insight into their perspectives going into the course (past experience with subject, perceived strengths, concerns, etc.).  This article provides additional tips for using these surveys specifically to promote inclusion.
  • Familiarize yourself with the roster as much as possible, including the audio recordings of students’ names that may be difficult for you to pronounce.
  • For smaller classes, consider “hello conferences,” where you meet with the students individually or in small groups outside of class to get to know them and address any questions they have about the course.
  • Orient yourself to the classroom–how it’s laid out, how you’ll use the space, how the technology works, etc.–so you won’t have to burn class time figuring this out on the first day.

Start of Class and Introductions

  • Arrive early and talk to your students, ideally addressing them by name or at least asking their names.
  • Welcome students warmly as they arrive, especially late-arriving students.
  • Introduce yourself, including your personal experience with the course topic.
  • Have students introduce themselves and say something about their experience with the course topic or their interest in the course.
  • Discuss the classroom space — how well students can see/hear you around the room, how to best arrange the desks before class, etc.  


  • Have students engage in an interactive activity of some kind before you go over the syllabus, and make any discussion of the syllabus or the course policies as interactive as possible.
  • Ask students to read the syllabus ahead of time and ask if they have any questions before you address anything yourself.
  • Discuss your outcomes or learning goals and how major components of the course (content units, assignments, exams, etc.) fit into those goals.
  • Don’t go over the entire syllabus; rather, address only the policies and that students absolutely need to know for the class periods and assignments immediately ahead.
  • Try to discuss policies in positive terms.  For example, instead of simply laying out the penalties for absences and tardiness, explain how the in-class activities will contribute to their learning in the course and why missing all or part of those is problematic.
  • Don’t assume that students are familiar with aspects of your syllabus that are common for courses like yours.  For example, don’t just tell students when your office hours are; tell them what your office hours are for–when and why might they want to come talk to you.