Seven Principles for Building Your First Day Handout

When building your First Day Handout, it’s appropriate to recall the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.  A good First Day Handout encourages contact between students and faculty, helps develop reciprocity and cooperation among students, encourages active learning, promises prompt feedback, emphasizes time on task, communicates high expectations, and respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

  • Contact between students and faculty.  Notice the word “between.”  This does not only mean the transmission of information from faculty to students, but communication back and forth across the great generational, technological, and often cultural divide.  In your First Day Handout, try to build in activities where you will listen to students.  Communication is a two-way street.  Make it clear and explicit from the beginning that you will be listening to your students, and that you will be expecting them (see High expectations below) to communicate with you.
  • Reciprocity and cooperation among students.  Just as you and your students need to communicate, your students need to communicate with each other.  Adult students have a lot to share with each other; they have had very different life experiences and can truly benefit from sharing these with their peers.  We all know one of the best ways to learn is to teach.  Purposefully architecting activities where students must cooperate and communicate with each other will not only help them learn the subject, it will also help them in their future professional lives.
  • Active learning.  Real learning is almost never passive.  Even reading a textbook can be an active learning task if done right.  Designing your learning activities with this in mind and communicating the goal that learning should be active to your students in the First Day Handout can pay handsome dividends over the course of a semester.  It’s important to note that “active learning” does not require physical activity.  The idea is that students engage with the material, that they perform higher order tasks involving analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  The instructor can set up the situations, communicate expectations, and help guide, but the onus is on the student to be actively involved.  Active learning is especially important if the students are to retain any new knowledge, skills, or attitudes they acquire, so it’s very much in the student’s own interest to be an active learner.
  • Prompt feedback.  Students today are often impatient.  Instant messaging, texting, and the omnipresent cell phone all conspire to convince them that instant gratification takes too long.  In this context, “prompt” does not mean instantaneous.  You can never be quick enough to satisfy all your students, so the tactic we suggest is to set and meet expectations with regard to the timeliness of your feedback.  Let them know from the onset, in your First Day Handout, how prompt you will be in giving them feedback on their assignments, papers, classroom participation, etc.  Set high expectations, as high as practicable, and meet or exceed those expectations.
  • Time on task.  As you set high expectations for yourself with regard to promptness in giving your students feedback, ask them to reciprocate by devoting sufficient time to study.  Time management skills are notoriously lacking among students today.  Help them to develop these skills by giving them clear and explicit guidance as to how much time they should expect to spend studying or participating in out of class activities per week, and if appropriate, per assignment.  Put this in your First Day Handout, and ask them to demonstrate their understanding by developing (and turning in for grading) a weekly schedule that indicates when they will devote time to your class outside of class time.
  • High expectations.  How high should you set your expectations?  What you’re your subject matter demand, and what knowledge, skills, and attitudes do your students already posses?  Will you limit some and overreach others?  These are difficult questions indeed, and each group of students will be different.  Acknowledge these differences (see Diverse talents and ways of thinking below) and move on from there.  In your First Day Handout, let your students know your expectations will be high; it will be their responsibility to do their best to meet these expectations.  Be as clear and explicit as possible when defining your expectations in your First Day Handout, but remember that each student is different.  Flexibility allows the sapling to survive a wind storm, but the tree that grows straight gets the most sunlight.
  • Diverse talents and ways of thinking.  As we said above, every group of students (and in fact every student) is different.  Using this strength in your First Day Handout can greatly improve your students’ learning.  Encourage your students to work with each other, using the diverse talents and ways of thinking that exist in the class.  Design and assign tasks and activities that promote the use of this diversity.  And finally, encourage students to move out of their comfort zones.  That’s one of the reasons their in college.  For instance, visual learners should experiment and practice with text, while textual learners should work to improve their visual learning skills.  This is an opportunity for students to shine in ways to which they are unaccustomed.  E Pluribus Unum!

The First Day Handout is an important tool for you to use in your teaching with Macomb.  It can help set the tone for the semester.  It can make your expectations clear and explicit so students will understand their responsibilities and the consequences of not fulfilling them and the rewards for doing so.  It can also help you get a lot of your administrative tasks out of the way so you can concentrate on what you really want to do – teach!

One response to “Seven Principles for Building Your First Day Handout

  1. These recommendations are on point. Thank you.

    One issue that arises when faculty try to accommodate everything that “needs” to be included within a Syllabus/First Day Handout, including general College policies, is that these documents multiply in size. This leads to the question, “Do student read and can they find the information that is most relevant to their studies?” As these documents grow & grow, you can probably survey the faculty to find the answer in an affirmative shrinking.

    A recent ProfHacker article in the Chronicle offers some examples that may provide inspiration for confronting this trend: http://bit.ly/rkNTn6. There are some excellent examples, in multiple disciplines, where you can see faculty trying to communicate what is most important using a more visual approach to their Syllabus.

    Using your suggestions above, along with a more visual approach, we may get students to read and understand the expectations for the course.

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