Plan the First Day’s Session
The first day of section, studio, or lab will set the tone for the semester. That being said, do not stress if your first session doesn’t feel like a resounding success. Many experienced GSIs have entertaining stories about disastrous first days. Even though undergraduates have high expectations of GSIs at UC Berkeley, they tend to be forgiving, appreciative, and respectful of GSIs who improve their sections as the semester progresses.
Create a lesson plan for the first day or week of class that lists your goals and objectives, the steps or activities that you will undertake to accomplish those objectives, and the amount of time you will spend on each activity.
To assist you, we present a sample lesson plan for the first day of a course section and walk you through the activities that a GSI can use to accomplish the stated objectives. This sample plan suggests far more activities than anyone could complete in a single session, especially if your class period is 50 minutes, so select according to your primary objectives for the first day.
Several helpful readings on conducting the first day’s class can be found in the texts listed at the end of this article.
- Establish a welcoming classroom environment.
- Define objectives for the section or lab and for your role as the GSI.
- Discuss course and campus policies.
- Introduce yourself and have students introduce themselves.
- Begin to learn students’ names.
- Gather student information.
- Establish and discuss guidelines for discussion.
- Discuss course and section grades, readings, and assignments.
- Get the students talking to each other.
- Have students engage with class material.
- Deal with enrollment issues.
- Before Students Arrive
- Introductions and Attendance
- Enrollment Issues
- Going Over the Section Syllabus or Information Sheet
- Creating Guidelines for Discussion
- Group Learning Activity
- Wrapping Up and Getting Student Feedback
There are several things you can do to ensure a smooth first session, even before the session begins.
- Obtain the most recent enrollment information for your section from the campus website, your department, or the professor. (In CalCentral, you can find your course enrollment information and roster by clicking on your course number under the “Teaching” heading on the “My Academics” tab.) Print out the roster and review students’ names before going to class. When you get to the room, make sure the room has chalk and enough chairs.
- If possible, arrange the chairs in a circle or in groups. Rows of chairs facing the instructor’s desk or podium may suggest to the students that the teacher is going to lecture at them while they passively take notes. By contrast, a circle of chairs or groupings of chairs may suggest that the GSI encourages participation and expects students to share the responsibility for learning in section.
- Write an outline for the first day of class on the board before students arrive. Many undergraduates find it helpful to see this information up front. Also, write information about yourself and the section on the board. Some information to include: name, email address, office number, office hours, name of the course, and section number.
- Greet students as they enter the classroom. Distribute the syllabus and other handouts as students enter, or after they are settled in their seats.
- Often GSIs use the first few minutes or last few minutes of the first session to gather information about their students. For example, it can be helpful to know: their major, year, email, pronouns (if they wish), access to resources this semester, any barriers to participation, preferred mode of online communication (bCourses, email), preferred mode of office hours (Zoom, in-person), personal learning goals, familiarity with the course material, and so on. This information can help you get a better sense of each of your students and communicates your willingness to recognize and support them from the very start of the course. There are a couple different ways to gather this information:
- You can prepare a series of questions and bring some index cards for students to put their answers on. If you use cards, you will need to make the instructions available either on the board or on a slide.
- You can send students a pre-course survey electronically, such as a Google Form, in the week before classes begin. You may have to remind students in the first class to fill out the survey if they have not done so.
- You can prepare a paper or online survey and distribute it during the first class. Set aside the first few minutes or last few minutes for students to fill out the survey. Note that students may have to use their phones to complete the survey if you choose an online format, as it is unlikely everyone will have access to a laptop/tablet.
As students enter the room, you can hand out the survey form or index cards. Once students are settled, introduce the section (time, day, and number) and yourself. Tell the students your name, department, office hours, and email address. Consider telling the students some personal information about yourself, such as why you came to Berkeley, your academic interests, your hometown, undergraduate college, etc. By sharing information, GSIs demonstrate that they are personable and approachable. In deciding which information to share, however, keep in mind that you must maintain a professional boundary between yourself and your students.
Have class members go around the circle and state at minimum their name, major, and year. Take attendance as the students say their names, and be sure to write on your attendance sheet any variant names students want to be called that do not appear on the roster. Write challenging names phonetically to help you pronounce them correctly. Consider having the students say their names each time they speak for the first couple of weeks. You may also consider having the students write their names on folded pieces of thick paper (tent cards) that can be displayed on their desks for the first couple of weeks.
If you have discussed enrollment policies and procedures with the Instructor of Record before the first day of class, you will be able to deliver accurate and consistent information to your students on the first day. Do your best to gather current information and alleviate student concerns.
Announce the enrollment policies about adding and dropping the class, switching sections, students on the waitlist, etc. Will you drop students from the roster who miss a class during the first three weeks? When will you enroll people from the waitlist?
If you are distributing a section syllabus or information sheet, make sure each student has a copy. You may also want to post it to the bCourses site for your section of the class. It is important to thoroughly discuss the elements of this document with your students. A few pointers to consider when presenting the syllabus or information sheet:
- Have students take turns reading portions aloud. Explain each policy and your (or the instructor’s) rationale for the policy. Ask the students if they have questions and welcome them to ask questions during office hours or after class if they do not want to ask during the class.
