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Making Connections

by Nancy MacLean
Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, History Department, Northwestern University

In this essay I want to describe what I think makes my teaching work--when it does. My remarks offer no new approaches, no strategies for honing important skills, and not even any fun gimmicks to experiment with. Instead, I will make the case for a simple proposition that will probably strike most readers as exceedingly obvious (although I hope to show that there's more to it than meets the eye): effective teaching--for me, at least--depends on making connections, above all on building relationships with and among students that help to create a genuine sense of community and collaboration in the classroom.

It's easiest to begin thinking about those connections by describing what's happening when things go right. We all know what a "good" class feels like: students are excited, leaning forward, and all pushing to get into the discussion; the discussion becomes cumulative as students refer back to each others' earlier points, whether to amplify on or differentiate from them; there is both laughter and passion in their talk; we find ourselves invigorated not only by their energy, but also by how they saw things in our materials that we didn't even know were there. This is connection and collaboration at its best: we're all working, we're all learning, we're all engaged.

Naturally, the difficult part is figuring out how to create these sorts of connected and engaged classes. Kenneth Bruffee's Collaborative Learning, a stimulating book aimed at college and university teachers, offers some excellent suggestions on this subject. Bruffee begins from the premise, grounded in today's work-world, that "effective interdependence... may be the most important lesson students should be asked to learn." Yet they cannot build this skill in most courses, which are still taught in the conventional teaching-as-telling way. Bruffee goes on to offer strategies of change based on the model of small group collaborative work.

In the process, he makes some important points about what knowledge is, how it develops, and how we can advance these processes in our teaching styles. Rather than take knowledge to be simply "an entity that we transfer from one head to another," Bruffee argues for a different model: "Collaborative learning assumes instead that knowledge is a consensus among the members of a community of knowledgeable peers--something people construct by talking together and reaching agreement" (3). This is something that almost all of us take for granted in our scholarship--yet the implications of which we often fail to apply to our teaching. What's exciting to me about this model is the way it re-frames what we do in such a way as to make clearer what our core task is.

We are, in effect, inviting our students to join new "knowledge communities" run by different principles than the ones to which they now belong; our task, then, is a "reacculturative" one. This will happen most easily, most effectively, and most lastingly, not when we are the center of attention, but rather when we work indirectly to create the conditions--the work groups and the tasks--that enable students to work out issues with each other. Conversing together on a common problem, students begin to make the discipline's norms their own in the course of negotiating what they think they know. What we need, urges Bruffee, is "structured conversation among students" (4,9); the aim of this conversation, of this "translation community" as he evocatively puts it, is to help the students become "fluent" in the language of the knowledge community that is our discipline or field.

While in this translation community, students are leaving behind their other languages and developing their facility with ours (75). I really like this idea. When my classes work well, this is exactly what happens: students start to teach each other.

My own teaching practice incorporates these principles in a variety of ways. First off, I seek to break down the sense that we're all strangers by paying a lot of attention to classroom dynamics. I make sure to learn students' names within the first 2-3 weeks. I have been amazed again and again at how much difference this simple gesture makes to my students--at how much more engaged they, in turn, become. Then, in seminars and sections, I try to get them to learn and to use each others' names, by having them put out name cards in the first weeks of class and urging everyone to refer to each other by name. This is not silly: if the project is to create a community of mutual respect, trust, and engagement, it just won't work in a roomful of atomized and alienated strangers. For this reason, too, I push my office hours hard; I let them know that I need to know them to do my part well, and for the course as a whole to work.

Another, more substantive and content-based strategy for developing that community is to do some kind of work in small groups, beginning in the first or second week of a section or seminar. For example, I might ask students in groups to start by identifying the thesis of an article and its strongest supporting evidence, or by analyzing a primary document. I try to devise assignments that develop skills sequentially in a given class and over the quarter as a whole, from the easier to the most difficult, so that students can acquire both the necessary tools and a sense of achievement before embarking on the hardest work. Also, the group dynamics seem to work best when they tackle tasks that are progressively more challenging. Questions might begin with, in the words of one teacher who works in a similar way, "what do you see?"; they then move on to "what does it mean?"--from the descriptive, in other words, to the analytical and interpretive (for more on this see Frederick, 54). In all these settings, I try to encourage student-to-student intellectual engagement wherever possible--not only in discussions but also in interactive lectures. In my experience, the more they take each other's ideas seriously, the more they will take their own ideas seriously; the more they learn to listen, the more they learn to think.

