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The first day of class is an important time. This CDTL Brief on Preparing for the First Lecture/Class provides tips on pre-class preparations, ideas on approaching the first class session and hints in getting comfortable in front of the class.

July 2004, Vol. 7, No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Stimulating Student Interest in the First Lecture
 
Philip Holden
Associate Professor
Department of English Language and Literature
 

The first class meeting is often a defining moment in a course: it establishes expectations and an implicit learning contract on the part of both students and lecturer. Yet the first class also has a number of mutually contradictory requirements that have to be negotiated with some skill. Students need to know a considerable amount of information about the mechanics of the module, yet it is difficult to present this information in an easily digestible and entertaining way. An hour’s lecture devoted to explaining the syllabus is hardly likely to tempt students who are ‘shopping’ into taking the module: furthermore, it is unlikely to provide a model for the kind of interactive learning or critical thinking that a lecturer wishes to encourage. An appeal for ‘any questions’ at the end of such an introduction is likely to produce a few raised hands, if any, and questions asked by students in such situations tend to relate to the mechanics of the module (e.g. “What exactly will we be tested on in the exam?” Do we have to attend every tutorial?”) rather than to the subject itself and the excitement generated through learning.

In an introductory lecture class, I negotiate these difficulties using a variety of strategies. I produce a comprehensive web site, which is ready (although never finished, since it is continuously evolving) before the beginning of the semester for students to browse1. On the web site, I invite students to think over a series of introductory questions, and to introduce themselves on an Integrated Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE) forum. The questions are deliberately pitched in order to be inclusive and to let me find out about the students’ background: for an introductory module on literary studies, for instance, I might ask students what their best and worst experiences of studying literature have been, or ask them to respond to a proposal that the study of literature at secondary schools and junior colleges should be done away with. To make things easy, I ask students to answer only one IVLE question. I generally find that a fair number of students respond, before the first lecture, and I can then incorporate some of their responses into my introductory lecture.

I start the lecture itself at the time when I normally expect to start: for an English Literature module this is on time, perhaps allowing a minute or two for stragglers; for a General Education Module (GEM) or Singapore Studies (SS) module, in which students are coming from all over campus, this may be five or even ten minutes past the hour. I leave getting to know names until the tutorials, although I do look at the photos on IVLE before class and try to match the names of those who have posted to faces. If the lecture theatre is (as is frequently the case for me) too big for the number of students, I encourage the students to come down to the first few rows. Humorously phrased threats to always call on those who sit right at the back normally provide sufficient incentive! Generally, I try to start the lecture with an ‘attention grabber’. In a recent Singapore Literature module (EN3263/SSA2201: “Singapore Literature in Context”), for example, I and the two tutors each read out a poem—one condemnatory, one celebratory, and the other playfully ironic—by a Singapore writer, which commented on Singapore society. Reading the poems settled the class down, and also produced a sense of expectation.

I then introduce myself and the tutors, and give a brief discussion of the issues raised in the module. In the case of the Singapore Literature module, after pausing a little after the last poem was read out, I tied the subject matter of the poems into a brief lecture about questions that the module would raise—about representation or identity, for instance, or the relation of literature to the social world in which it is written and read, or the use of language. Using material from students’ postings, I tried to show how the questions raised by the poems are central to discussions of literature in general, and are mirrored in the students’ own experiences. I named the names of students who posted on IVLE while doing this, and mention some of the best responses in detail. In doing so, I hope to signal a couple of things to students. First, that their voices and opinions are important in the module, and that I will listen to them attentively and weigh them carefully. Second, that they frequently have tacit knowledge derived from personal experience of which they can become aware and then put to use, rephrased, in academic study.

I then move on to a discussion of the content of the module itself. While some explanation and orientation, is necessary, experience has taught me that students often suffer from information overload in an introductory session. Therefore, I do not give out module descriptions, but rather talk students through the syllabus on the web site using a LCD projector, and discuss the literary texts we will be studying in a way that attracts their interest. I emphasise that they should get into the habit of browsing the site for themselves and emailing me if anything is unclear. Depending on the feeling I have about the responsiveness of the audience, I may pause at this point for questions. If I do so, I encourage students to turn to a neighbour, introduce themselves, and then ask each other if anything is unclear before reverting back to me. If questions focus on mechanical issues related to the syllabus, I answer them briefly but ask students to explore the web site more fully. If there are genuine difficulties in registration, readings, or timetable or exam clashes, I encourage students to talk to me after the lecture. If the problem raised is one that affects many students, I will later send out an email to the class distribution list.

By this point, I hope to have both inspired and motivated the students to see why the module’s topic is important, and also to have given a basic explanation of the way the module works. Now the fun starts—I try to have a learning activity that is approachable to students, yet also serves as a precursor for future activities in both lecture and tutorial. Despite a packed syllabus, I do not try to cover essential module content in the first lecture. The activity thus serves as a model for future work, and is again designed to hook student interest and encourage closer engagement. Activities I have tried include:

  • Giving the students a short, well-written text to read (a poem, or a prose passage of less than a page) and asking them to locate a word that seems most striking to them, and to indicate why;

  • Comparing short literary and non-literary texts on the same subject;

  • Answering a brief questionnaire on issues to do with the module; or

  • Watching a short video on a relevant topic and then responding to a series of questions on it.

In each case, I ask students to first share conclusions with their partners and, having done so, report back to the class. Using either a long flex or a radio microphone, I’ll then wander around the lecture theatre seeking responses, gradually pulling the responses together and, finally, relating them back to the overall issues that the module addresses.

In the final few minutes of the first lecture, I look forward to next week’s lecture, first in terms of the content that we’ll be covering, and then in terms of mechanics, listing what needs to be done next week. I make sure that the lecture finishes punctually, but make myself available outside the lecture hall to answer individual questions. I hope that students will go away from the first class with their curiosity piqued, eager to learn more about the content of the module itself, and knowing where to go to find out details of readings, syllabus and assessment.

References

University of Kansas. Center for Teaching Excellence. (2000). Great Beginnings: The First Day. http://www.ku.edu/%7Ecte/resources/teachingtips/firstday.html (Last accessed: 10 November 2003).

University of Waterloo. Teaching Resources and Continuing Education. (2000). ‘Surviving Your First Day Of Class’. Adapted from Tools for Teaching by Davis, Barbara Gross. (Last accessed: 10 November 2003).

Felder, Richard. (1995). ‘Getting Started’. Chemical Engineering. Education. 29(3), 166–167. (Last accessed: 10 November 2003).


1 For a sample course web site developed for EN2101E “Models of Literary Appreciation and Criticism”

 
 
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Inside this issue
The First Class—Getting my Act together
   
Your First Class: Preparation and “Theatre”
   
Stimulating Student Interest in the First Lecture
   
Starting on the Right Track
   
Making or Breaking a Course—the First Lesson