Review of Chapter 5 (“The First Class”) in Davidson and Katopodis’s The New College Classroom

Partway through Chapter 5, Davidson and Katopodis offer a straightforward statement that functions as a double-reminder to classroom instructors. They write, “Effective learning isn’t magic—and it’s not the same for everyone” (p. 103), which reminds instructors that (1) students come to class with a range of learning styles and experiences, and (2) there is more than one way to kick off a semester. This chapter succinctly and successfully helps instructors rethink the default first-day lesson plan that all too often encompasses little more than an item-by-item walkthrough of the syllabus.

The authors break the chapter into five sections:

  • Activities for Engaging Students with the Syllabus,
  • Introduce Yourselves as Cocreators,
  • The First Assignment: An Evolving Résumé,
  • Critical Reflection, and
  • Transform Institutional Policies into a Class Constitution,

each of which provides ready-made options for day-one instruction that can be modified for almost any course subject.

The first section—“Activities for Engaging Students with the Syllabus”—includes five activities whose prep times range from 5–10 minutes to 2–3 hours. The Collaborative Annotation activity is particularly useful for instructors whose students are new to higher education and/or taking the class remotely, as it allows for an immediate introduction to collaborative skills and tools. This activity also has some built-in flexibility, as it can be performed by the instructor as students observe, by students on an individual basis, and/or in small groups.

The activities described in the second and third sections—”Introduce Yourselves as Cocreators” and “The First Assignment: An Evolving Résumé”—are practical exercises that ask students to recognize skills they possess upon entering the course and to recognize how those skills translate into contexts beyond it. The suggestions in this portion of the chapter have the added benefit of demonstrating to students how the course itself (and its instructor) fits into the wider context of their academic and professional trajectories.

The fourth section—“Critical Reflection”—is perhaps the strongest, both because it leans most heavily on the science of learning and because it includes activities that can be performed at various points throughout the semester and beyond. Building on notions of the flipped classroom, this section pushes instructors to take time to show the method to their proverbial madness. Among other techniques, the authors show how this can be done through (1) explaining why instruction is constructed as it is, (2) ensuring students practice metacognitive, and/or (3)  engaging students as leaders in the classroom.

The fifth and final section—“Transform Institutional Policies into a Class Constitution”—is the most extensive, to the point that it is difficult to imagine being able to accomplish the task in a single session. That being said, this final section does advocate for inclusivity that all instructors should seek to establish and maintain. Of special import is the accessibility that can be achieved when instructors walk students through the academic “legalese” that pervades university-level policy descriptions. Though it may take the most time and effort, the principles in this section appear fully able to assist instructors seeking to guide students away from paradigms that see the course as prescriptive and punitive and toward paradigms that recognize it as empathetic and equitable.

Chapter 5 of The New Classroom is replete with interesting and effective ideas for instructors at all experience levels. In it, Davidson and Katopodis provide an impressive array of both high-level conceptual approaches and plug-and-play activities which will immerse students and instructors in the course from (and on) day one.