Flip the First Day

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It’s almost impossible to read blogs, articles, even books on teaching without seeing a multitude of suggestions for not “wasting” the first day of class by covering the syllabus, course schedule, class rules and routines, and the like. I’ve even written one myself (Brown, 2009). What most people neglect to talk about, though, is how to cover the material students need to know to do well in the course. Beyond the legal reasoning for a syllabus, there are good reasons we lay out our course policies; some professors even see the syllabus as a place to put forth the overall argument for the course. Students need to see the overall arc of a class and where individual sections and assignments fit within that trajectory. While we might not need to discuss those assignments on the first day, students will have to encounter that material in some way on some day of the course.

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It’s almost impossible to read blogs, articles, even books on teaching without seeing a multitude of suggestions for not “wasting” the first day of class by covering the syllabus, course schedule, class rules and routines, and the like. I’ve even written one myself (Brown, 2009). What most people neglect to talk about, though, is how to cover the material students need to know to do well in the course. Beyond the legal reasoning for a syllabus, there are good reasons we lay out our course policies; some professors even see the syllabus as a place to put forth the overall argument for the course. Students need to see the overall arc of a class and where individual sections and assignments fit within that trajectory. While we might not need to discuss those assignments on the first day, students will have to encounter that material in some way on some day of the course.

There has also been a good deal of discussion about flipped classrooms in the past decade. If you’re new to the concept, here’s a brief, rather simplified description: rather than coming to class to hear lectures and then doing work outside of class using the ideas from the lecture, students watch or listen to those lectures outside of class and then work on material—whether math problems or labs or some sort of discussion or group project—in class, where peers and professors can help. Students can put the lectures to use in an environment where they can turn to others if they don’t fully understand the course material.

It makes good sense, then, to use a flipped classroom to make sure students understand the basic tenets of the course as covered in the syllabus, course schedule, and other typical first day materials. Such an approach would free up the first day to introduce students to the course material while still making sure they understand the basic course structure, routines, and policies. Professors can do so by using videos that explain the basic course materials and assignments, just as they would to present course content in a flipped classroom.

To make videos (one could also use podcasts, but videos work well to show students the course materials), professors can use a basic screencasting program. I use Screencast-O-Matic, which is user-friendly and allows professors to house short videos on Screencast-O-Matic’s website; for longer videos that Screencast-O-Matic cannot house, professors could use their institution’s learning management system (LMS) or, if they need even more space, a video-hosting site such as YouTube or Vimeo. (Professors can use Microsoft Stream if their students already use Office, as Stream limits who can access the content; your IT resources will more than likely have some sort of site). With screencasting, I can show students the documents, all of which are on the LMS, while talking through them just as I previously did in class.

Rather than making a single hour-long video (even longer for two- or one-day-per-week classes), I make one for the syllabus and schedule, then briefer ones for shorter handouts. I make other screencasts for assignments that come up throughout the semester, saving time on those as well so I can devote more time to having students work on the material rather than to having them listen to me explain an assignment they can just as easily read—and, now, hear me explain in a different format.

Of course, the main concern with such an approach are those students who don’t watch the videos or who simply have questions about the assignment or some aspect of the course. For the latter students, you could have a first day activity that gives them the opportunity to ask those questions without fear of embarrassment. When they come in, they pick up a note card. They can anonymously write questions, which you could then collect, read aloud, and answer for all students enrolled in the class, as some of them could also benefit from any clarification. Such an approach encourages students to ask questions they wouldn’t ask otherwise and usually generates questions from their classmates once we begin talking about them. Later in the semester, the students are usually quite comfortable with me and each other, so I no longer need to take that approach with the assignments. But one easily could, especially in a large class where the students might feel intimidated by asking questions, even after they’ve watched the videos.

Let’s be honest, not all students will watch the videos. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that, as not all students will do everything (or anything, in some cases) I ask them to do. I have two responses to that problem. First, should they repeatedly ask questions that I’ve covered on the videos, I simply respond by pointing them to the videos. We already do the same for students who repeatedly ask questions covered by the syllabus; we know that students wondering about something in April won’t remember a comment we made in January. In fact, one of the advantages of the videos is that students can access them at any point in the semester. Thus, if they’re wondering what I said about attendance when they’re awake at 3:00 a.m. on a March morning, they can pull up the video and find out what I said rather than waiting until class to ask me.

My second response is to contact students and note that they still haven’t watched any of the videos. My LMS and Stream both allow me to see who’s watched the videos, and I also require the students to email me responses to questions I’ll use to provoke class discussion on the first day we meet—whether about expectations they have for the course, topics they’re interested in discussing, or even some basic reading assignments. If we’re in the second week of the semester and students still seem lost, those students need to be on my radar anyway. Thus, their lack of engagement with the videos lets me know I should watch to see whether they are struggling with beginning the semester (or their college career, in the case of first-year students). That way I can reach out to them, using the videos as an excuse to do so. By taking this approach, I can possibly head off any disaster for them early in the semester and help get them more involved in the course.

Our students use videos to learn a wide variety of activities, from teaching themselves to play guitar to learning a language to fixing their cars. Thus, we should take advantage of their approach to the world and flip the first day from one when we do nothing but convey what’s already on documents they can read to one when we engage them with the course material and introduce them to why we love our fields and why they should too.

Reference

Brown, K. (2009, November). Don’t waste the first day. The Teaching Professor, 23(9), 3.

Kevin Brown, PhD, is a professor of English at Lee University.