Dr. Frank Vahid

Co-founder and Chief Learning Officer at zyBooks
Professor of Computer Science and Engineering
University of California at Riverside

First impressions have lasting effects.

In the past, like many teachers, I made my first day of class “syllabus day“. I went over the syllabus, telling students about the book, office hours, and grades. I’d answer questions about exams, attendance, and late policy. If time was left, I’d dismiss class early.

Students’ first impression: “This class is a procedure”.

Now, on the first day, I start strong: I warmly welcome students, share my passion for the subject, and excitedly jump into the material. If it’s intro to programming, I open a coding window and start coding. I include media, interactions, group activities, and humor (well, my attempt), so the first day looks like future lectures. I do go over the syllabus, but in the middle of class — like a commercial break — and spend only about 15-20 minutes. And I don’t discuss academic dishonesty yet, beyond brief mention — no student is already planning to cheat, so why spoil the first day with negativity. Better to discuss a few weeks later, when the temptation is starting.

Why start strong and avoid syllabus day? In part because of the anchoring effect: First impressions bias how people process subsequent data, and first impressions can be hard to change.  That’s partly why Apple invests so heavily in their storefronts. Many professors, including me, pre-judge conference talks literally in the first minute — a dry opening likely means a dry talk, and I might tune out. A key rule of public speaking is to “start by engaging your audience“, and that applies to classes too.

Some teachers balk at such ideas, believing students should inherently want to learn the subject. That’s simply not reality. As my Ph.D. advisor would tell me, “Frank, come down from the clouds”. Motivating students is a part of teaching in the real world. Then, even if you botch a topic, motivated students will find a way to learn, like hungry wolves will find lunch.

Of course, a non-strong first day doesn’t doom the term — plenty of great classes start with syllabus day. But a strong first day sure helps.

A well-known experiment illustrates how initial impressions bias students. Before a lecture, students received a paragraph description of a new teacher, except half the students got the word “warm”, the other half “cold” (only that one word differed). In after-lecture evaluations, the students who got the “warm” version rated the teacher as more effective, humorous, and humane, and as less irritable, ruthless, and formal. One early word biased how students processed an entire lecture. Likewise, a class’ first day biases how students view, and hence engage with, the class later. Again, the subsequent days can overcome such bias, but why not start strong. (And, creating a “warm” syllabus influences students positively too).

My goal is for students’ first impression to be: “This class seems like it will be engaging and move swiftly. I guess I’ll plan to pay attention and expect to work.” A student once emailed me after the first day saying “Well professor, you got my attention. I’m in.”

Cool — that’s what I was aiming for.  And off we go…

What are your thoughts on having a successful first day of class? Share your comments with the zyCommunity.