It’s nearly that time—fall classes will begin soon. So let’s think about ways to communicate with your soon-to-be students. I liked to reach out early, setting the tone for our class and how we’ll interact and challenge each other. So if you’re like me, what do you want to accomplish with this early communication? Here were some of my goals (what follows is primarily how I communicated with my first-year new-to-college Intro Soc students:
-Briefly introduced myself. I shared my full name, the 2 names I wanted them to use when talking or writing me, a bit of my background, and how I fell in love with Sociology.
-Location, day, and time our class met. I embedded a section of the campus map which highlighted the easiest route from the residence halls to the classroom, so that students understood the distance and time it would take them to get there. I did the same from the main parking lot for students who might live off campus.
-Class requirements. I listed the full name and edition of the text and which text modalities they could use (i.e., e-book only, hardback only, e-book and hardback, or buying it in a spiral notebook). I shared the pro’s and con’s of each modality (e.g., price, ease of highlighting/taking notes, etc.). I also shared that each student would need a “clicker”/audience response system (I talked briefly about what clickers were, including a link to my school’s webpage about clickers and the pedagogy that supports their use, especially in large classes such as mine, which had up to 350 students enrolled), that in most cases, a used one would be fine [though were more likely to need a new battery during the academic term with a used one]. I talked about my institution’s learning management system, and how one could log into the LMS once classes started. I talked about how I can struggle with new technology—and I promised that I, my graduate assistants, and our embedded undergraduate peer tutor would be here to help them master all the technology. In fact, I scheduled a “tech day” (the 2nd Tuesday of the term) for us to go over together all the technology used in the class—the LMS, the e-book (which most purchased), and the online quizzes from the text which students had to take before every class).
-Information about Sociology. I shared that I believe humans are “amateur sociologists” just by living out our daily lives and interacting with others. A large part of the Introduction to Sociology course would be learning the formal vocabulary of the discipline. Our class would take that “lived ability” and test it against sociological concepts and theories. We’d see that what we think we know about people and how they “tick” is not accurate.
-First assignment. I would end my communication by giving each student something to do before our first class meets. Since this class would be all first-time college students, I tried to tailor the assignment to what they might be going through the last few weeks before the term started and the move-in experience. I made sure that we talked about half of these as icebreakers the first day of class and the rest on the second day, because I needed students to know that I could be trusted—that if I asked them to do something, we would discuss it soon after. Here are just a few of the ideas I used:
-Notice if you say “goodbye” differently to friends versus family. If you did, why might that be?
-Were there “elevator courtesy rules” during the move-in process? If so, what were they? Did they change once most students had moved in and classes began? [I knew that many of my students would be living in two residence halls that were 4 and 6 stories tall, so that elevators are crucial to life in the residence hall.]
-Were there dining hall courtesy rules which they noticed? For example, if one went alone versus with a group of people?
-How did you decide on what to wear for the first day of our class? Why did you decide on those clothes?
-What kinds of conversations have you had with your roommates/suitemates? Are there any topics you are trying to avoid in these early days of living together? Why?
-Why did they select the seat they did for each class?
Faculty who teach other disciplines could easily adapt this idea of assigning students a brief task to do before class begins. Each of our disciplines have concepts which fascinates or confounds students—use one of them. Your goal is to get them thinking in the ways needed for your course.
How did I communicate with my class? Some learning management systems allow faculty to set up a “preview page”—this could go there. But that involves one large assumption—that students know how to navigate the learning management system well enough to find your course. I am not sure that is a safe assumption. But my institution did not turn on that tool.
I could have sent an email within the learning management system, but there again, it would require students to know how to log into the system and find our class. So I didn’t use that means of communication either.
But there were other available ways to contact students—I could have emailed the class via Banner (registration/registrar software). This was my chosen way of communicating with my soon-to-be student, but again, there was one problem: when to send the email. As we all know, registration ebbs and flows, sometimes considerably, in the few weeks before a term begins. I would keep a copy of the sent email and compare it to the class roster once a week before classes began. I would then send out another email, just to “new adds” from the week before. Even in a class as large as mine was, this took no more than half an hour, once a week. I was lucky though; changing enrollment was less problematic in my fall courses, because normally at least seventy-five percent of the students in my course were in learning communities with three required courses, one of which was Sociology. So these students were less likely to de-enroll in the course, because it would have meant changing 3 classes (or more), not just their Sociology course.
Some faculty share the course syllabus before the class begins. I often do that for upper division courses, but I feel that sharing it with first-year students can simply overwhelm them. I wanted to meet them, let them begin to see me as their cheerleader and a leader they can trust, before they see the complete syllabus. But that’s my choice; follow what you think is best for your incoming students.
What matters most is your tone. You want to communicate that your class will have a culture of inquiry, where questions are welcomed, and where intellectual curiosity is everyone’s responsibility, not just yours. Try not to focus on classroom rules–instead focus on what students will take from the class and why those are important concepts to be carried into their careers. So be open, friendly, and curious–about them and about your academic discipline.
So readers, do you communicate with your students before you actually meet them? If so, what are your goals? Let’s share pedagogical thoughts in the comments.
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