Great activities for the first day of class

Help students get to know one another and you as the semester begins.
By Hannah Pitstick

Faculty use the first day of class to set expectations and classroom norms, encourage students to get to know one another, and allow students to get to know them and how committed they are to each student’s success. Here are some activities that can help you meet these goals, plus a few pieces of advice for getting the semester off to a great start:

Two-minute interviews. Penne Ainsworth, CPA, who recently retired as chairperson of the accounting and finance department at the University of Wyoming, often has students in her classes interview one another and then introduce one another to the class.

She gives students two minutes to interview each other in pairs. The only direction she gives them is to get to know the other person, and then each student takes about one minute to report what they’re discovered.

“I’ve tried having students get up and introduce themselves to the group, but they don’t like it,” she said. “People don’t like talking about themselves, it makes them very uncomfortable, so that’s why I went to the two-minute interview. You get the same results, but having the students introduce each other is much more effective.”

Scavenger hunts. Ainsworth also helps students get to know one another on the first day of class by having them do a scavenger hunt for information about one another. She gives students a list of “items” to look for in the room, such as someone who is an only child, someone who has lived in Wyoming his or her whole life, and someone who has traveled to all 50 states. The students need to move around the room and talk to each other to find who fits those descriptions.

Ainsworth likes this ice-breaker because it gets everyone up and moving around. The scavenger hunt typically includes 20–30 items and takes about 15 minutes. You can even add prizes (such as candy) for whoever finds the most answers, she added.

Puzzles and games. Kelly Richmond Pope, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting at DePaul University, believes that you should bring all the thinking skills you learned in kindergarten or first grade back into your college classroom. To recreate that atmosphere, she will often have students complete accounting crossword puzzles, hidden-object games, and memory games.

“Everything I noticed my 7-year-old was doing, I use on the first day, and also at the start of many classes, because I find that when students walk into the classroom they need a way to decompress before we start the lecture,” she said.

Sharing learning experiences. Shane Dikolli, CPA Fellow (Australia), Ph.D., an associate professor of accounting at the University of Virginia, often starts each semester by asking students about the last time they felt they really learned something. The answers could involve learning to ski or drive, or learning a new language — it doesn’t really matter. The point is to get to the bottom of what made the learning effective, such as hands-on practice, repetition, asking questions, and getting feedback. He writes all the students’ answers on the board and then relates these characteristics to the course they’re about to start (e.g., management accounting).

“The exercise doesn’t take more than 15–20 minutes, and it is an effective way for the students to recognize the importance of embracing the learning experience upon which they are about to embark,” he said.

Learning all the students’ names. Another thing Dikolli does for the first class is learn every student’s name. He does this by getting their photos and making flashcards that he studies prior to the start of each semester. He manages to do this each year, even with class sizes of 200 or more.

“It establishes connection, and they can see the effort that I’ve put into it, and they know I’m really committed to the course,” he said. “And it’s an indication that, because I’m committed to the course, I want that same level of commitment from them as well.”

Using games to show students the relevance of the subject matter. Lynn Dikolli, CPA (Canada), assistant professor of accounting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, starts the semester with a Deloitte interactive market game that helps students understand what information risk is and what happens when there is lack of transparency with information in a market economy.

“I teach audit, which everyone says is the worst thing to teach,” said Lynn Dikolli, who is married to Shane Dikolli. “So one of the things I do in the first class is try and set the stage as to why we need audit in this world and what a critical role the audit function plays. The market game does a nice job achieving this objective.”

Faculty also shared advice for making the first day go smoothly:

Don’t try to do too much. No matter what you decide to do with the first day of the semester, don’t try to cram too much in, Shane and Lynn Dikolli warned.

“We can’t underscore enough the importance of the first class because it sets the tone for students’ perception of how organized you’ll be and how the course will run,” Lynn Dikolli said. “One of the things I’ve learned from Shane is not to overestimate what you can achieve in that first class.”

Don’t feel that you have to get everything covered during that first period, she noted. If time is running out and you still have material to present, she recommended ending the class “with a few key takeaways” and covering your final points at the start of the next class, or on an online discussion board if you’re using one.

Make sure the real you shines through. Pope advised faculty members to make sure their true personality comes out on the first day.

“A lot of times professors can be very technical and go through the syllabus and go through the textbook, but I think it’s really important to let the students learn about your personality — how you tick, how you teach, what makes you happy, and what makes you frustrated,” she said. “We stress to students the importance of making business relationships, but I think it’s equally as important for us to establish a relationship with them, and we can do that on the first day by telling them something about us and letting them realize we are actually human, too.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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