It was Peter Frederick, retired historian and beloved teaching guru from Wabash College, who introduced me to the significance of the first day of class. His advice was straightforward, almost obvious, the way plain truths often are. And yet, as a new teacher, caught up in my own nervousness, concerned with the syllabus and making a good first impression, I had not fully appreciated how important it was to set a tone and allay student fears during that first meeting at the beginning of a new term.
On the first day, Peter reminds us, students are wondering about three things: the teacher (does the teacher care? are they fair? competent?); the course (is this course for me? will it be useful? relevant? appropriate?); and, finally, about their classmates (who are these other students in the class?). Peter further stresses the importance of getting into the course material on that very first day and has some good strategies for how to do that.
Now, fortunately, there are a range of materials and advice about effective strategies for the first day, and most faculty know that actively engaging students right from the beginning is a crucial part of good teaching and of launching a course. Here is some helpful advice from Devilee L. Wright, addressing the anxiety that both professors and students share on the first day. This overview from the Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning includes a checklist of things to do before and during that first class. A successful first session uses the entire time period and the students leave buzzing about the course. The excitement of learning is begun.
But what about in our work as mentors? Does it matter how we begin a new academic year?
I must confess that in the frenzy of getting my classes ready, I have been guilty of putting mentoring low on the list of priorities during the first few weeks of the semester–until a personal crisis or an alarming grade on a major assignment prompts an advisee to seek me out.
Contemplating my own successes and failures as a mentor, here are three simple ideas that can help launch a new term:
First, get students into your office early in the semester. (Or, meet in the campus coffeeshop, or on a bench outside while the weather is still warm). Make this happen within the first month of classes, if possible. Use the transition from summer into the fall semester as the basis for informal conversation. Find out what they did over the summer. What did they learn about themselves? How are they approaching the new semester? What are they excited about? What are their fears? Keep it breezy but encourage them through questions to go deeper and reflect a little about themselves as they begin a new year. An innocuous question like “so what are you thinking these days about your future?” can prompt a rich conversation. It also signals that they should be thinking about the “bigger picture.”
Second: Nudge your students to develop a few goals for themselves for the semester. This is a technique I learned from Barbara Walvoord in her study of introductory courses. Walvoord was interested in the disconnect between why students take religion or theology classes and the teaching faculty’s goals – and the results of her research are fascinating. She had the participants in her study require students to write an initial reflection about their hopes and goals for the course and then to revisit those at midterm and again at the end of the semester.
I learned a great deal about my students through this exercise and I continued it in other classes over the years. For example, it helps to know if they are feeling overwhelmed because they are having to take an extra course, or if they are most focused on improving their writing or their ability to contribute to class discussion. Sometimes they share something personal that happened over the summer, or hint at a faith crisis. When they are required for a class, I have made the course reflections worth 5 or even 10 per cent of the final grade.
If you are advising or mentoring students who are not in class with you this semester, you can still encourage them to go through this exercise, and to talk with you about what emerges in those beginning-of-term reflections. Have them come up with goals for each course as well as more generally for the coming semester and academic year.
When taken seriously by the students, this exercise can have the effect of focusing them on the possibilities of the present semester and encourages them to think beyond the present as well. How does what they are doing this semester connect with what they did the previous year? Or over the summer? Or where they think they might be headed? What do they hope to get out of the semester? Revisiting these questions in the middle of the term reminds students about their goals and signals that there is still time to get back on track.
Finally, follow-up with an email or (better) another meeting on something that emerged in the first conversation and that seems “vocationally” fruitful. Encourage them to come up with one or two things they can do this semester to take whatever the next steps might be to find out more about that path.
These actions are more than just gestures toward more holistic advising. They convey to students our care and concern but also the importance to them of regular goal-setting and life-long reflection on their values, hopes and dreams.
Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE.