Here's the best advice you’ll ever get about the first day of class: Forget about the traditional reading of the syllabus! Think of the mixed message you send with a dry syllabus review: “I want you to be active learners and critical thinkers. I'll begin by reading you the entire syllabus and issuing a lengthy list of rules and warnings.” If you want to inspire active learning, here are some ways to get students actively learning from the first moments of class, while also introducing them to the structure and policies of your course.
Discuss course objectives and policies – not only from your perspective, but also based on what students want to learn and the problems they’d like to tackle. Ask small groups of students to list three to five goals reflecting the skills, knowledge, appreciations, interests or attitudes they would like to get from the course. Also ask them to identify some course policies and strategies that will help them learn, and get them to agree on classroom behaviors that will enhance the learning process.
Do a group exercise. Select a key word from the course title and have groups of students generate word associations or related ideas written on the board or displayed on poster paper. Then use the lists to give a thematic overview of the course.
Work through a problem that illustrates the course content. Make a brief presentation that poses a typical problem, and ask students how they would go about solving it.
Make reading the syllabus a homework assignment, then, based on the first day’s discussion of goals, policies and the course overview, encourage students to talk about the syllabus at the start of the second class. Let the first class be your chance to show students what learning is really like in your course.