Food for Thought: Setting the Table for Learning


Whenever a restaurant asks him for a credit card to schedule a reservation, New York Times food critic Pete Wells writes, “I hear several messages, none of them warm and fuzzy. It says that I’m not trustworthy. . . . It says that a reservation isn’t an appointment with pleasure; it’s an obligation to be kept.”

I wonder whether students experience similar feelings when they read a syllabus that focuses on policies instead of learning and the first class period is devoted to reviewing a syllabus filled with rules instead of whetting their appetite for the subject. Wells reminds us that first impressions matter and that subtle messages hinder learning.

First impressions (What’s the vibe?)

I recently visited a restaurant for the first time. It’s located in a strip mall. The Yelp reviews were good, but I had my doubts. The restaurant’s setting led to assumptions about the dining experience before I was seated or looked at the menu. Similarly, learning begins the moment students arrive, even before the teacher says a word. Students evaluate and gain insights from the physical or virtual space. Their first impressions as you welcome them, and the first meeting’s structure set the tone for the entire course.

Food for thought:

  • What do students learn about a teacher’s priorities for the class when the syllabus is the focus of the first meeting?
  • What do students infer about your teaching and learning priorities based on what’s in your syllabus?

Context and expectations (What kind of restaurant is this?)

Based on the setting and prior experiences, diners have expectations about the food and format. Consider a menu including the sushi burrito. Traditionally, sushi and burritos aren’t on the same menu. Fusion cuisine veers from that expectation. Restaurants need to prepare patrons to accept this deviation from the norm or face negative reviews.

As with menu expectations, students enter with beliefs and norms about learning. Some may view the educational process transactionally, with a focus on content. Their prior experiences may mean they expect lectures. Students may have deeply ingrained views about what it means to learn. They most surely have beliefs about themselves as learners. What happens when students’ instructional expectations or norms are violated?

Setting the table for these students requires creating accurate expectations about content, the teacher’s role, and students’ responsibilities. When students’ expectations and experiences align with the reality they encounter, students are more likely to be satisfied with their college experience and to persist to graduation, a happy outcome for both students and institutions.

Food for thought:

  • How can teachers align students’ and their own expectations about assignments or assessment methods?
  • What strategies can teachers use to manage students’ expectations about instructional approaches?

Policies (Jacket required! Valet parking only)

The menu often includes operational policies in addition to the food and prices. Common examples include the rules governing the dress code, menu substitutions, plate sharing, the chef’s willingness to adjust to dietary restrictions, and mandatory gratuities for large parties. Likewise, academic policies make clear what happens if students are absent, miss an exam, turn work in late, and more. But beware the implicit signals that may lead students to feel “I don’t belong here.” A syllabus that focuses on rules and policies suggests rules matter more than learning. Harsh language and rigid policies diminish community. They send a message of distrust. They suggest that teachers believe students won’t work without the threat of penalties.

Food for thought:

  • Consider your policy tone: How much formality is necessary?
  • Are the signals embedded in the policies exclusionary or inclusive?
  • What rationale supports your policies?

Chef’s specials (What makes this restaurant special?)

When I make dinner reservations, I envision a romantic evening with my husband. We’ll share a high-quality meal, wine, flowers, candlelight, quiet music, and ambience to match the cuisine. The act of reserving a table generates anticipation. Restaurants can use reservations to signal a wonderful experience—one that requires planning and is worth the wait. After we’re seated, the server usually begins with an enticing list of special drinks, appetizers, entrees, and desserts. In sum, the process before and at the start spark interest and enthusiasm.

Similarly, teachers can promote student interest by previewing what students will know or be able to do by the end of the course. Teachers can create anticipation by providing hints about upcoming activities. Give students something to look forward to, akin to an invitation to a special event—something they wouldn’t want to miss.

Food for thought:

  • Consider the instructional strategies you use most often. How many incorporate puzzles, partial information, riddles, incomplete sequences, or other strategies to pique curiosity?
  • How would your students rank these strategies with respect to learning effectiveness and promoting student interest?

When teachers manage first impressions, set policy thoughtfully, align expectations, and pique curiosity the table will be set for a memorable learning experience. Bon appétit!


Wells, Pete. 2015. “Restaurants Add Cancellation Fees to the Menu.” New York Times, June 2, 2015.

Lolita Paff, PhD, is an associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks. Her pedagogical interests include student interaction, learning skills, metacognition, and motivation. She serves on the Teaching Professor and Leadership in Higher Education conference boards and College Teaching’s editorial board as well as leads faculty development workshops on a variety of topics. 

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