Before the Semester

This guide can be read both linearly and non-linearly. To jump to a specific section, follow the links below.


What we wish someone had told us before we taught our first classes

You have support

Many departments are super helpful, and as soon as you’re assigned a class, faculty or staff members may send you sample syllabi and help you get set up on campus (CUNYFirst account, buildings, tech support, where chalk and white board markers are kept, etc.). But your department isn’t your only source of support.

  • Reach out to other students in your department who have taught similar courses at your assigned campus for guidance.
  • See our Navigating CUNY page for a list of resources available on each campus.  
  • The TLC has office hours during the week and members of our staff are  happy to meet with you to help with any stage of your planning: course development, teaching materials, classroom management and troubleshooting.

The TLC offers an ongoing workshop series that covers topics such as incorporating technology platforms into your classroom, creative assignment design, classroom dynamics, and tools for collaborative social reading and writing.

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Know your resources and your department

As you prepare for your class, it’s important to figure out what kind of resources you’ll have outside the classroom.

  • Office space for adjuncts varies greatly across the CUNY campuses, so be sure to ask your departmental contact if you have an office, as well as access to a computer and a printer.
  • Ask about paper for printers and photocopiers, too. At some campuses, printers and photocopiers are stocked with paper, and, at others, you need to ask the department administrator for paper before trying to print or make copies. Your department will often request large print jobs (or any print jobs) be sent to a print shop.
  • Will you be able to meet with students in your office space? Sometimes you share a room or a cubicle with several other instructors, and it may not be conducive to meeting students, or you might need to slightly adjust your schedule and meet students before or after class.
  • Do you have a mailbox? Is that mailbox accessible to students? Only at certain times?

What other resources might your department have that can aid your teaching? Ask about sample syllabi, texts and videos, proctoring support for exams, blue books… anything you might need in order for your class to run smoothly. Don’t assume that you’ll be presented with all the available resources, and don’t be shy about asking.

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Think about numbers

The number of students in your class matters. Look at course caps (the number of spots allotted to a particular course or, usually, the number of chairs that can fit in a particular room. You can find course cap information on CUNYFirst. You should see:

  • a list of classes that you’re teaching, with the number of enrolled students/cap for the class
  • information on where the class is located
  • a roster of enrolled students. If you click on the roster (an icon next to the title of the course), you can find out some preliminary information on your students: their major, if declared, and level. This information is helpful when thinking about who your audience is for the class. Are you teaching a large lecture course or a small seminar? What you can do and what you want to do in class is often shaped by how many people are in the course. Numbers can impact:
    • the type of assignments you’re giving (essays, short writing, types of exams, projects, etc.)
    • the kinds of classroom management strategies that you can implement
  • If it’s a large class, might using an online platform to cultivate and curate conversation among students work well?
    If it’s a small class, do you want to do more process and draft-based writing? Peer review?.

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Not all classrooms (or campuses) are the same

Technology options and classroom setup vary across CUNY’s campuses and sometimes building-to-building within each campus. Ask around or, if possible, visit the classroom before the semester starts and find out what type of room you’ll be teaching in:

  • what are the technology options?  
  • are the desks bolted to the ground in a specific formation, or can you move things around?
  • do you need keys to access the room or the technology in the room?
  • does the room have a white board? chalk board? tv for presentation projection or a screen?

Knowing details about the room in advance can help you figure out how you’ll conduct your class from seemingly small decisions like how much text you can put on a powerpoint slide (some of those TVs are small!) to what type of in-class group work or overall instruction method is possible. If the classroom to which you’re assigned doesn’t fit the needs of your class, you may be able to request a room change. These requests should be made as early as possible and, sometimes, take a bit of negotiating. Depending on the school and department, these questions will be handled through the department and for others you’ll need to contact the registrar directly. Always start with the department’s program assistant. Just like at the Graduate Center, folks in these roles are best positioned to get things done.

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Find out who is taking your class

Ask around and find out as much as you can about the student population and student life on the campus where you’re teaching. Talk to people who have taught there and ask them what they encountered in terms of their students’ level of preparation.

Think, too, about whether your course is in a distributed general education curriculum or part of a sequence in the major. What knowledge and skills does the course assume students will have? While a course may presuppose that students will have that information or skill-set, it’s not always the case. Think about ways you can review prerequisite information while pushing ahead with your course planning.

