Here’s what I do to get my class off to a great start.

I take three balloons into class, and with a very stern face, tell the students that we are not going to dive into the course content that day, but instead use the hour to find out about the course, and for me to find out about them.

First, I say, I’m going to find out a little about them by testing their “interactive and cooperative learning” abilities.  As I bat the first balloon into the crowd, I also tell them that as their motivation, if the balloon touches the ground, I will fail all of them for the course.  Then I throw out the second balloon, and then the third.  So we have a class full of students batting these balloons around for dear life, not sure whether or not my threat is serious, but afraid to let a balloon drop to see, and having a good time in the process.  If one of the balloons comes my way, I make sure to bat it back.  MESSAGE: They’re all in this together, and even the professor is here to help them achieve their goals in this course, and we’re all on the same team to accomplish this.

Once the balloons are going, I tell them “Now we’re going to test this ability with a little distraction.” Then I pop a rock concert video in the VCR.  I use the Rolling Stones’ song “Start Me Up.” So there we are, batting balloons around while Mick screams for dear life on the movie screen at the front of the room.  MESSAGE: The lyrics and music are theirs and mine; we can all relate!  This class is going to be different (translate: “more interesting”) in ways they never expected. UNEXPECTED MESSAGE: Our Education Professor tells me I am addressing all learning styles — auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile –as we listen to music, see the balloons, move to hit them, and whap them back up in the air (how about that?!).

After several minutes of this (while I pretend to be organizing my notes at the front of the room), the music fades; I tell them to hold the balloons, and ask if anyone has a younger sibling or a child at home.  When hands go up, I tell those students to take one of the balloons home and give it to them.  MESSAGE: This professor is aware of family, and that probably extends to students, as well.  EVEN BIGGER MESSAGE: Since the balloons have stayed up, our first test in the class is a great success!  And we did it together!  So within the first five minutes of the semester, we have created a sense of community that includes the entire class.

Now everyone is awake, happy, attentive, and ready to go through the syllabus.  Before we do, though, I tell them this is their chance to be a smart shopper.  If they went to McDonald’s and ordered a burger with nothing on it, and it came with mustard and onions, they would send it back and demand their money’s worth.  I tell them to look carefully at the syllabus, and since they are paying for the course, be sure they think it’s a worthwhile investment of their hard-earned tuition money.  MESSAGE: The professor isn’t so narrowly focused on his discipline that he overlooks the needs and desires of his students.  He also wants students to be responsible for their academic choices, instead of just blindly following college-issued advice.

With that done, I tell the students they have learned about the course, and now I’m going to learn a little more about them.  Again, with serious demeanor, I hand out an impossible trivia quiz.  I tell them it is an abbreviated IQ and informational awareness test.  I tell them to do their own work, do their best, and that I will look seriously at the results.

*Questions on the quiz are representative of most basic disciplines.

For example…

  • Math: What’s the numerical value of “pi”? 
  • Art: Who painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling?
  • Cinema history: What were Laurel and Hardy’s first names?
  • Anatomy: Where’s your uvula?
  • Current cinema: Who stars in a (currently playing) movie? 
  • World history: What event happened in 1588?
  • Civics: What did Rosa Parks do?
  • Chemistry: What’s the notation for common table salt?
  • Classical music: Arrange chronologically, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms.
  • Philosophy: Who came first, Socrates or Aristotle?
  • Literature: Who wrote Oliver Twist?
  • Geography: What river flows through Stratford-on-Avon?
  • Kiddy Lit: Who wrote Green Eggs and Ham?
  • Kid’s TV: Name 5 Muppets.

You get the drift. After about 30 questions, I always add:

  • What’s your favorite book?
  • What’s your favorite piece of music?
  • How much money would you have to have to call yourself rich?
  • What’s the most beautiful sight you’ve even seen?

There are no right answers to these last, to be sure, but they tell me volumes about the individual students, a lot more than having them fill out index cards with “Wutz-yer-favert-hobby?” type questions.

After they struggle with this quiz for about 15 minutes, I tell them to stop, and I ask, as though I expect many hands to go up, “How many of you got 100%?” No response. “One wrong?” Again, no response, as they nervously glance around the room to see if anyone was so brilliant. The best anyone does is about 50%, and they all feel some distress at my expectations.

Then I tell them I seem to be getting vibes that they didn’t do so well.  However, since this is the first impression they’ll make on the professor, I’ll put them in groups to try to figure out more answers and get a higher score. The groups are counted off from front to back, never across the rows, which eliminates friends being grouped with friends, and forces interaction with other students they do not know. They also reconnect with fellow balloon batters.

Since they are still concerned about doing well on the quiz, they begin to interact immediately.  As they help each other, I roam from group to group and ask them which questions have their whole group baffled.  I never give explicit answers, but give “hints” that point them to the answer.  For example, if they don’t know what river flows through Stratford-on-Avon, I tell them that many proper names in England are very literal.  Thus, ” Oxford ” is a shallow place where an “ox” could “ford” the river, ” Cambridge ” is where there’s a “bridge” over the river ” Cam ,” and thus….  Invariably, someone gets it.  To be sure their interaction is reinforced, I then say “Be sure everyone in your group hears.”

When they seem to have most of the answers, I call them back to their original seats.  We then grade the quiz, each student on her/his honor to grade their own quiz honestly.  As I read each question, they call out the correct answers.  After the grading is completed, I ask, “How many of your grades improved due to your group work?” They all raise their hand.  “What’s that tell you?” After a pause, I say, “That you have valuable learning resources all around you in class.  Everyone here can teach us something.” MESSAGE: Working and studying together can only help you.

“How many of your groups benefited from the professor’s comments?” I continue.  They all raise a hand.  “What does this teach you?” A pause. “Remember, I didn’t give anyone any exact answers.  I gave you little nudges that started you thinking in a critical and analytical way, that led you to discover the answers for yourselves.” MESSAGE: An excellent confidence booster, which many of them need.  “Hey, we already possess the faculties of critical thought we need to be good students, and look what logical reasoning can do!”

“What else did that teach you?” Another pause. “That your professor isn’t out to flunk you, but is on the same side as you, and wants you to learn, and wants to help you learn.” Looks of dumfounded awe. MESSAGE: We all belong to this little scholarly community we’ve just created.  We’re all working toward the same goals.

This about finishes up the first class.  Instead of rolling eyes and thoughts of a long semester of impending boredom, my students now leave with some important ideas about our course and a sense of family.  They look forward to coming back and being part of a community of learners, all attuned to the same goals, and willing to help one another in that effort.

–Gary Owens, Faculty, Philosophy and Religion, Harford Community College, MD

Forum Image OptionStarting your Course with a Bang! Forum