Now, while trying to foster interaction and collaboration, I also try to keep a focus on individual development. That might mean noticing who is hanging back and looking skeptical, and finding ways to pull them in and get them to articulate their doubts or disagreements. It might mean giving special reinforcement, during class or after, to a shy student who hesitantly offered an idea. But it always means, at minimum, giving feedback that recognizes achievement as well as areas for improvement. One study of learning puts the project well: "Connected teachers," the authors observe, "try to discern the truth inside the students" (Belenky, 223). To try to discern the truth inside the students--in my reading, this phrase means searching for that element (even if it is only a flicker) that is strong and can be built on, and then helping students to begin that building process. I start all my comments on papers or exams with something positive or encouraging (even if I have to really dig to find it). Not because I believe in so-called coddling, but because I understand motivation--most notably, my own. When I hear nothing but criticism, I feel like effort is futile and I shut down. But when I get, say, a reader's report that says this and this are really interesting, but this and this are off, then I'm ready to get to work. It's the same for students.

Students need to feel that we believe in them--that we believe that they can do what we're asking of them--in order to push themselves to perform at the edge of their capacity. If all they hear is disapproval, which makes them feel inadequate and deficient, why bother? Hopefulness, as a fascinating science story in the New York Times reported a few years ago, is itself a more reliable predictor of success in students than any of those measures we usually look towards (Meier, 177). The more hopeful we can make our students about their prospects for growth, the more growth we're likely to see.

So far, I've said a lot about process, but not so much about content, partly because here it's harder to cross disciplinary boundaries. Yet here, too, in subject matter, making connections makes for effective teaching--particularly on the all-important motivating question of why the knowledge matters. On the first day of all of my courses, but especially the lecture courses, I devote some time to the promised "payoff," connecting course themes or required skills to issues or interests likely to be on their minds. Some people might find this crude; I don't. Or rather, I don't care if it is: we're all too busy these days to show interest in something if we can't see why it might matter.

Along the way, I look out for other opportunities to make such connections--to show how the history we're learning matters to their understanding of the world, and how the skills that we're developing can help them in that project. A case in point: in my women's history class last quarter, someone commented in lecture that something reminded her of The Rules. "The what?," I said. "The Rules," she repeated--and by this time many heads were nodding in agreement. My impromptu poll showed that I was among the maybe 15% of the room who'd never heard of this phenomenon. The students quickly brought me up to speed, and by the end of the week a student had given me a copy of this manual, which is subtitled Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. A quick read showed me that it was quite as awful as some said it was--but it was awful in some interesting ways, and it nicely complemented the last unit of the course. So I assigned sections of it to accompany the reading on the syllabus. And it became one of the options on the final take-home essay menu: to provide a historical analysis of this document, drawing on as many course materials as possible, that situated and made sense of it in historical context. Some of the essays that came in were outstanding--so original that they illustrated, for me, the value of reaching for this kind of connection. What I've tried to do is lay out some ideas that I found stimulating and some practices that worked for me. Most of them might well already be second-nature to you. But my aim was not originality. It was to name and pull together some principles of teaching that are so fundamental, to many so obvious, that they are rarely discussed--and therefore easily forgotten when so many other claims are pressing in upon us and demanding our attention. But making connections so as to develop the relationships that sustain learning is fundamental; it's something worth reflecting on and worth discussing.

Bibliography for Making Connections

Belenky, Mary Field, et al. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. 1986. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Bruffee, Kenneth. Collaborative Learning, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Comer, James. School Power: Implications of an Intervention Project. 1980. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Frederick, Peter. "Student Involvement: Active Learning in Large Classes." New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 32 (1987): 45-56.

Meier, Deborah. The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

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You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression: The Importance of the First Day of Class

by Pamela A. Hayward
University of Illinois at Urbana

The first class meeting can be a challenge. Both instructors and students may be nervous that expectations of the course will not be fulfilled. As the exploratory study (described above) demonstrates, students can and do readily form impressions of a course and its instructor on the first day.

