Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Rocking Your First Day of Class (and Beyond!)

02 Jan 2020 10:52 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Donald A. Saucier (Kansas State University)

The Promise of a New Day

I love the first day of class.  As it approaches, I get excited.  I get antsy.  It is the beginning of a new academic experience with a new bunch of collaborators, and on that first day I get to introduce my course and my content to people who may come to love it as much as I do. The first day is not a “syllabus day”.  While I do review the syllabus with my students, I do much more than read through the course policies, describe the student learning outcomes, and outline the schedule of topics.  If that were all I did (and to be honest, some students expect and even want that), then I would have missed the opportunity to engage my students in the wonderful learning we will do together.  My goal on the first day is to inspire my students to want to come back for the second day of class (and then the third day, and the fourth day. . .).  On that first day, I try to show my class how engaging, valuable, and relevant the class will be for them and for me.  I set the tone, norms, and expectations that will provide the foundation for our shared and engaged academic experience.

My Teaching Philosophy

My approach to the first day of class is grounded in my teaching philosophy that focuses on maximizing the intrinsic motivation that I have in my teaching and that my students have in their learning.  When we are intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity, we do it because we gain inherent pleasure in the activity.  That is, we do it because enjoy it.  When we are extrinsically motivated to engage in an activity, we do it to gain an external reward.  That is, we do it to get something.  Research on these types of motivation and on self-determination theory shows that when we engage in activities due to intrinsic (rather than extrinsic) motivation, we engage in them more consistently and enjoy them more.  When we engage in activities due to extrinsic motivation, it is possible that the extrinsic motivation may undermine the intrinsic motivation.  Knowing this, I use the first day of class to highlight for my students why they may be intrinsically motivated to take the class.  I have designed three components into my first day approach to maximize my students’ intrinsic motivation for the course.  I inspire their choice to learn, nurture their voices, and use trickle-down engagement to inspire them to leave the first day of my class wanting to come back on the second day and beyond.

Inspiring the Choice to Learn

The first component of my first day engagement strategies is inspiring my students’ choice to learn.  I believe that students must be intrinsically motivated to learn if they are to learn well.  That is, they must make the choice to learn for themselves because they see the content as valuable, interesting, and personally relevant.  On the first day of class, I ask my students why they enrolled in my class, and they typically respond with answers that fit into one of two categories.  The first, and usually more frequent, category of responses is that they took the class for extrinsic reasons, such as to satisfy a requirement or because an advisor told them to.  The second category of responses is that they took the class for intrinsic reasons, such as to learn about a topic they thought would be interesting.  I use these responses to discuss the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, with an emphasis on the possibility that extrinsic motivations may undermine intrinsic motivations.

This conversation becomes more powerful as I help them make their choices to learn.  I ask my students to stand up if they are able and to repeat after me.  I make statements such as: “I don’t have to be in this course.”  “I don’t have to come back.”  “If I come back, then I am choosing to take this course.”  “If I choose to take this course, I do so because I find it valuable for me.”  “If I come back, it means that I love psychology!”  These public affirmations, reminiscent of the force compliance paradigms used in cognitive dissonance research, make salient my students’ autonomy in their course decisions and the role their intrinsic motivation for the course has in their educational decisions.

My course semantics and policies also reflect this choice to learn.  I tell my students that they have no points at the start of my course and also that my course has no “requirements.”  Instead, they will have “opportunities” to earn and accumulate points throughout the semester.  I do not tell them they have to do anything.  Instead, I make recommendations regarding the choices I hope they make.  I will recommend, for instance, that they come to class to engage in the material and that they read the relevant readings for an upcoming exam so that they will have the best opportunity to learn the material, and consequently earn points.  If students ask me if they have to do anything, such as “Do I have to read Chapter 2?”, my answer is always something like, “No, but I recommend that you choose to do that if you would like to learn the material.”  By emphasizing their choice to learn in their decision to take the course and engage in the content, the students become more inspired to do the work for themselves.