Pay attention to how your department is situated in the school. Does your department have majors? If so, how many students are in the major track? Or is it what’s generally referred to as a “service department” which will teach basic introductory or skills-based courses to students who major in other disciplines? Will the majority of students in your course pursue a career in a different field? Will you tailor your course to those differences by situating the skill set your course covers in a context that supports the interests’ of the student population? For example, will you design assignments that enable students to pursue further their interest in their field?

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Textbook procurement can be difficult for both you and the students

Is there a textbook required by the department? If so, ask if the department has desk copies on hand for you to use as you prepare. If not, contact the publisher (or get the name of the rep that works with your school and department) and ask for a desk copy.

Think, too, about the students. If the department is requiring a textbook, what options do the students have? Can they rent it? Are copies placed on reserve at the library?

If textbook choice is open, think about what kind of text you want. Do you want a textbook, or to put together a packet of readings? Is it better to post open-access course material to an online platform such as your class blog? Think about how much the textbook costs. Are there older editions (often significantly less expensive) available used that might have the readings or chapters you plan to use?

Most schools require that you upload your textbook information to CUNYFirst and/or request that you order your textbook directly through the campus bookstore. The date to order books is early (often it’s passed before you’ve been assigned a course!). The bookstore can rush the books for you, if necessary, but you’ll need to follow-up (in email or by phone) to confirm the correct titles and quantities have been ordered. Frequently bookstores order fewer copies of books than students enrolled in the course. Is the title something students have easy access to outside the campus bookstore? Make sure you put the ISBN numbers on your course syllabus so that students who choose to order the book from an outside source have the correct edition information.

Sometimes it takes students some time to get their hands on the book(s). You might think about making the first couple of readings available through other avenues.

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Make the syllabus easily readable

Your syllabus is an important document and one you probably want students to refer to regularly.

The syllabus should give students practical information about the course–where and when it meets, how to contact you, etc.–but it should also present the narrative or tell the story of your course. Make your syllabus as accessible as possible: hand it out in class, post it to your course site or on Blackboard, etc. And, be sure if you make any changes during the semester that you distribute and upload the revised version.

Most syllabi include course objectives (course goals and/or learning outcomes are typically provided by the department and articulate the skills and information a student should have upon completion of the course). Are there other objectives you want students to know or skills you want them to acquire throughout the semester? Are you teaching a class that has a specialized theme not listed in the course description? If so, think about adding additional objectives or context for the student.

Create a hierarchy of what you want to include and be mindful the size of the document you’re drafting. What belongs on your syllabus and what would better exist as a separate document? Be sure to include:

  • Course policies (expectations, a grade breakdown, attendance, late assignment submission, course plan/schedule)
  • campus policies (plagiarism, accommodations, other required information)
  • Course Plan/Schedule (a calendar with reading and assignment due date information)
  • Expectations (what should students expect from the course? What do you expect from the students?)

Often departments have a template for required information that they’ll ask you to use. Assignment instructions, writing guides, bibliographies, etc., might be best introduced as a separate document.  

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Sometimes things go wrong

Regardless of how well-planned the day is or how well prepared you are, sometimes things go wrong. It’s ok! Sometimes the thing that went wrong turns out to work even better than what you may have intended, but that doesn’t happen always happen, and you might need to make some adjustments to the course schedule or switch gears on the fly:

  • Leave an open day! Or put “Review” somewhere on the syllabus. Something unexpected is bound to happen: you’ll get called to jury duty, you’ll have to cancel class unexpectedly, material will take longer than you anticipated. It’s nice to leave yourself a cushion on the course schedule to work through anything unexpected.
  • Don’t be afraid to modify: Depending on what class you’re teaching, there might be room to modify course material and readings as you go. If your class gets interested in a particular topic and more content would help further the discussions, don’t be afraid to make a few small shifts. If something happens in the world, and it seems relevant to what you’re working on in class, it’s not a bad idea to bring it in. If you realize you’ve assigned too much reading and want to make adjust it, that’s ok.