- Emphasize the extent and limits of your role as a GSI and specify the types of activities that will occur in section. Share with students what the function of section will be.
- Explain the purpose of office hours and encourage students to visit you in your office. Some GSIs prefer to tell students that, whenever possible, they should ask you questions about the course during class or in office hours. Consider scheduling your office hours to accommodate the maximum number of students.
- Discuss course readings. Where should students go to purchase the books and reader? What should they read for the following meeting? Provide tips on how to read the texts and consider providing reading questions for the students to answer or think about.
- Mention key dates and reiterate your policies for late assignments. Answer questions students have about assignments, homework, and exams.
- Review the policies covering schedule conflicts with student extracurricular activities, accommodation for students with disabilities, and academic misconduct in your section syllabus or information sheet. You might also adopt a policy on students’ use of laptops, phones, etc. in the classroom.
- Discuss grading of participation (if applicable), assignments, and exams for the section and the course. Explain your grading policies and criteria.
- Describe campus resources and direct students to the list of resources on your syllabus. Some GSIs announce the first day of section that they periodically refer students to the Student Learning Center (SLC) to get additional help with writing, reading, problem solving, study strategies, etc.
Consider developing with the students a set of community agreements for class discussion. (You might take this up the second week when the roster has more or less stabilized.) We recommend a class activity to establish community agreements because it
- includes students in the process of establishing guidelines for discussion,
- makes students take responsibility for developing guidelines with you, and
- produces an agreement to which you and the students can refer throughout the semester.
If you decide not to conduct an activity to establish community agreements, we suggest that you discuss the statements you have written on your syllabus or information sheet about respectful discussions.
It is important to get the students talking to each other and participating in class the first day or week. Many GSIs accomplish these goals by conducting an icebreaker activity. Whatever the format, you want to invite all voices to speak while keeping the level of self-disclosure appropriate and comfortable. Sample icebreakers include:
- Favorite Place or Favorite Dessert in Berkeley: Have each person in the room, beginning with yourself, give his or her name, major if known, and a favorite place or dessert they’ve found in Berkeley (such as Codornices Park or the cheesecakes at Strada). Students will often find each others’ favorites interesting and want to compare notes. If the section or lab is large (25 or more people), you might ask students to do this activity in small groups and then report some of their answers to the class as a whole.
- Partner Interviews: Organize students in pairs. Have the students interview each other for about three to five minutes; provide interview questions that promote interest but do not put students on the spot. Have the interviewers introduce their partners to the class.
Again, the goal of icebreaker activities is to get the students to talk to and learn about each other. Students who speak up in class early are more likely to keep speaking up later in the semester. Icebreaker activities also help the students and GSI learn each other’s names. Try to choose icebreakers that will not put students on the spot or make them overly uncomfortable.
Students (and GSIs) often come to the first day of section with their heads still on vacation. An effective way to ease people back into school (and keep them talking to each other) is to have them do a group activity dealing with class material. Here are some examples of activities for various types of courses:
- Reading and Composition: closely observe and analyze a short text
- Math: share visual demonstrations or proofs of familiar concepts
- Biology Lab: conduct a simple demonstration or explore a curious anomaly
- History: interpret a brief archival document
- Sociology: discuss social explanations for putatively individual problems
- Political Science: in small groups, read a short text for critical bias
- Any course: have students fill out a brief, fun quiz on the course topic. This becomes a basis for discussing common misconceptions or important concepts.
The activities should not be pitched too high. The objective of the exercise is not to test students or point out gaps in knowledge but rather to introduce students to the course material and have them work through a problem together with peers.
Using the worksheet Creating an Activity for the First Day of Class (pdf) will help you plan to get the most out of an activity. See also this Sample First Day Lesson Plan.
You can give the session a sense of closure by leaving several minutes at the end to tie together any information or concepts you want the students to take away from the first session’s activities. What do you most want them to remember?
Make sure students have clear information about any assignments they should start working on and what resources are available for it. As much as possible, link the assignment(s) to the learning objectives or major concepts of the course.
Consider giving the students a few minutes at the end of the meeting to summarize or anonymously evaluate the first day of class. If you plan to conduct your informational survey at the end of class (see “Before Students Arrive,” above), you can ask them to respond via this survey form or you can distribute a separate sheet or card if they want to keep their comments anonymous. For example, you might have them write questions they still have about the course or the material, or state concerns they have about the section or the class. You might ask students to write one or two things they felt worked well or not so well for them the first day, or what thoughts they will take away from the session. This feedback will help you prepare for the following section meeting as well as for the first day of class the next semester you teach as a GSI.
Finally, it can also prove useful to leave at least five minutes open at the very end of class to answer individual students’ questions, particularly about enrollment.
All books listed are available at the GSI Teaching & Resource Center.
Boice, Robert (2000). Advice for New Faculty Members. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Brookfield, Stephen D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Curzan, Anne and Lisa Damour (2000). From First Day to Final Grade. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Davis, Barbara Gross (2009, 1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gender Equity Resource Center, UC Berkeley. Creating Inclusive Classrooms for Trans* and Gender Expansive Students.
McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Marilla Svinicki (2006). Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 12th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.