The first day of class holds a special place in discussions of teaching and learning. It is, in any case, one spot where many experts sense the power of a hack. Consider this: onboarding, the process web applications use to make a first impression on visitors and transition them into users.
Web application designer Nathan Barry offers an interesting take on onboarding in “A Lesson in Gradual Engagement.” Barry follows a succinct description of onboarding by Whitney Hess to distinguish teaching and marketing. In very basic terms, onboarding is the teaching element; it involves setting up the application so that a visitor begins using the application in basic ways right away. As an example, he describes how a visitor to the Pandora music site is prompted to set up a new station and begin listening before that user is prompted to sign up for an account. As Barry describes it, the process prioritizes fluency with a product over acquiring information about a product, at least in the first encounter. It is also a marketing principle because it encourages users to become engaged before they are asked to make a formal assent.
I have considered the first day of class a couple times on this blog, beginning with a rambling reflection and then later in this post on progressive disclosure. So I wanted to return to this topic in anticipation of the first day of class next week. This review reminds me to think about three basic ideas from the various syllabus workshops I’ve attended and those earlier posts:
First, to establish engagement, the first day of a course should be like other days of the course. (This is advice I’ve heard not to just “go over the syllabus.”) Accompanying advice is usually to get right into the course and to have a syllabus quiz or some other consequential activity regarding the syllabus during the next class period.
Second, though, I’ve become really attentive to how much the syllabus and the first day activities can be used as a tool to establish authority in the classroom. I’m a little concerned about the power trip lurking here; I don’t want to use a method to compel assent at the cost of building agency.
Third, the hack here is to shift the course from a flow of information, the teacher “going over the syllabus” to students enacting the work of the course. It’s a shift from passive receptivity (in which in any other scenario they click away to something else) to active engagement. It presumes that the course is not just about students receiving a flow of information; rather, it is a first step in building student agency as co-participants and co-creators of learning in a course.
So, I’m going to be thinking in the next few days about how to establish this gradual engagement. I want to get started and go just far enough in to make the course seem interesting, while also providing enough information up front so that students don’t have so much uncertainty that it feeds anxiety. One thing I won’t be doing, though, is forcing everyone’s attention to the full syllabus. More later on.
I was also thinking that it might be a good topic of further discussion in comments. So if this sparks an idea for you, please share it and we’ll see where it goes.