Sometimes when passing through a classroom building, I glance in at a class in session and try to gauge by students’ faces whether the instructor has them engaged or not. Through their facial expressions, you can see whether they are caught up in the class or struggling not to drift away in their thoughts or electronic devices. Faculty often think of their job as transmitting knowledge, from their brains into those of the students, as if content were just concrete matter being passed along. Filling a bucket, to paraphrase W. B. Yeats, rather than lighting a fire. The relationship between the teacher and student is a subtle one–won or lost at the onset of the semester. Too often, faculty waste their precious first encounter by filling that time with administrivia.
When I welcome new faculty teaching in my college, I suggest that were we to administer the course evaluation after the first few weeks, the results wouldn’t differ much from the end of the semester. It turns out I was wrong: Research shows it only takes a few minutes in the first class to determine students’ opinion of a course. Perhaps unconsciously, students determine whether to like or dislike a class, whether to participate actively, whether the instructor is worthy of respect, and perhaps even whether to commit to learning or just to endure the experience. The first part of the first class is the equivalent of speed dating. These initial few minutes (in a course that will meet for about 3,000 minutes over 14 weeks) can be decisive.
First impressions matter. They signal the beginning or aborting of a relationship. This relationship should not simply be transactional—where the instructor sets the conditions for the semester-long interchange, the student complies, and, in exchange, receives academic credit banked and eventually cashed in for a degree. Instead, the relationship should be lasting—from a positive first meeting to a powerful educational experience—and then to a memorable course that sticks with the student years later. I tell new faculty that they should strive to be that one outstanding professor whom a student years later stops on the street or sends a note to say that they are still applying or even perplexed by what they encountered in their class. The material hadn’t quickly evaporated out of short-term memory after the final exam, but moved into the long-term memory of what has mattered in their lives. This is a high bar for instructors to reach—but without the effort, their class will inevitably fall short.
I once heard the president of an Ivy League university address a conference, where he warned that studies show that most audiences can only be attentive for a few minutes before drifting into daydreaming, and that the speaker has to work hard to draw the non-listener back in. (He suggested to these hundreds of educators that most of these daydreams were sexual in nature, but my guess was he was just trying to jolt us into paying attention.) We are always battling our students’ propensity to drift off—and we’d likely do the same in their position. Today’s students, whether full-time or part-time, are battling conflicting commitments and a sensory onslaught—and today’s faculty must compete vigorously for their attention. A class run like a spectator sport inevitably fails to engage its students.
How should an instructor conduct the first class? Certainly not by reciting what is in the syllabus. The syllabus is a critical contractual document, but it can’t capture the essence of what the learning experience will be like, nor the larger idealistic goals of the professor. My advice to faculty is to send the syllabus in advance to let students digest details on their own and start the reading so that the class can start in earnest in its first session. Then the in-class challenge is to incite students’ enthusiasm, momentum, curiosity and participation. Those students who speak up early will do so often; those who do not will become the wallflowers—passively and sporadically observing the class take place around them and without them.
Teaching does require behavioral techniques. Assessment tools should mirror what the instructor wants the students to gain from the course, not just what is readily measurable. Standards and rules for what is expected of students—particularly the quality and honesty of their individual work—need to be crystal clear. Faculty should emphasize the importance of clarity and care in students’ written work. Research has found that students perform better with clear deadlines, requirements and milestones. But the course structure is only the broad framework that does not define or elevate the course experience itself.
I encourage faculty to set high expectations for themselves and their students. While requirements can always be reduced or modified, you shouldn’t assume too little of your students a priori. Get to know them. Learn their names and backgrounds, encourage their active participation, and demonstrate your respect for their points of view by returning to comments they previously made. Empirical research has shown that most of us are uncomfortable with silences and tend to exaggerate the length of an awkward moment. My advice to faculty is to be patient, accept silences (even a few seconds can be painful), and give students a chance to collect their thoughts and take responsibility for contributing to the class discussion.
A successful class requires that students take some ownership for its success. As famed mime Marcel Marceau once said: It is good to shut up sometimes. Those for whom English is not their mother tongue have to translate your question in their heads, consider a response in English, and then muster the courage to speak up in class. This takes more time than we often provide before we jump in and answer our own question, or call on that same tried-and-true student who always has a hand up. Try to draw students in with humor: Ask, for example, how many are too shy to raise their hands in class (and then see who does).
Teaching is daunting even for stellar, experienced faculty. A colleague (whose evaluations were among the best in the college) once confided how apprehensive he was at the start of each semester. He knew that, no matter how strong his reputation, he was starting over again each term. The Sisyphus-like challenge is to tackle each term as a fresh experience. One never teaches the same course twice. Judge your success in the first session by what percentage of the students participated—and by the nonverbal cues they show in their engagement. Then work to sustain that.
Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.