5 Ways to Get Students Excited and Engaged on the First Day of Class

Student in a pink shirt smiling at another student in the foreground
Photo credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing

By Christine Goedhart

First impressions are powerful, and the thoughts, feelings and expectations that students form about your course during the first day will follow them throughout the term. Here are five things that you can do on the first day of class to set the right tone and get your students excited, engaged, and eager to start learning.

1. Introduce yourself and any other members of the teaching team

Believe it or not, your students are very interested in you, so set aside some time on the first day to share information about yourself and any other members of the teaching team. Here are some possible things to include in your introduction:

    • Your academic and professional pathways
    • Your hobbies
    • Your family
    • Your pronouns
    • Your research or any projects you are working on
    • Something interesting that you did during the break
    • A fun fact about yourself
    • An anecdote from your own undergraduate experience

2. Let students introduce themselves

Students want to feel heard, valued, and included as part of the course, and a great way to do this on the first day is to give them an opportunity to introduce themselves. Here are some strategies for letting students introduce themselves:

    • Have students answer some questions about themselves on a note card or First-Day Info sheet (e.g., What is something interesting that you did during the break? What are your thoughts/feelings about taking this course? Is there anything that you would like me to know about you?). Collect at the end of the first day so that you can read their answers and refer to them throughout the term.
    • Allow students to share some information about themselves with the entire class or with 1-3 students around them. You can prompt them by asking them to share some of the items on the note card/worksheet referenced in the above bullet point.
    • Have students create name tents that display their names (and pronouns if they’d like) and ask them to display the name tents in front of them throughout the term. You can have students bring their name tents to each class or collect them at the end of each day and have them available for pick up when they walk into class. Don’t forget to make and display your own name tent!

3. Explicitly emphasize your desire to work with and interact with students

Students will likely enter your course feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Here are some things you can do to help students feel more optimistic about the course and view you as an approachable source of support:

    • Get to class a little early on the first day and try to greet as many students as possible. Ask them about their name and some interesting fact about them, such as their hometown, what they did over the break, or what they’re looking forward to this term. Let them know that you are happy to have them in your course.
    • Encourage students to talk with you about anything that is going on and make it clear that you will work with them to provide reasonable accommodations.
    • Acknowledge that emergencies can include things besides medical issues (e.g., mental health, family, work-related concerns) and are also valid reasons to ask for accommodations. Include this information in the syllabus.
    • Invite students to your office hours. Students often feel intimidated to go to office hours because they don’t have specific questions and/or they feel that they are bothering you and taking up your time. You can mitigate these feelings by making it clear that your office hours are dedicated times for students – they’re not bothering you, and they don’t need to have fully formed questions to come.

4. Create classroom guidelines

Classroom guidelines provide structure for the course, help students feel safe, and facilitate a sense of community. Involving students in their creation is also important, because students tend to feel more ownership for and commitment to classroom guidelines if they participate in their design. Here are some ways to do this:

    • Give students a few minutes to reflect on their prior classroom experiences and to come up with some ground rules or expectations that they would like to see implemented in the current course. This can be done individually or in small groups. Suggested prompts and sample guidelines can be found here.
    • Ask students to share their ideas for classroom guidelines and display them in a place where everyone can see them (e.g., write them on the board, type into a slide). You can combine similar ideas for conciseness.
    • Before adopting the guidelines, make sure that everyone consents to the list. If helpful, you can designate a trial period (e.g., two weeks), at which point the guidelines will be revisited and revised as needed.

5. Include a current, real-world example of how the course material is relevant to your students

Students get excited when they see how what they are learning in class has real-world significance, so take some time to highlight one or more ways that the course will relate to their lives outside of your classroom. Here are some ideas for how to do this:

    • As you engage with the news or popular media in the weeks before the term begins, keep your eyes and ears open for anything that relates to the course. Find a way to incorporate these cutting-edge examples into your first class period.
    • Provide specific examples of how the course material and activities will help students succeed in their major, their general education, or in their future career.

A Bonus Tip: Show your own excitement for the course

Students commonly state in teaching evaluations that when their instructor is passionate, excited, and enthusiastic about the course material, it helps them to also get excited and engaged in the course. So before you enter the classroom on the first day, take a few moments to reflect on and reconnect with your love of teaching and your enthusiasm for the course material. What about the course excites you? How can you show your students that you care about what you’re teaching? Excitement is contagious – as you show excitement and passion for what you are teaching, it will help students to care about and enjoy the course more.

Want more tips? Here is another great resource: How to Teach a Good First Day of Class – Advice Guide, by James M. Lang

Join the conversation by leaving a comment! Please share any other tips you have for engaging students on the first day, or any experiences you’ve had with using the tips listed above. I’d love to hear from you!

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