The first session of a module can be a bore—roll call and distribution of module guides, followed by a lecture about which texts and assignments students can expect to encounter. No wonder so many students fail to appear. It’s actually a better strategy to start your module off with some of your most engaging content and lesson plans—make them excited about what they learn on the first day, and attendance and participation will be enhanced for the rest of the term.
Here are four ideas for fantastic first sessions (all of which can be combined with distributing module guides and ensuring students know what is expected of this during the term).
1: Start with personal stories
One of the most valuable pieces of information a lecturer can have at the start of term is what motivates students to take their subject, and what their backgrounds are. Divide the students into pairs or small groups and ask each set to interview each other about backgrounds, motivations, and what they hope to learn during the term. You may want to provide written questions and ask students to take notes: you can use these yourself to tailor future sessions to meet student needs.
Move among the groups during the exercise, and then ask each to report back to the full class during the second half of the session. Make key themes visible on the board or screen—then follow with a very short lecture explaining how the module content will help students achieve the goals they have expressed.
2. Start with a problem-solving session
Start by setting a problem that is typical in your field for groups of 5-7 students (make sure it’s a problem that can be solved using information provided along with it). Move between groups to explain the theoretical or practical approaches they have been asked to use. Pay attention as you go to observing how students approach problems: you may be able to pick out students with strong or weak strategies, or pinpoint areas of skill strength or deficit that can be built on in future sessions.
Follow up by asking groups to report on their solutions, then use the last 15 minutes or so to explain how the module will help them to improve their problem-solving skills and aptitudes, and what kinds of solutions would be expected at a professional level.
3. Start with an activity
Could students create posters, build something, do something practical in the lab, or be sent out on campus to make observations or do a questionnaire? A carefully planned action-oriented session will immediately involve students in the subject matter. Be careful to gear the activity towards entry-level skills, however, and to scaffold it with explicit instructions, written guidance and time limits. Then bring students back to the lecture format for a debriefing session: what went well, what didn’t?
4. Start with your own story
One of the most powerful keys to motivating and involving students is sharing what brought you into the field, a few key moments from your work (such as stories from real-world practice dilemmas), and your reasons for teaching the next generation. You may want to start with your own student experience: what would you do differently if you were starting over? Follow on with an inspirational message that ties course content to the aspirations and needs of those who hope to follow you in the field.