Get off on the right foot with a new class

These tips can help you and your students get to know one another and let them know what is expected.

August 11, 2015

Often, the first few days of a new class set the tone for the rest of the semester. It’s important to get off on the right foot with students and give them an accurate impression of your teaching persona, methods, and expectations. If students don’t know what to expect from your class, they may decide to drop it when it could be useful to them, or continue to take it when it isn’t right for them. Considering some key questions before the semester starts may help you and your students have a more productive term: Should you devote the first day to laying down the ground rules or dive right into the work? How do you set the proper tone and make your expectations clear? What’s the best way to break the ice with a new group of students?

Your answers to these questions will depend, in part, on how long you’ve been teaching. Less-experienced professors may want to establish their authority early on. New professor Dereck Barr-Pulliam, CPA, Ph.D., said that his youth sometimes throws students off. “I won’t say students don’t respect your authority, but they often feel like, ‘He’s the same age as me, so maybe I don’t have to call him Professor,’ ” said Barr-Pulliam, who just completed his first year as an assistant professor of Accounting & Information Systems at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He builds credibility by talking about his work experience and academic background, which includes teaching four out of five years in his Ph.D. program, in the first days of a new semester.

Veteran professor Martha Eining, CPA, Ph.D., on the other hand, ensures that students know about her practitioner experience. Eining, a professor and director of the School of Accounting at the University of Utah, tells her students about doing audits for Grant Thornton International during a 2008–09 sabbatical where she served as the firm’s first National Professor in Residence. As she’s been a faculty member for a long time, she said, mentioning her auditing experience gives her “recent credibility.”

Here are some more tips for starting your semester off right:

Let students know what to expect right away. This is doubly important when you teach a particularly challenging subject. Lynda Dennis, CPA, Ph.D., a lecturer of accounting at the University of Central Florida, makes sure students know her Government and Nonprofit Accounting class will be a tough one. “One of the things I tell them on the first day of class is, ‘Those of you who are super accounting students, who make A’s—you’re going to struggle, because this is so different from what we’ve been teaching you for the past three years,’ ” she said.

Decide how to handle the syllabus. Your approach to the syllabus should be in line with your teaching persona. Eining, for example, no longer focuses on the syllabus and class rules at the beginning of the semester. She feels that doing so gave students the impression that her classes were “going to be a very structured, rule-oriented, sort of staid environment.” Since she began jumping into case work on the first day, “students feel much more comfortable asking questions, commenting, and interacting,” she said.

Barr-Pulliam, on the other hand, prefers to emphasize the syllabus in the first few class sessions. “I find that when I spend more time upfront really highlighting what my expectations are and giving students an opportunity to ask questions at the beginning, then they can avoid a lot of heartache later on,” he said.

Give real-world examples. It may be useful to give students a sample of what they’re in for, especially if you teach a subject they may be unfamiliar with. Dennis kicks off her Government and Nonprofit Accounting class by showing students what a set of government financial statements looks like. “It’s really different for them, because the statements are about 180 pages long,” she said. “They’re not used to seeing that long of a financial statement.” She also gets her students’ attention by explaining that knowledge of such materials is necessary to pass the CPA exam.

Break the ice. In smaller classes, however, icebreakers can be a good way to get students to make personal connections. Eining’s class typically contains about 30 to 45 students, which she divides into teams of five or six people. She asks them to tell their teammates something about themselves, such as their favorite movie, or a fact that doesn’t appear on their résumé.

Barr-Pulliam asks students to complete a profile on the first day of class as a way to help him remember and get to know them. He asks about their hometowns, majors, course expectations, career goals, hobbies, favorite sports, and favorite songs and artists. Then he looks for ways to connect lyrics from students’ favorite songs with his class’s subject matter. For instance, he finds that students frequently get confused about where to put a balance in a T account, so he uses a snippet of a Beyoncé song, “Irreplaceable,” as a mnemonic. The song begins with the lyric, “To the left, to the left / Everything you own in the box to the left.” Barr-Pulliam tells students to put assets—“things that you own”—on the left side of the T account.

Assign a first-day project. Eining likes to start off her Fraud Examination and Forensic Accounting class with a bang. She has her students compete on a case in class the first day to get them engaged in a “fun and interesting” activity right away. The case involves “a situation where they could be tempted to commit fraud,” she said. Their assignment is “to come up with the best possible way they could commit fraud and not get caught.” This twist helps students get excited about the subject matter. “I tell them this is not a how-to class,” Eining wryly noted, “but that in order to combat fraud you have to understand how it can be done.”

Eddie Huffman is a Burlington, N.C.-based freelance writer.