Therefore it is important to spend time in advance of the first class preparing course materials and objectives. Getting acquainted with students and giving them an opportunity to know something about you as an instructor, is another element of a successful first day. No first day of class is complete without attention to administrative detail. It is best for instructors to cover this material in a clear manner, thus reducing student uncertainty. A syllabus is the ideal format for conveying information. Merely dismissing the class after going over administrative details can be an error. The first day provides the instructor with a chance to go over course content with students. If time permits, a brief lecture on content is recommended. A well planned class activity could serge the purpose of reinforcing this material. Ideally, the instructor should find time for student feedback on the course on the first class day. It is apparent that the first day of class may be one of the most important days of the semester. Getting off on the right foot is relatively easy, as long as an instructor is willing to plan in advance, share his/her enthusiasm for the course, and elicit student involvement.


"The first meeting of a class is much too important to be treated as something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible. Teachers who simply put in an appearance, see if all the students are there, make an assignment for the next time, and dismiss class early are missing an important opportunity.

Not only does this approach send students away frustrated because they do not get their basic questions answered, the instructor misses an important opportunity to demonstrate his or her commitment to the course, to the students, and to the...discipline (Friedrich & Cooper, 1990, p. 237)."

It is often said that, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." Both novice and veteran instructors intuitively know that adage has validity, but often forget to incorporate this thought into preparation for teaching. Approaches that deal specifically with the first day are often left out from both macro and micro level teaching strategies, possibly because the first day is such a mixed bag. On the one hand, the first day should encompass a general overview of the course. Yet, on the other hand, the first day is often full of required administrative duties. Because blending these two elements can be so complicated, instructors often opt for the easy way out. They call roll, go over the syllabus and dismiss the class—hoping they can establish rapport and engage students in the discipline during the next class meeting.

To get a better idea of how instructors can prepare for the first day, it is important to explore the types of impressions students develop of a course and its instructor on the first day of class. In order to learn more about these impressions, several research questions were formulated for an exploratory study:

RQ 1: What judgments about the course do students make on the first day?

RQ 2: What factors do students take into consideration when developing these judgments of the course?

RQ 3: What judgments about the instructor do students make on the first day?

RQ 4: What factors do students take into consideration when developing these judgments about the instructor?


Participants: Surveys were distributed to 225 undergraduate students in 11 different speech communication classrooms at four collegiate institutions in the Midwest. Students completed the surveys at the end of the first day of class. The classes ranged in topics from public speaking, to small group communication, to public relations. The eleven courses were taught by five different instructors.

Survey: A confidential questionnaire aimed at capturing students' reactions to the course and instructor was administered at the end of their first class meeting of the semester. Survey responses were used to compile a preliminary list of dimensions of judgments students use to develop impressions of the class and of the instructor on the first day. Similar responses were grouped together and numbers of responses in each category were tallied. Category headings were developed based on the key elements of each response. All student responses were incorporated into the categorization system.


Note: Percentages rounded.

Table 1

Categories of student comments regarding course: A total of 502 comments from the questionnaires dealt with reactions to the first day of the course in general (Table 1).

Category % Response Frequency
Difficulty level of course 24 121
Enjoyment level of course 14 72
Time involved in course 13 66
Interest in course 13 65
Structure/Pace of course 10 52
Practicality of course 10 52
Level of interaction w/others 06 29
Participation/attend concerns 05 24
Class atmosphere 03 17
Misc 008 4

Table 2

What students based course comments on: A total of 531 comments from the questionnaires looked at what factors students used to develop their judgments of the course on the first day (Table 2).

Category % Response Frequency
Teacher comments/attitudes 41 217
Syllabus 24 125
Assignments/course materials 15 79
Class activity on first day 05 29
Hearsay 04 22
Exp. w/other classes/subject 02 19
Course description/title 02 12
Class atmosphere 01 11
Intuition/Observation 01 5
Recognize other students in class 001 4
My personality 001 2
Course will help in future 001 2

Table 3

Categories of student comments regarding instructor: A total of 614 comments from the questionnaires dealt with reactions to the instructor of the course on the first day (Table 3).

Category % Response Frequency
Amicability 26 157
Strictness level 15 93
Accessibility/Cares you learn 12 75
Knowledgeable 10 63
Enthusiasm/Enjoyment 8 49
Fairness level 8 48
Organ./Preparedness/Punctuality 7 44
Sense of humor 2 15
Interesting 2 15
Speaking ability 2 15
Physical appearance 2 12
Confidence level 2 10
Global—good/bad 01 9
Expectations 01 6
Misc. 001 3

Table 4

What students based instructor comments on: A total of 503 comments from the questionnaires looked at what factors students used to develop them judgments of the instructor on the first day (Table 4).