Nurturing Student Voices

The second component of my first day engagement strategies is starting to nurture my students’ voices.  This is an important objective in my courses, and I provide opportunities for students to use their voices on the very first day of class.  I explain to them that their voices are their most powerful social tool and, either through speaking or writing, their voices are the means through which they may influence their futures and their worlds.  On the first day of my courses, my students use their voices in three ways.  As stated above, my students use their voices to tell me their initial motivations for taking my course, and they also use their voices to affirm that they understand their motivation for staying in my course should be intrinsic.  The third way that my students use their voices on the first day of my courses is by asking me questions.  By asking questions, students are able to guide their own learning, and this is a skill I want to nurture in my students.  They practice this skill by first asking me questions on that first day in writing.  I offer my students the opportunity to ask me questions about anything, and their questions generally bridge a number of domains from questions about course content and policies, to questions about my professional background and education, to questions about my personal life and opinions.  Importantly, I answer ALL of their questions.  In large classes, I may collect their questions on the first day (and often have them submit questions in groups of two of three) and use the entire second day of class to answer every question they asked.  By taking all of their questions seriously, and answering them all, I reinforce my students for using their voices and validate the specific ways in which they used them.  After answering their questions, I offer my students the opportunity to ask additional or follow-up questions.  This helps to create a community of learners in which we collaborate to create learning, and this norm that we set on the first day of the course continues during the semester.  Through this conversation, we also build rapport, making the learning environment safer and more engaging.

Using Trickle-Down Engagement

The third component of my first day engagement strategies is that I intentionally and palpably employ my teaching philosophy of trickle-down engagement.  We have the best jobs in the world.  I cherish the opportunity to teach my classes.  I love my content, and I love having the opportunity to share that content with my students.  I found that as a student, I engaged best and learned best when my teachers enjoyed their content and enjoyed teaching it to me.  Their engagement was contagious.  It helped me to engage and it helped me to learn.  I have found that telling my students how much I love my content and how much I love collaborating with them in learning it during our shared class time has made the class become a more engaged community of learners.  I explicitly share my intrinsic motivation to teach the course with my students and discuss my “choice to teach” as a parallel to their choice to learn.  I also show my students why the course matters to me and my optimism for what the experience may be.  In overviewing my course, I discuss how important and interesting the content will be.  I discuss how the assignments will be wonderful ways for students to apply their learning in creative and personally relevant ways.  I discuss how excited I am to pursue the course objectives with them, and how honored I am that they have chosen to take the course with me.  At the end of class on the first day, I tell my students how excited I am to have them come back on the second day. 

Importantly, my engagement in my content and in teaching it is authentic.  This is not something that I (or you) can fake.  I truly believe that the classroom is an oasis that provides relief from any other professional or personal responsibilities, distractions, and anxieties.  I enjoy my class time and the opportunity to spend that time with my students learning our content.  When I tell them about my intrinsic motivation, and thank them for the opportunity to learn with them, I am completely sincere.

Sustaining Student Engagement

Once you have rocked the first day, you can then rock the second day!  After greeting my students on the second day of class, I ask them why they are taking the course.  They usually respond with a chorus of, “Because we chose to!”  This use of their voices to reinforce their intrinsic motivation and autonomy affirms my mission to teach.  It inspires my engagement in my teaching and excites me about sharing my passion for the course content.  This in turn trickles down to inspire their engagement and facilitate their learning.  My students and I do this again and again over the course of the semester as we engage each other in our course.


The methods that I employ to engage my students and me in my course are simple.  They can be adapted and employed by virtually any teacher in any course.  But while simple, I believe they make a substantial difference in the motivations of the teacher and the students, and in the climate they enjoy as a community of learners.  The first day is a unique opportunity to set the tone, norms, and expectations that our courses will be valuable and engaging experiences, and the days that follow are periodic opportunities to reinforce that.  I invite you to choose to use these methods in inspiring your students’ choice to learn, nurturing your students’ voices, and using trickle-down engagement to engage your students and yourself to learn together.

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