Set the Tone on Your First Day of Class

First-Day Activities that Motivate

Like many aspects of teaching, helping students develop a sense of belonging and community can impact learning regardless of course format (face-to-face, livecast, or fully online). When students feel they belong to a class community, they are more likely to be motivated to complete class work, feel safe enough to contribute to discussions, and be open to feedback that can help them improve. Many factors can influence students’ sense of belonging and community, including (but not limited to) student-faculty interactions and student-student interactions, perceptions of stereotyping or tokenism, the tone of how expectations are communicated, and the range of perspectives represented in course materials (Ambrose et al., 2010).

While there is often a great deal of information-sharing on the first day of class—such as course requirements, deadlines, and overall expectations—it is also a time to get students excited for learning and to allow them to get acquainted with you and with one another. Research shows that motivation is impacted by introducing an activity that increases students’ perceptions of course interest, course usefulness, and instructor caring (McGinley & Jones, 2014; Wilson & Wilson, 2007). In addition to introducing the course, there is another layer of complexity in getting students comfortable with the hybrid format and in building a climate of inclusiveness for all learners, both on-ground and remote.

Goza (1993) introduced the concept of First Day Graffiti, a collaborative activity that incorporates three types of concerns experienced by students at the start of a new semester:

  • students’ self-concerns (who is learning with me?)
  • task concerns (what and how will we learn?), and
  • impact concerns (why is this important?).

The educator can offer a series of prompts for students to reflect on, respond to, and then discuss. Two examples of such prompts are:

  • “Here’s something that makes it hard to learn in a course: _____”
    “Here’s something that makes it easy to learn in a course: _____”

This activity is usually done in the classroom with flip-charts and markers, but it easily translates to a hybrid or online format where all students can work online using a collaboration tool in Canvas or in a web conferencing tool such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. These preliminary exercises can be followed by small-group discussions, in person, in threaded discussions in Canvas, or in breakout rooms.

Similar to the First Day Graffiti activity, the Class Session Introduction activity asks students to share their initial perceptions of the course using prompts related to self-concern, task concerns, and impact concerns. Then students introduce themselves using their responses, or students can share responses in pairs and use them to introduce one another.

These are just two ideas for setting an inclusive and welcoming tone on the first day of class. If you have other ideas for first-day activities, consider how they might be implemented across different formats and contexts, and how the responses you get from students in relation to self-concerns, task concerns, and impact concerns might inform your decisions about future interactions in the class.


To address students’ self-concerns:

  • Encourage students to get started before the first class: If possible, consider publishing your Canvas site prior to the first class so your students can access some of the essential course information and get a preview of what is to come. Include a welcome message and a space for students to introduce themselves or post questions (e.g., a discussion board)!

To address both students’ self-concerns and impact concerns:

  • Plan for an activity (such as First Day Graffiti or Class Session Introduction) that generates course interest, ideas for course usefulness, and a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Prepare any prompts or materials in advance and have them ready for students to access in Canvas.

To address task concerns:

  • Create a visual representation (e.g., an infographic—see this course example) of syllabus highlights to review with students during the first class. Meaningful visuals that support text or narration can have enhance student understanding of the bit ideas you want to get across (Rademacher, 2019).
  • Follow up on the information that is obtained through the first-day activity through announcements or other forms of communication in Canvas.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Goza, B. K. (1993). Graffiti needs assessment: Involving students in the first class session. Journal of Management Education, 17(1), 99-106.

McGinley, J. J., & Jones, B. D. (2014). A brief instructional intervention to increase students’ motivation on the first day of class. Teaching of Psychology41(2), 158-162.

Rademacher, C. (2019, May 13). The value of images in online learning. Oregon State University ECampus Course Development & Training.

Stephens, G. E. (2015). CSI: An engaging online classroom introduction activityJournal of Effective Teaching15(2), 69-77.

Wilson, J. H., & Wilson, S. B. (2007). The first day of class affects student motivation: An experimental studyTeaching of Psychology34(4), 226-230.

Wong, C. (2020, August 5). A four-step plan: The first day of class in Zoom. Faculty Focus.