Category % Response Frequency
Instructor comments/presentation 22 110
Delivery 12 58
Syllabus/Course requirements 09 44
General Personality 08 38
Attitude 07 35
Shared personal information 06 31
Hearsay/Past interaction 05 23
Vocals 05 23
Nonverbals/Body language 05 23
Appearance/Clothing 04 22
Smiling/Eye contact 04 19
Tried to learn student names 04 18
Intuition/Observations 03 17
Words used/vocabulary 02 12
Movement/gestures 02 8
Promptness 02 8
Sense of humor 01 7
Level of knowledge 01 6
Misc. 002 1


As the results above demonstrate, students do form impressions of a course and its instructor on the first day of class. Many of the factors students use to develop reactions to a course are factors that are in the control of an instructor, once he/she is aware of them. As it has been established, the first meeting of class is important in setting the tone for the semester (Padgett & Schultz, 1979).

The following information attempts to highlight prescriptive material on effectively presenting the first day of class. By reviewing articles and manuals that deal specifically with advice and training for the first day of class, several categories of prescriptions became apparent: 1) preparation for the first day of class, 2) getting acquainted, 3)"administrivia", 4) course coverage, 5) class lecture/class activity, and 6) student feedback. These categories should prove useful to the novice instructor or to any instructor wanting to improve his/her presentation on the first day.

Preparation for the First Day of Class

Behind the scenes planning is required if an instructor's presentation on the first day is to be successful. Advance training workshops are often provided for new teaching assistants. Many programs include an orientation segment stressing the importance of the first day of class and the mechanics behind getting through the first day in a productive manner. Beyond attending orientation and training sessions, teachers should plan their classes in advance and organize carefully (Miller, 1979). Eisele (1989) recommends going to the classroom early. In this way, an instructor will have a better chance of establishing a routine. This also gives the instructor an opportunity to get an early sense of the group. By arriving early, the instructor will have a chance to arrange the desks or chairs in a comfortable setting. Eisele suggests a semi circular formation because, "except for church and movies, adults don't seem to like sitting in rows (p. 31)."

Getting Acquainted

"Perhaps (one of) the most important..questions that students sitting in the classroom on the first day of class have in their minds is 'What kind of person is this teacher going to be?' In many cases, teachers do not start the first day with a clean slate. Assuming that the teacher has taught before, campus folklore has already contributed to the students' data base (Friedrich & Cooper, 1990, p.243)."

Friedrich and Cooper explain that the type of impression an instructor will want to create relies on many variables, such as resources, definition of role, course objectives, and student personalities. However, the instructor can set clearer first day strategies if he/ she keeps in mind that the goal of teaching is student learning (Friedrich & Cooper, 1990, p.244). This means that instructors must not only focus on presenting a warm and likeable image, but on presenting themselves as knowledgeable and confident as well.

"In general, instructors should start the class on a positive note: Don't start the class with negative comments such as 'they didn't give me a syllabus'; 'I don't know why they put me in this room,' etc. Start the class with 'I am here to enjoy this 10 weeks and I assume you are too.' Share positive experiences of other groups and classes (Greive & France, 1992, p. 8)."

Instructors can introduce themselves by talking about their plans, style and what a typical class session will be like (Eisele, 1989, p.31). Instructors should let students know of their special areas of expertise and provide information that demonstrates why they are capable of teaching the course (Sourcebook Individualized inservice education for adjunct occupational faculty, 1980).

Greive and France (1992) stress that it is as important for an instructor to get to know students as it is for students to get to know the instructor. Therefore, they suggest you ask students to provide introductions of themselves. Padgett & Shultz (1979, p.22) suggest that students could respond orally or on paper about their background and reasons for taking the course. Oral responses are preferable because they allow for more familiarity among students thus, setting the stage for verbal exchanges later.

According to Eisele (1989), an effective get acquainted exercise involves students introducing themselves in two rounds. During the first round, students share less personal information, such as name and hometown. Once students have finished Round #1, they should be more comfortable and ready to start Round #2. In Round #2 they share more personal information, such as reasons they are taking the course and their background in the subject area.

In the manual, Sourcebook: Individualized inservice education for adjunct occupational faculty, it is recommended that instructors use 3 x 5 index cards to gather information on students. Information students might write on the cards includes: name, address, phone number, special interests, and work data (p. 24). By getting to know students, an instructor will be better able to determine needs and assess motivations (Garrison, 1968, p. 15). Garrison explains that by keeping the first few class meetings somewhat unstructured and open, an instructor may catch some glimmers of students' attitudes toward their work.