    The course calendar is not (as long as you put the “*subject to modification” note in there) a document set in stone. Small modifications will and can happen. Don’t move up the date of exams, papers or projects. If you do make small changes, try to give as clear a presentation of shifts as possible (go over them in class, and go over them again in class, post an updated syllabus or distribute an updated calendar, etc.). If   you need to make changes to assessment strategies or high stakes assignments, be sensitive to the anxiety this may provoke in your students and exert extra effort to make sure they understand the reasons and are on-board with the changes.
  • Bad classes happen to even the most experiences teachers: Have a few activities to pull out in emergency situations: Your class might be exhausted; the reading might have totally bombed; you might be less prepared than you intended. Have some activities/exercises (a modified exquisite corpse low stakes writing assignment that encourages students to write a collaborative essay or questions about a topic, etc., an in-class writing assignment, a quick in-class project, something that puts people in groups and gets them talking) that you can pull out on the fly and loosely connect to where you are in the semester to rejuvenate the class.

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Think carefully about due dates

When you design your course calendar, think also about your life, and be savvy in your scheduling. If you know you have an article due or need to write a paper for a conference, it’s probably not ideal to collect a bunch of papers the day before. Sometimes scheduling conflicts can’t be avoided, and you certainly don’t want to interrupt the flow of your course, but be wary of all factors, and stagger due dates when you can.

As you plan your course, think about your own assignment return rule. Are you planning on returning papers the next time you meet? If so, does it help if you have the weekend to grade? Or do you want to avoid weekend grading? Do the students need feedback on the assignment before completing the next homework?

Think too about the students’ schedules: if you introduced the material on a Tuesday, does the student have enough time to understand and implement that material for an assignment due on Thursday or would the student benefit from the weekend (depending on the material and your objectives with the assignment, a case can be made for either option). Think about the requirements of the assignment and how much time you want to offer students to complete it.

If you’re teaching multiple classes: stagger assignment due dates. It seems like a good idea to copy and paste that course calendar for all of your classes, but it’s definitely not super fun to carry around 60, 5-page essays. Think about how long it takes to respond to student work (and how heavy it makes your bag) and perhaps offset assignments a day or two.  

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Grading is time consuming

As you plan your assignments, think about what will be required in terms of feedback and how that feedback will be useful to your students. Think through why you’re assigning what you’re assigning.

  • If you assign a large problem set do you intend to grade each problem?
  • If not, how will you encourage students to take your corrections on one or two problems and test the rest of their work?
  • If you’re grading in shorthand or with symbols, make sure you distribute a guideline and go over it in class with your students.
  • Will you use a rubric when you grade? What rubric? How will you incorporate that rubric into the assignment design so that the expectations are clear to students?   

The same errors will crop up on a 3-page paper that you’ll see in a 5-page paper. Choose the required page range wisely and, when marking essays, you don’t have to correct each error, and you don’t have to comment on each sentence. For example, you might choose to mark everything in a particular paragraph or page and focus on ‘big picture’ ideas for the rest of the essay. It’s a great revision assignment to ask students to look through and understand those marks and then apply those suggestions to the rest of the essay. Think about the assignment: what are you asking students to do and what type of comments do you want to give. Are students revising these papers? do they have to write this type of assignment again? is this a one-off assignment? For tips on marking assignments, check out the WAC/WID guide and the “Assignments and Assessment section of Before the Semester.

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Save Examples 

If a student does an awesome job on an assignment or project, or if something in their response offers a great teaching opportunity, ask the student if you can make a copy of it to show future classes (with the name removed). In terms of professional development, some job applications ask you to include sample assignments and student responses in your teaching portfolio, and it’s not a bad idea to build that portfolio as you go. Make sure you get student approval before repurposing their work.

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Be Excited

Teaching is really fun and rewarding. There’s no better way to reinforce your understanding of your discipline, and it is a great way to have a direct impact on a significant number of people.

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Share materials, assignments, projects with other instructors teaching sections of the same course, or people teaching courses in other departments or even at other schools. Pair with another teacher and develop an interdisciplinary or collaborative assignment that fits the requirements of each course and builds connections and networks between students in each class. You can have these collaborations play out in person (scheduling can be difficult) or you can use online platforms to facilitate discussion and interaction. Teaching offers a terrific avenue to build community and to feel part of a broader enterprise.  

