Preparing For and Lecturing on the First Day of Class

By Daniel Altshuler

As a teacher, we do a great deal of preparation for the first day of class—e.g. choosing the proper instructional materials, dividing the content of the materials into self-contained topics, dividing these topics into lectures, figuring out how students' understanding of the lecture material will be assessed, making the syllabus, etc. I would like to discuss two additional items to consider: sending out an introductory email and, should an instructor lecture on the first day of class?

Sending Out an Introductory Email

A positive first impression helps the teacher earn respect and assert authority in the classroom without having to be authoritative. This is especially important if the teacher is young and lacks experience. But how does a positive impression come about? In my experiences as a teacher, a positive impression comes from a teacher being (i) knowledgeable, (ii) passionate, (iii) organized and (iv) professional. I strongly believe that it is vital to illustrate these qualities before the first day of class and then use the first day to reinforce them. One way to do so is to send out an introductory e-mail a few weeks before classes begin. This email should contain the following core ingredients:

  • Professional salutation
    Something of the form "Hello, you are receiving this email because you are registered for Class X. I wanted to touch base with you and provide some information that you may find helpful before classes begin."
  • Description of the course as means of showing your passion and knowledge
    Don't copy and paste from the course catalogue. Rather, pick a puzzling fact in your discipline; something you care about. Introduce it as a question. Entertain some hypotheses and connect them to some broad issues in the field. Your description is a success if the student feels invited to think about an issue that is non-trivial, but yet one that students can comprehend and relate to.
  • Attached material as means of showing your organization and professionalism
    You should have a syllabus ready a few weeks before classes begin. So why not share it with the class ahead of time? Not only will this show that you are organized, but it will also help the student to make an intelligent decision about whether to take the class (more on this below). I also like to attach a 10-page document that (a) suggests ways to develop good study habits, (b) offers advice on how to evaluate a teacher's comments on a written assignment and (c) discusses the importance of office house.
  • Mentioning textbook(s) and web resource(s) as means of showing your organization
    Mentioning what textbooks(s) and web resource(s) will be used in the course will not only show the students that you are organized, but it will help to ensure that the students buy the required text before classes begin and become familiar with, e.g. Sakai or some relevant website (you could even invite the students to check out the relevant website ahead of time!).
  • Setting up a survey shows that you care
    Set up a survey on Sakai (it is free and simple to do so) that invites students to answer questions about which topics they would like to hear about throughout the course of the semester. This will show the students that you are concerned with their interests and points of view. Moreover, you could see which topics generate a lot of interest and then use this information to your advantage—i.e., set up in-class activities and/or take-home projects on these topics.

To Lecture Or Not to Lecture?

It is important to lecture on the first day of class for the following reason: the window during which a student can decide whether or not to take a particular class is extremely small; decisions must be made shortly after the first day of class. Since classes are a financial investment, it is a teacher's responsibility, their duty, to give the students the necessary information that would enable them to make an intelligent decision about whether or not to take the course in question. This involves giving a comprehensive introduction about what the class is about, which is quite difficult to do because the teacher (typically) cannot presuppose prior knowledge. Nevertheless it must be done.

To reiterate, an effective way to introduce a course is to (i) introduce a puzzling phenomenon, something specific and something that you care about, (ii) entertain some hypotheses and (iii) connect them to some broad issues in the field. Your introduction is a success if the student feels invited to think about an issue that is non-trivial, but yet one that he can comprehend and relate to. The following is an example of how I introduce Linguistics to undergraduates with no prior knowledge of the field on the first day of class.

  • The take home message:
    Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. The scientific method is necessary to study human language because human language is a system of rules that are only tacitly known by the speaker.
  • Demonstration through a class experiment:
    Consider the words in (a) and (b):

    (a) Tom, tipsy, sat, hat, street
    (b) water, waiter, hater, debater

    I ask the students to read the words in (a) and then the words in (b), concentrating on how the letter t is pronounced. To their surprise, they discover that there is difference between the 'regular' t in (a) an the 'funky' t in (b), which sounds more like d or r. I then ask the students to write a hypothesis that predicts the distribution of the 'regular' and 'funky' t. The students always provide one of the following hypotheses:

    (i) 'regular' t when at the beginning or end of a word or after a consonant
    (ii) 'funky' t when between two vowels
    (iii) 'funky' t when preceding –er

    After discussing these three hypotheses, I put the following words on the board:

    (c) Matilda, eternal, material

    The students then attempt to explain why their hypotheses are wrong given the words in (c). Finally, I ask if anyone has further hypotheses. There are typically a few students on the right track, bringing up notions such as stress and syllable. Without giving the answer away (which involves concepts that are not worth mentioning on the first day), I summarize the experiment by saying that even though everyone has intuitions about how to pronounce words (tacit knowledge), it is very difficult to discover what rule allows us to pronounce them the way we do. The only way to discover the rule is to follow the scientific method. I conclude by saying that there are also rules that deal with the formation of words and sentences, and the meaning of words, sentences and larger chunks of text.

  • Consequences:
    The first day of class surprises many students because they have the incorrect conception that linguistics is purely a performance based discipline that will allow them to communicate better and learn foreign languages more efficiently. Although there are always some students that drop the course after the first lecture (mostly because they realize that linguistics is a serious science and not a-walk-in-the-park elective), I have found that many of the remaining students are very anxious to learn linguistic theory and therefore get their money's worth.

©2019, School of Graduate Studies, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey