Experienced educators know that the first day of the semester is by far the most important in terms of setting the tone for student behaviors and expectations. During the first class meeting, students learn such things as: Will we be sitting quietly? Working in groups? Do I really need to show up for class? Introducing changes to classroom policies such as tardiness, extra credit options, and cell phone use is much more difficult in the 3rd or 4th weeks than on the first day. And the same is true for pedagogy; if you want students to be working in groups in weeks 3, 4, and beyond, it’s best to get them working in groups on the first day. In my classes I aim for the 10-minute mark – I want students working in groups and talking to each other quickly after my introduction to the course.
Two things must be done prior to having students begin any group activity. First, the instructor must organize students into groups. Second, the instructor must give them a simple introductory task that helps them learn a bit about the other members in the group. An experienced teacher might give the following instructions in a large Anatomy and Physiology class:
“I want you to work in groups of 3 or 4, so find 2 to 3 other people to work with for today, and then organize yourselves in a circle. After that, I want you to introduce yourselves by saying your names, your favorite food, and your dream job that you want to have in 10 years. Once you are done, raise your hands and I’ll give your group the first activity. Everybody should be able to get this all done in the next 3 or 4 minutes. GO!”
It’s always good practice to let students talk about themselves before jumping into an activity. Questions such as “what is your favorite food?” and “what is your dream job?” give everyone something to say and require a low level of trust, which occurs as people first become acquainted.
Over the past few years I’ve used two different guided inquiry lessons on the first day of class; Levels of Organization Activity, which is a core concept to all human anatomy and physiology, and Medical Terminology Activity, which introduces students to prefixes, roots, suffixes, and eponyms. Both are short in duration (15 to 20 minutes) and relatively easy for students to complete with minimal instructor direction. I’ve even got some Instructions for Students, to ensure everyone begins on the same page.
While students are working on the activity, students’ hands will go up as questions occur such as “What’s the answer to question 8?” During a guided inquiry activity, it’s important for the instructor not to give direct answers to students’ questions, but rather give hints, clues, and when possible, follow up with additional questions. Again, on the first day of class you are setting the tone, and in an inquiry classroom, the role of the instructor is an instigator of thought more than a fount of information. Offering hints or clues is acceptable, but you should resist the urge to give answers. At the end of the activity when all groups have finished, the instructor can engage in a large-group discussion with the class to review answers. It is here that the instructor might say, “Question 8 caused some groups problems; anybody have an answer for Question 8?” And it is here at the very end of the activity, that answers to specific questions can be confirmed by the instructor.
The Summer 2016 edition of the HAPS Educator in now available. In that edition, I have shared some pieces on teaching with inquiry and cooperative learning. And the two activities included above will help you and your students with something to do on the first day. If you like these, send me a note and I’ll forward you a couple more. (Murray Jensen – email@example.com.) Finally, the two activities linked here are a part of a larger set that can found on the HAPS Website under “Guided learning activities for A & P.”