This semester on the blog Tuesday will be “TeachBetterTuesday” or TBT. I will be posting articles focused on getting the most out of your teaching by focusing on new approaches and student-centered instruction, as well as looking for areas to improve my own teaching. I’ll begin this series by sharing my approach to the most important day of the semester: the first day of class.
On the first day of class, especially in a developmental math class, our students are full of fear and anxiety. They feel that math is their worst subject and it’s beyond their reach. They know few, if any, of their classmates. This is not the time to start lecturing. This is the time to start building a community of learners!
My First Day of Class
I do not lecture on the first day of class. (As a rule, I teach classes that meet 4 times a week for 50 minutes at a time.) I start in a pretty traditional way – I take roll, read through the syllabus, and make sure that everyone understands how the class will go. Then I give my students a survey that allows me to collect information about them. Most of the questions are designed to help the students understand their strengths and weaknesses, and alert them to future potential problems such as working full-time while taking 18 units and taking care of 3 children. (If you would like a copy of my survey, just let me know.) I also ask my students to tell me something that is special or unique about them – it’s a great way to show your students that you are truly interested in them (and their success).
Once the surveys are complete I form groups of 4, giving each group a folder. I ask each group to share their stories with each other, including their response to the special/unique prompt. I then ask them to put their names on the front of the folder and to come up with a group name. It may sound a little juvenile, but it really encourages students to talk to each other. Some groups will sit there and stare at each other, but when I let them know that I will name their group and that they will most definitely not like the name I choose they start talking.
I use these folders to take roll during the semester and find that it really helps me to learn my students’ names quickly. I also refer to their surveys as I take roll, so I get to know them.
The goal here is to get students to be comfortable with at least 3 other students in the class. As I figure it, connection to classmates leads to a connection with the class as a whole, which hopefully leads to a connection with me and the material.
Developing a Growth Mindset
I think there is no better time for starting students on the path to developing a growth mindset than the first day. I mention that there is no such thing as a math person or a non-math person, that there is more than one way to solve most math problems, that speed is not important, that making mistakes grows our brains, … I give students a 4-question assignment to work on the first night and bring back with them that shows how a growth mindset is powerful for math students. If you’d like a copy of my questions, just let me know in the comments.
Once students are in my course management system (I typically use MyLab from Pearson) I send links to some of Jo Boaler’s TED talks as well as Carol Dweck’s TED talk.
Other First Day of Class Activities
At the developmental level, it should be no surprise that many of the students have feelings of anxiety related to math. Here are two activities that I have used on the first day of class to help students deal with these feelings.
“A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words”
One fun activity that I enjoy is asking my students to draw a picture of a mathematician. I see lots of pictures of little bodies and big heads, some glasses, some pocket protectors, and some crazy Einstein hair. (I have an ex-colleague that does this activity, and once he had a couple of students draw wizards – math is so “magical”!) The pictures rarely look like any of the students in the room.
Students feel that anyone who understands math is some sort of super-genius. There is a giant wall in front of them that leaves math inaccessible to them. I explain that any student who is willing to devote the time, effort, and thought to learn mathematics can do it. And I’m here to help them. I tell them that if they want to see what a mathematician looks like then they should check out the mirror when they get home.
Positive outcomes: Students realize that math can be accessible to them.
“Tell Me Your Strengths And Weaknesses”
Near the end of the Day One survey, I ask my students to give me 3 reasons why they will pass this class. Basically, I am asking my students to list their strengths because I want them to acknowledge that they have student and/or personality traits that can help them be successful regardless of the arena.
I also prompt my students to finish the following statement “If somehow I do not pass this class, it will most likely be because …” Here I am asking my students to identify what they feel is their greatest weakness as a math student. The thought is that the best way to overcome a weakness is to begin by identifying that weakness. I read over the surveys that night, and on the second day of class, I go over coping strategies for overcoming these weaknesses. Students at the developmental level have little experience with developing coping strategies, but once this is modeled for them they are more likely to be able to do this for themselves.
Positive Outcomes: Students realize that they have their own strengths, as well as plans to overcome any perceived shortcomings.
What is your Day one like? Do you have something unique that you would like to share? Do you help your students develop a growth mindset? I encourage you to leave a comment on this blog.
Day one is a great opportunity to break down student misconceptions about math and mathematicians, for students to realize that they are not alone in their struggles and that there is a path to success if they choose to take it. Take the opportunity to show your students that this class will be different than their previous math classes. The activities I have shared are great ways to alleviate some of the anxiety our students feel. Give them a try, and let me know how it goes. If you have any activities of your own, please share them with me by leaving a comment.
Finally, if there is a topic you’d like to see addressed in a TeachBetterTuesday post, please let me know through a comment or by reaching out to me on Twitter.