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Start Planning Early

It’s not always possible, and it’s likely that sometime in your GC career you’ll take on a class at the last minute, but when you can, start planning early. If you have free range to pick readings for the course, you’ll want to give yourself time not only to find readings but make decisions about if your class will read all of the text or what sections you’ll assign. Post material to Blackboard or your course blog as early as possible. If you’ll be lecturing, begin to develop your lecture notes and lecture materials. You’ll still have to make changes and modify as the course runs, but if you can get as much of the organizing and generating material out of the way before the semester, then it saves some prep time during the semester, and it makes balancing your teaching and research much easier.

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Course Planning

Are you developing a new course or teaching one that is regularly taught at your college? If it’s your first semester teaching, it’s in all likelihood the latter. This guide is designed to help walk you through preparing to teach an existing course or help you develop one for the first time.

One planning strategy that is prevalent is Backwards Planning where you begin with the objective and work backwards to develop assignments and course material that will lead to students’ successful completion of the course goals. You can jump into Backwards Planning mode at a variety of stages in your planning (click to read more about Backwards Planning).

Make sure you’re clear on the specific requirements and/or the goals of the course

For example, some Composition classes have a rule that students need to write a minimum of 6,000 words; language courses, which run in a strict sequence, have specific demands about what material must be covered by the end of the semester. There’s lots of ways to plan a course, and decisions–about reading, assignments, content delivery, etc.–can rarely be made autonomously. As you start to plan your course, make sure you know what your institution requires in the course.

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Figure out who the students are going to be

What’s unique about where you’re teaching? Is your course an introduction to a topic? For majors? non-majors? Often talking to people in your department can be a good move. They’re likely to give you a frank answer about their experience teaching in that department, the student body, student preparation, campus resources, etc (plus, it’s great to pick their brains for course readings or assignments).

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Write out the calendar

Get down the dates that you will meet over the course of the semester. Make sure you note when you won’t meet (holidays, breaks, a CUNY Wednesday schedule that meets on Friday, etc.).

Using the calendar as a guideline, begin to think loosely about how you want to divide material:

  • Does it make sense to have an exam before a break or after?
  • Begin to draft where you’d like big projects or deadlines to happen.
  • Are you teaching in units or modules?

Based on the way the calendar works out, are there natural breaks in meetings that make sense for breaks in modules you might be teaching? Sometimes dividing the semester into smaller, discrete chunks can help with your planning. If you know what modules or units you’ll have, begin to pencil them in.

There’s lots of ways to format your calendar/course schedule. Think back to the classes you’ve taken and the variety in syllabus and course calendar format you’ve seen. What makes sense for your class?

For some CUNY syllabus templates, check out:

You might also contact your department directly to see if they have a specific template they use.

Breaking down the calendar into smaller chunks can help make picking readings manageable, too. While it’s really exciting to get to choose all the reading material for a course, it can also be a little bit overwhelming: there are a lot of options. If you divide the course into sections, then it can help focus your text choices: ‘Ok, I’ll spend two class periods on the 20th century’ so how many pages of reading will I assign for that unit, and what do I want that reading to do?

Tip: As you’re playing around with your calendar, make an extra column for notes. This space is great for other texts you might want to put in there or short comments. And, once the semester starts, it’s helpful to have that extra column to annotate the course calendar based on what happened in class (for example, if you didn’t cover something on the day you expected to, you can make a note to move it to the next class period. Or, if a reading was a huge success, and you need more discussion time, make a note. The extra column helps you keep track from class to class, but, even more so, it’s a nice record to look back on if you have the opportunity to teach the class again and want to make a few modifications to your syllabus.

Once you have the dates penciled in, begin to think about what secondary objectives or goals you have for the course. These can range from a thematic focus to technology in the classroom. In addition to the department-presented objectives, what do you want students to walk away with, and how will you incorporate it into your class?

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Pick Texts

Selecting readings is one of the most exciting parts of being a teacher. Even so, it’s incredibly difficult. There’s a lot to balance. Do you want the texts you choose to reflect a range of perspectives and backgrounds? How much reading do you want to assign in preparation for each class period, and what do you expect students to do with that reading (outline, annotate, get facts, raise questions?). As you’re building a reading list for your class, think about how each text will function: what does it do? Sometimes making notes about how the text would work in the context of the course can help pare down the list of possibilities.

