In the weeks preceding the start of a new term, I am often asked by colleagues about my teaching strategies for the first day of class. With the recent spate of articles from pedagogy-themed websites like this one or this one, if they weren’t before, faculty today are acutely aware of the significance of the first day impression. While contending with their own first-day jitters, instructors are advised to tackle a myriad of logistical issues (e.g., the syllabus, enrollment, classroom policies, learning management procedures); establish a safe, welcoming, and stimulating classroom environment; and, as if instructors were not already short on time, deliver an inspiring lesson that establishes instructor credibility while kindling student interest.
In my situation, as a professor who exclusively teaches general education courses, I also face a classroom with some students who have elected to take my course, not because it represents a field they are genuinely interested in or are pursuing professionally, but because it is require for graduation. Some students, questioning the very relevance of general education, may utter the all-too-familiar question, “When will I ever need to know this?” For these students, I have adapted the following activity for my first-day classes to help them think critically about the course’s role in their educational goals and answer this question for themselves.
I welcome students to the class, introduce myself, and then ask, “Why are you here? Why are you in this class?” After the nervous giggles dissipate and my continued silence affirms my interest in a response, students volunteer the same types of answers: to get a degree, to fulfill the graduation requirements, or to be better qualified for a job. Occasionally, I may even get a student who expresses interest in the course topic or theme. I follow-up by asking: “If you are here in order to qualify for a future job, I imagine you know what employers in your field are looking for in college graduates, right?” Some students may offer up an idea or two but, in my experience, most students have never considered this question. What do employers want in their new college graduate hires?
At this point, I invite the class to divide into groups of four or five students. I hand each group some markers and a sheet of large paper from a flipchart. I explain how I would like each group to introduce themselves and then use the internet to find a credible source (legitimate website, news report, scholarly journal article, etc.) that describes the qualifications employers are seeking in college graduates. Students can look at this question broadly as applicable to all college graduates or look specifically at their major field of study. After reading the source material, students are invited to share their findings with their group and compile a list of their top seven qualifications on their flipchart. Once completed, each groups hangs their chart up on the wall. After each group has finished, I invite the students to roam the room and read each of the charts while looking for common themes.
When the students have returned to their seats, I ask students to share their findings: What were some common themes among the groups? What surprised you? Depending on the sources, the qualifications will differ. However, if students seek out credible sources on Google, the top two listings include this report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers and this report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Both of these reports stress the importance of skills and attributes such as the ability to write and speak clearly, solve problems, be creative, think critically, and cooperate on a team. Students, especially first-year students, are often surprised that these reports rarely mention grades or G.P.A. After making this realization, I ask my students to share why this information matters. How should it impact their approach to the course?
I explain my belief that the course theme is of secondary importance to the skills and attributes the assignments, readings, and activities will help them develop. I invite students to pull out their course syllabus. I ask them to read through it looking for ways the course will help them develop the attributes they identified as being important to employers. Through this lens, students may look at a writing assignment as a way to develop critical thinking and writing skills and not as “mere busy work.” Reading assignments are recast as opportunities to hone analytical skills; a group project is an opportunity to work as team and to develop oral communication skills. Through this activity, students are able to think critically about their general education courses and understand its’ value in preparing them for the workforce. While this activity is especially useful for faculty teaching general education courses, it could easily be adapted for use in introductory major courses as well.
Brant Ellsworth is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities and the faculty liaison to the Center for Teaching Excellence at Central Penn College. He is the editor of the Children’s Folklore Review, which publishes articles on all aspects of children’s traditions, and past winner of the W. W. Newell Award from the American Folklore Society.