Autumn session has kicked off and all over the campus classes are starting. Many of these are first year classes full of students commencing their higher education journey: students who are brimming with excitement and anticipation about being at university, but also anxious about the choices they’ve made – and fearful that they might not fit in. There’s a lot at stake in these first classes, but there’s also a lot of opportunity to kick things off to a great start.

So how do you make the first classes engaging and welcoming?

In 2017 we researched just this through a FYE grant*. We spoke to and surveyed over 150 students, we observed first year classes of academics known to be great at teaching and interviewed them to see and hear what they do and why they think it’s important.

The results are surprising – but only because many of the ideas that emerged seem so obvious and so easily done that it’s a wonder we aren’t doing them all the time (noting of course many of us are :).

So what are the main things that emerged?

Well it probably won’t surprise you to hear that it’s not just one thing, but lots of smaller things taken together that create a class that feels welcoming and engaging. Here are a few ideas that stood out as key for students and staff. We are building a resource with lots more so watch this space!

Help students make connections

A big part of engagement and belonging is around helping students make connections – with you, with other students in the subject, with the subject itself and with the profession or discipline as a whole. Some ideas:

Starting the class – introduce yourself, say welcome.
Students consistently tell us it makes a difference if they can relate to their teachers as people – they love it when you start with a story about yourself, which might be about your research, your industry experience, your passions or interests – or anything that reveals why you are working in the field you are.

Students connecting with each other
You can do this simply by getting students to discuss something related to the subject – and to say hi in the process. For instance by posing an intriguing question about a hot topic, first getting the students to think about it alone, then discussing it with those sitting close by. Or it could be an icebreaker – there are heaps out there so choose one you (and your students) feel comfortable with.

Connecting students with the subject
Find ways to bring the subject to life in ways students can relate to – you might use an example of a current event or issue in the field and get them to discuss some questions about it, or do an activity which immerses them in the topic. Images, memes, videos and humour (even if it’s a bit lame!) are all great ways to get their attention.

Connecting students with the profession and/or discipline
Help them imagine they are a professional in the making right from the start! Talk about what it means to be a professional in their discipline and how their learning in this subject relates to this.

Reassure them
One of the simplest ideas that came from students is the importance of teachers relating to where they are, and letting them know you are teaching in ways that will help them to learn. It shows you care and makes students feel less alone and more confident they can manage. And it’s great if you can learn their names.

Some the best ideas come directly from the advice students gave us:

“Acknowledge that everything is new and scary and a bit overwhelming and remind people that they are not alone in feeling that”

“Tell them you know what it’s like to start university and that you were in the same situation that they are in.”

“Talk about where they started from and how they got to where they are now.”

Involve them
Students will be much more engaged if you invite their participation, draw from their experience and tap into their interests. There are lots of ways to do this beyond the ideas already discussed:

  • Invite their opinions, ideas, and responses about the topic of the class
  • Invite their questions – and let them know there are no dumb questions. It helps to give them a minute to jot down a question (and if you like, discuss with a neighbour) – and give encouraging responses
  • Talk about the importance of learning from mistakes – you may even model this yourself
  • Tell them why you’ve designed the subject the way you have – hopefully with their learning in mind!
  • Let them know where they can get help

Help them make sense of the subject
The structure of a subject can be overwhelming for students. It helps enormously if you provide them with a simple guide – or a map – that shows the big picture while also helping them make sense of how the different areas fit together. You can also add in how the assessment fits in.

One way to do this is to create a simple diagram in your PowerPoint, and return to it at regular intervals so they can see where they are and where they are going.

Hope these ideas are useful, and good luck with your classes!

If you’d like to chat about what you plan to do, I’ll be available for a drop in session at the LX.lab on Thursday 15 March from 1.00 to 2.00.

* This grant was with Andy Leigh and Alex Thomson from Science – more detail is available in the UTSOnline FYE site (if you are not enrolled, please enter your UTS staff number and then you will be linked through to the site.)

Feature image by: Anna Zhu

  • This is a great reminder, and perhaps even more important now as many students are affected by the travel ban or feeling isolated in their own homes. This blog reminds us of the small and simple things that enables a greater sense of connection to the university and their community of learners.

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