Tip: Think about a balance among texts with which you’re familiar, texts that you’ve never read and texts that (and this doesn’t always happen) might fold into your own research. One of the most difficult parts aspects of  teaching while producing scholarship is finding a balance between doing work for the classes you’re teaching and doing work on your research. If a text can fill multiple roles, that’s a bonus. If you’re teaching a text with which you’re not familiar, there’s a chunk of time that needs to be spent preparing to teach it, and, depending on the context, doing any necessary background or critical reading. Certainly you want to teach the texts that fit the course, but think about how much time you’re committing to prep based on the type of text–and your familiarity to it–you choose.

Tip: set deadlines for yourself as you make your selections. There’s a lot of great options. At some point, you need to make decisions and move on to other parts of planning (though you can always circle back).

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How much reading to assign?

There’s no magical number of pages that’s perfect for each and every class. This article, from Steve Volk, director of the Center for Teaching, Innovation and Excellence at Oberlin college, offers some general guidelines and links out to the ongoing conversation about how much reading is the right amount of reading that’s been happening in The Chronicle for Higher Education and other academic online communities.

When thinking about how much reading to assign, consider:

  • The type of text (theory, novel, textbook chapter, philosophy, etc.)
  • The language of the text (foreign language, time period, discourse specific, technical, etc.)
  • What you want students to do with that text (close read, skim, pull out central argument, etc.)
  • What you want the text to do (provide background context, frame the discussion, be the exhibit for class discussion, supplement the class lecture, etc.)

As you decide on how many pages of reading to assign, make sure you’re clear–both in your planning and when you communicate it to your students–on what type of reading you expect those students to do with that document. It’s not enough to assume that your students know how you expect to engage with a text. During the semester, it could be beneficial to model the type of reading you expect students to do or to give them guidelines or materials that help produce and support that mode of reading so that they understand the type of attention and time you expect them to spend with the material.

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Texts and Assignments

As you’re picking texts, begin to think about what you want students to do with the material before reading, while reading and after they’ve engaged with it. Do some texts open up options for place-based learning or problem-based learning assignments that offer a way for the students to take a more active role in their learning and environment? Do some texts pair nicely with one another for comparative assignments? What type of assignments do you plan to build out of the readings and/or what type of assignments are required by the course that might help you further evaluate reading options?  

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Assignments and Assessment

As you plan your course, think about what role assignments will play

  • will you use them to assess your students’ handle of course material, perhaps in the way an exam or a quiz does, or will assignments help deliver, problematize and eventually synthesize course material?
  • will you require projects that stack with several steps or scaffold assignments (building short, informal or low-stakes work and often adding a new skill or consideration with each progression into a larger, final assignment or a revised portfolio, etc., that is formally marked)?
  • do you plan to vary the type of assignments you’ll require, and if so, how will you decide what and when?

Think about the course objectives–are certain types of assignments required? If so, how will you utilize those? For example, many courses require students to make a presentation. Do you plan to use these presentations as a way for students to deliver required course material or to do something else entirely? Think, too, about your secondary course objectives. If you’re interested in students working with technology in the classroom, how can you design an assignment that make sound use of the technology you’re exploring?

If you’re breaking your course into modules or units, you might think about assignments in terms of micro (unit specific) and macro (connections across units). Begin to breakdown for each unit what role assignments will play and when/how you want them completed.

How will you represent these assignments on your course syllabus? One option might be to have a three column table that lists, in the first column, the day; in the second column, the reading due; and, in the third column, assignments due. Another option is to include a table or list of key due dates on your syllabus. Since you want your syllabus to be a manageable document, consider passing out or posting assignment-specific instructions in a separate document.

Tip: While you don’t necessarily have to have every nuance of each assignment worked out in the course planning stage, it can be helpful to consider what type of assessment and feedback you plan to offer students. If you’re scaffolding assignments or working on a project in stages, think about how much time students need in order to complete each step, and make sure you think about how much time you need to return student work…and then add a little bit more for a cushion. Use that spacing to help you situate readings, exams, etc on the course schedule.