Instructors should save time at the beginning or end of the first class meeting for, what Eisele (1989) calls "administrivia." Friedrich and Cooper (1990) recommend working from a syllabus to address student areas of concern, such as course mechanics. The syllabus can specify the number of assignments, number of quizzes and tests, and weights of each in calculating the final grade. It is also helpful to address grading criteria. When discussing class rules and course behavior, the main thing to focus on is consistency (Friedrich & Cooper, 1990).

Other "administrivia" an instructor may need to address include taking attendance and going over the class phone chain and class cancellation procedures. Depending on the institution, it may be necessary to explain the cost of the course to students (Wygant, 1980). When attending to "administrivia", one should keep the welfare of the students in mind. An instructor should make it clear where his/her office is, as well as sharing phone numbers where students can reach him/her. According to Miller (1979), nothing bothers a student more than not being able to find an instructor when needed.

Course Coverage

According to Friedrich and Cooper (1990), there are at least two issues related to course coverage that students would like to see addressed during the first class session. These issues are: 1) What will the course cover? and, 2) How will it relate to other work? Course content can be presented in the course syllabus (mentioned above), which, at minimum spells out both the objectives of the course and the topics to be covered. The discussion of these issues can incorporate information on the instructor's respective department and discipline (Friedrich & Cooper, 1990, p. 239).

During this discussion of course coverage, the instructor should reinforce the expectations of the course and promote student discussion of these expectations (Padgett & Schultz, 1979). Throughout the presentation of course content, the instructor should show enthusiasm. Eisele (1989) suggests incorporating student input into the learning expectations by:

"...break(ing) in to small groups of 3 students. This size group makes it more comfortable for individuals to discuss any hopes, doubts, and hidden agenda...Each group should select someone to report their findings back to the whole class...Adults will feel more ownership in the course if they are consulted. Besides, discussing and 'negotiating' the objectives will clarify expectations; this establishes the common ground for the course and will help make the course proceed more smoothly (p. 32)."

Class Lecture and/or Activity

Following a discussion of course procedures and policies, Eisele (1989) explains that it is important to "get students started in learning the course content (p.31)." An instructor can play an audio or video tape, or present a brief lecture. This initial immersion in content should be followed by a large group or small group class discussion.

Wygant (1980) recommends using an active approach to the first day. Beyond merely lecturing on course material, she instructs teachers to get students involved. After a mini lecture on "Career Planning," she administers a career information survey and then organizes the class into small groups. Once in groups, the students discuss their past occupations and fantasy occupations. Following this activity, students are given a homework assignment.

Student Feedback

Several of those offering advice on how to organize the first day of class suggest getting feedback on the course from students. Eisele (1989) recommends using the final 10 minutes of class to get input from students. One way to do this is to have each student write a "one minute" paper. The instructor will not only get immediate feedback on the first day of class from students, but the instructor will also end up with samples of students' writing and their thoughts and perceptions.

Greive and France (1989) prefer using a semester long feedback approach. They advise instructors to use "quality circles." They begin this program during the first class meeting by asking for volunteers to form a feedback group that can report back to the instructor throughout the semester.


Eisele, G. R and others (1989). Teaching for development: A handbook for CCV instructors. Waterbury, VT: Community College of Vermont.

Friedrich, G. W. & Cooper, R (1990). The first day. In J. A. Daly, G. W. Friedrich, & A. L. Vangelisti (Eds.), Teaching communication: Theory, research, and methods (pp. 237 246). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Garrisora, R H. (1968). Teaching in a junior college: A brief professional orientation. Washington, DC: American Association of Junior Colleges.

Greive, D. & France, R E. (1992, March). Orientation to teaching for adjunct faculty: Instructor's manual. Paper presented at the National Conference on Successful College Teaching and Administration, Orlando, FL.

Miller, D. D. (1979). College teaching: The highest form of show biz. Community College Frontiers, 8,1-13.

Padgett, S. C. & Schultz, R. E. (1979). Survival skills for part time faculty at Pima College's Community Campus. Tucson, AZ Pima Community College.

Sourcebook Individualized inservice education for adjunct occupational faculty. (1980). Albany, NY: State University of New York, Albany, Two Year College, Student Development Center.

Wygant,N.S. (1980). C.E.0.131: Career planning and decision making: Facilitator's manual. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University.