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Ask an Educator: How to Successfully Kick Off a Semester

  • 5 Min Read

Start the semester right by shaking things up with syllabus-related activities that surprise and delight your students.


It’s been said that you never get a second chance to make a good impression. That’s as true in academia as it is in business or in social situations. In this blog, we’ll explore some activities you can use on the first day of class that will give students a good first impression of you and your course.

Before we dive in, let’s talk about the syllabus. Your syllabus is your course contract, so you may be tempted to go through each part of it line by line on the first day of class. But that’s not exactly motivational. And it’s not an effective way to engage students in the course from the get-go.

So, how do we ensure that students know what is expected and required, without boring them to tears by reading through every word of our syllabi?

Shake things up with a few syllabus-related activities that may surprise and delight your students. (Keep in mind, however, that there still may be important components of the syllabus that need to be discussed, so it may still be necessary to explicitly clarify important information such as major assignments after engaging in one of these activities.) Here are five ideas to help you kick off a year to remember:

1. Syllabus Quick Connects

This is a useful tactic for groups of students who may not know each other. It allows students to discover information about the syllabus and their classmates at the same time. Here’s how to organize it.

Students sit in two rows facing each other. They each have a set time to answer two questions, one about the syllabus (they can look up the answer) and one personal question. Pairs have a limited amount of time together (one to two minutes should be plenty). Once time is up, students shift to sit with a new peer.

To prepare, come up with a few specific questions about your course, assessments or policies that can be answered by reading the syllabus. The number of questions will depend on the number of students/pairs. The questions can be posed in a variety of ways:

  • Each student receives one question to ask of their peers as they move around the room.
  • Each station can have two set questions for the pairs to answer.
  • You can call out the questions to the entire class, and all pairs will work on the same question at the same time. (A potential bonus with this option is the element of competition to find the answer first.)

The personal questions can either be prepared by you, or you can allow each student to come up with their own. You may want to prepare a few example questions in case students are stuck coming up with their own.

Have students record what they learned about the syllabus and about their classmates.

2. Syllabus Hide and Seek

Think about the most important items in the syllabus that you want students to know, then turn them into a game. Who can find _____ the fastest? What are the top three most important items? What’s the purpose of XYZ assignment? Keep score by putting student names on the board and adding a point every time they are first with the correct answer. As a bonus, this will help you learn student names as you assign points to each for a correct answer and congratulate them on their wins.

3. Clearly Define the Purpose of the Course and Why You Love It

What is the purpose of this course? Why should students care about the course material? Why do you care about the material? Let them see the big picture, and answer the “why do we need to know this” question right off the bat. Come back to the purpose often throughout the semester, especially if you sense that students are starting to feel burned out or are losing focus.

Also, tell your story. Who are you? Why are you teaching this course? What do you love most about the material? Let your students know who you are and what makes you excited about this subject. Provide examples of how you’ve used this information in the “real world” or how it has impacted your life.

4. Set Clear Class Expectations

I often start my courses by working with my students to create class rules. I start by breaking up the whiteboard into the following sections:

  • what Dr. Simolo expects of us
  • what we expect of Dr. Simolo
  • what we expect of each other

Students are asked to either call out or come up to the whiteboard to add things to any of the lists. This lets students in on a part of my teaching philosophy—that learning is a team sport, and that we all need to cooperate to learn with and from each other. After students are satisfied with their lists, I adjust and add as needed (especially to the “What Dr. Simolo expects of us” section). We continue to discuss and adjust until we are all in agreement, and (if space allows) we each sign the board. I take a picture of the whiteboard with my phone to upload to our D2L course for future reference, as needed.

Almost without fail, students come up with the rules that I would have otherwise imposed through a reading of the syllabus (don’t be late, do your homework, participate, etc.). Yet, the activity allows students to gain a sense of control over their own behavior and hold each other accountable for classroom decorum. The section where they list what they expect of me often includes things related to autonomy, respect and engagement.

5. Address Misconceptions and Knowledge Gaps on Day One

Are there common misconceptions that students may hold regarding the content of your course? Grab their attention by addressing and debunking common misconceptions right off the bat. You can do this by using a True/False game, telling a story, showing a process or problem, or whatever works best to highlight misconceptions. Later, when the topic is covered in class, students will have that moment of surprise to draw from. You could also formally assess common misconceptions or misunderstandings through a no-stakes quiz. After the information is covered in class, students can revisit their first-day quiz attempts to correct their mistakes and see how much they have learned.

Your first moments with your students set the tone for the remainder of the semester. Choose activities that engage their minds, create connections and excite them to start your class off on the right foot.

Dr. Amy Simolo is a Senior Customer Success Manager at D2L, working with higher education clients. Previously, Amy spent over 10 years as a faculty development professional, training faculty teaching within both face-to-face and online environments.

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Table of Contents

  1. 1. Syllabus Quick Connects
  2. 2. Syllabus Hide and Seek
  3. 3. Clearly Define the Purpose of the Course and Why You Love It
  4. 4. Set Clear Class Expectations
  5. 5. Address Misconceptions and Knowledge Gaps on Day One