Leveraging the First Day of Class

Surface Student Expectations

Many instructors take advantage of the summer to revise their courses—not only to incorporate new developments in their disciplines, but also to consider experimenting with their teaching practices (Skorton & Altschuler, 2013). These revisions often include introducing alternatives to lectures, such as flipping a course, the case study approach, and other active learning strategies. Although these approaches have been shown to enhance learning in many settings (e.g., Lumpkin, Achen, & Dodd, 2015; Prince, 2004), they can often be unfamiliar or unexpected for students, causing resistance to the new method (Seidel & Tanner, 2013).

One general strategy to mitigate this resistance is to use the first day of the course to: (1) identify your students’ expectations for the course, and (2) align those expectations with the approaches you will be using.


  • The first day of class provides an opportune moment for you to establish accurate expectations for your students’ experiences in your course and to investigate exactly what those expectations are. This exploration can be done informally by facilitating a conversation about what students have heard about the course or what experiences they have had with similar content in other courses. A more formal approach would be to use a survey instrument, such as the Pedagogical Expectancy Violation Assessment (PEVA), to document student expectations. Using a formal instrument gives you the added advantage of being able to track changes in those expectations throughout the term (Gaffney, Gaffney, & Beichner, 2010).
  • Using the first day of class to align students’ expectations with your teaching methodology can increase student learning and appreciation for your instruction (Gaffney, Gaffney, & Beichner, 2010). This orientation to your course can take many forms and is often represented formally in the syllabus. While verbally reviewing the syllabus is a common activity for the first day of class, doing so reinforces a more traditional, lecture-oriented mode of instruction and can set students’ expectations for that mode of instruction for the remainder of the term. To establish accurate expectations for your approach to teaching, it is important to represent that approach even on the first day (Gaffney & Whitaker, 2015). For example, if you will be using small-group discussion, find an opportunity for students to discuss your course outcomes in small groups. If you will be using case studies, provide students a sample case that addresses the central questions of your course.

The first day of class sets the stage for the remainder of the term. It is a time to review the details of your expectations of the students as learners and for students to establish an expectation of you as an instructor. Aligning those expectations with how you will teach the course maximizes the opportunities for you and your students to find success.


Gaffney, J. D., Gaffney, A. L. H., & Beichner, R. J. (2010). Do they see it coming? Using expectancy violation to gauge the success of pedagogical reforms. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 6(1), 010102.
Gaffney, J. D., & Whitaker, J. T. (2015). Making the most of your first day of class. The Physics Teacher, 53(3), 137-139.
Lumpkin, A., Achen, R. M., & Dodd, R. K. (2015). Student perceptions of active learning. College Student Journal, 49(1), 121-133.
Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education, 93(3), 223-231.
Seidel, S. B., & Tanner, K. D. (2013). “What if students revolt?”—considering student resistance: origins, options, and opportunities for investigation. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 586-595.