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Plan Backwards

It is often helpful to plan through what is termed “Backwards Design” or “Backwards Planning.” Rather than starting with how you want to teach your course, start with the desired results or what you want your students to learn. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design break the Backward Design process into three steps:

backwards design
Image originally from Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design taken via Art History Teaching Resources
  • Identify desired results: what do you want students to know, understand and be able to do? Check the course outcomes or course objectives included in the course description which give a description of what a student is expected to be able to do upon successful completion of the course. You might have additional goals about what you hope students will acquire that you can also include in this section, but make sure you include the department’s course objectives.
  • Determine acceptable evidence: How will you assess if students have achieved these results? What type of work, both formal and informal, will students complete as evidence of comprehension?
  • Plan learning and experiences and instruction: What are the effective means to support students in acquiring your desired results? Think about what activities students will complete, what you need to teach them and how you will most effectively teach it.

Once you have your backward design process mapped out, test to see if it is coherent across the semester. Does it make sense to vary activities? Or to use the same method of instruction across the course? Have you broken down the skills into stages and steps or built from one concept to the next? You might think about building a narrative arc both in terms of the concepts and information you introduce as well as the skills you hope to encourage.

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Instructional Strategies

How will you generate the content of your course? Once you have your units broken down, begin to think about what context you need to provide and what facts or information you want students to learn. Think about the way in which you want to present this information: will you lecture? Will you use discussion? Will students be responsible for introducing new material?

As you prepare, begin to plan your instructional modes for each unit and then move to focus on gathering material for each lesson. Do you need to prepare supplemental materials such as lecture slides or notes you’ll distribute to students? If students are responsible for introducing new material, do you need to prepare an assignment sheet or a guide sheet that helps facilitate their presentation? If you’ll use discussion, do you have key questions you’ll use as prompts? Are there videos or images you want to bring into the conversation? Do you need to do any background reading or research to be able to present the material?

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Course Policies and Required Language

As you draft your syllabus, it’s important to think about your course policies, how you will enforce those policies and what you’ll do when those requirements aren’t met. Most campuses have language that you are required to include on your syllabus about academic honesty, accommodations and attendance. But, you may find that you want to include additional policies:

  • Will you accept late assignments? If so, is there a penalty for submitting material late?
  • Will you accept assignments digitally? In hardcopy?
  • What are your technology in the classroom rules? Are students encouraged to research, take notes or read on cell phones, tablets or laptops during class or do you want your classroom to be a technology free zone?
  • What does a student need to do to be marked as ‘present’ in your class (bring the required materials? Arrive on time?)?
  • Do late arrivals after a certain time count as absences? Does leaving early? How does arriving late or leaving early impact a student’s standing?
  • Do you have specific policies for exam days or paper submission?

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Setting up your Gradebook & Record Keeping

Before the semester starts, take some time to figure out how you’ll organize your gradebook. Will you keep grades by hand? Use an excel sheet? Grade on a secure online platform such as Blackboard? Do you have a strategy for quantifying and integrating into your grads information related to the course policies you outline in your syllabus, such as attendance and late assignments? Are your course policies in-line with department and school policies? Remember, not all campuses have the same policies (particularly around attendance–so make sure you check!).
Figure out how you’ll calculate grades. You might start by determining what percentage of the course grade you want exams to be (if you’ll have exams). What about papers, homework, participation, presentations, attendance? What other categories should have weight in determining the final grade? Once you have your big category numbers, begin to break them down. So, if papers are 20% of the final course grade and you have four of them, do you want each to be 5%, or will they be weighted differently?

As you’re setting up your gradebook, keep in mind that students will likely ask you how they are doing in the class during the course of the semester. It will be helpful to you if your grades are in an easy-to-manage space so that you can access current grade information for students.  

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What to do on the first day

It’s ok to be nervous. The students are probably nervous too. Remember that your position as the instructor of record and in the front of the classroom imbues you with a certain amount of authority in the eyes of your students. They want and are ready for you to take command of the space and to define its terms, so you should feel comfortable and confident doing so from the first minute of the class.

There’s lots of strategies about how to approach the first day from handing out the syllabus and reading through it to starting the first official lecture of the semester as soon as the class starts. Figure out the following before your class starts:

  • the location of your classroom, and whether there will be challenges for you or your students in accessing it
  • your class’s start and end time
  • the add/drop period
  • the cap for your class
  • your department’s policy for students on the waiting list and/or over-tallies?
  • how to print your class roster (even though it will change)
  • if you plan on distributing a syllabus for the first day? Posting it online? Both?

Many students use the first few days of the semester as a ‘shopping period’ to try out different classes and different instructors. Be aware that, particularly at CUNY, there is a lot of student movement in the first few days of the semester.

Tip: if you start lecturing on the first day of class, do you have a system in place to help students who add the course catch up? You can’t wait until add/drop is over to jump into the course content, but you might want to make sure that you trace back over any fundamental concepts you introduce on the first day.

Further, in keeping that ‘shopping period’ in mind, you might want to use the first day to give students a strong sense of:

  • the course topic and scope
  • what the course expectations are
  • what the students’ responsibilities are
  • what your responsibilities as an instructor are
  • how class time will be spent
  • time requirements outside of course meetings
  • your approach to assessment
  • how to read the syllabus. Explain to students how you’ve organized the course syllabus and where they can find key information (such as contact info, required materials and reading and assignment due dates).
  • administrative details such as:
    • how students can contact you
    • your office hours and where your office is located
    • how you will contact students (will you use an online platform? Their campus emails? Will you collect best emails from them?
    • what textbooks or course supplies students need to purchase

While most of the administrative information is typically included on your syllabus, it’s beneficial to highlight these points verbally on the first day. You might choose to read over the syllabus together or direct sections to specific details and ask them to read over the syllabus in preparation for the next class.

But, more than presenting the landscape of the course, you can use the first day of class to begin to establish your course dynamic. You might:

  • meet each other: introduce yourself and ask students to introduce themselves. It’s important that you note who is in the class on the first day and compare it to the official course roster.
  • get students involved. You might ask students to help you think about the room environment and the desk configuration or you might start a group activity such as a discussion about a central topic or concept related to your course, or you might handout a short reading and think through the text as a group.
  • demonstrate your teaching style. While you might not want to launch into a full session lecture, it can be beneficial to give students an idea of how you teach and how you imagine typical class sessions will go. So, if your class is predominantly discussion-based, jumpstart a class discussion, or if you’ll deliver content primarily through lecture, give a small lecture. If a large component of your course is students working together, find an activity or problem-based learning challenge that invites students to begin to build a collaborative dynamic.
  • get to know your students. Think about what information is helpful for you to have about your students (perhaps what they’re studying, where they’re from, the last book they read, what languages they speak or the last movie they saw). You might ask students to fill out a questionnaire, include this information when they introduce themselves or try to draw it out during a class discussion or activity. Consider collecting a range of information: both questions that feel directly related to the course and more broad interest questions–these can be particularly helpful in finding shared examples to draw from as you introduce new concepts and skills.

Think, too, about using this first day to figure out more about what classroom dynamics you can already see emerging: do the students know each other? Does it feel like it’ll be a quiet class? Is everyone participating? Are ‘the talkers’ all stacked on one side of the room? While these first-day dynamics might not be representative of what will happen over the course of the semester, paying attention to them on the first day can help you begin to strategize and actualize them. For example, if you attempted a discussion but not many people talked, you might consider starting the class in small group discussions next time or giving them time to write out some thoughts before you move to a full class discussion.

  • assign something. You might consider asking students to complete a small assignment for the next course meeting. Requiring homework on the first day prompts students to get started in your course and gets them thinking more about the topic right away (and it might function to remind them to buy any necessary course materials). Collecting, for example, a short written response enables you to learn who your students are as writers and how they organize ideas. Learning right away how you need to support students in developing assignments allows you to build in time to hit any necessary skills (for example, if you ask for a summary and all students give you an argument, you might recognize that you need to go over what it means to summarize a text). Collecting an assignment during the first week also serves to introduce how you assess and comment on student work. While you might consider making the assignment low stakes (perhaps a check for completing it), you still might mark it up as you would a high stakes assignment so that students have a physical example of your expectations and assessment strategies.
  • think about time. While you should always be aware of the clock, it’s particularly important on the first day. Make sure you leave time at the end of class for any student questions and/or issues: students might be concerned that they are not on the roster or they might have concerns about how to access the course online, among other inquiries.

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this guide was written by Avra Spector