Reflection and the First Week of Classes

Steve Volk, August 23, 2015 (edited, augmented, and revised from Jan 31, 2014)

One of the things that I most enjoy about a life in teaching is the semi-annual prospect it provides to start anew. Whether we follow through on them or not, the resolutions we make at the start of each new semester offer an opportunity to reflect on what went well and what went pear-shaped during the last semester, as well as a chance to institute some changes to address the shortcomings.


Pete Seeger, 1964 anon for BBC Tonight In Person. Carl Guderian, CC-Flickr

There’s a boat-load of hopefulness built into this semi-annual reset button, and I was reminded of the importance of this when reading the 2014 obituary of Pete Seeger, a personal hero who visited Oberlin many times during his long career. “The key to the future of the world,” he observed in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” This doesn’t feel much like a time for optimism, but I’ve long believed that to be a teacher is in its essence to be an optimist. I’m not sure what we’re about if not preparing our students to take ownership of their learning and craft their own lives, so as to make a better future for themselves, their communities, and the world we inhabit. And that is an act of optimism.

So, how to begin…again? I often post “first-week-of-the-semester” advice at the start of the semester, and clicking back to some of them now might provide some ideas. For example, how to make plans now to manage the stress you know is coming; how to create an inclusive classroom in which all of our students can listen to and hear each other in the midst of very difficult conversations; or how to create an active learning environment in your classroom.

First-Day-VideoA few years ago I prepared a short (10 min.) video on the First Week of Classes, and although a few points are dated, you still might find some good advice there.

While thinking of what to say in this article, I awoke to something this morning in one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, and it struck me as immensely useful as we prepare our classes. Popova was writing about the artist, Louise Bourgeois, whose massive spider sculptures (among her many spectacular creations) caught my attention some years ago. In a 1938 letter Bourgeois advised her friend and fellow artist, Colette Richarme, that “You must put the essence of what you want to say into a painting. The rest is arbitrary. Chosen with discernment, but chosen, and choice involves elimination. Once the drawing is established and composed, you compose the other values in the same way.” Not a bad bit of advice about teaching: we try to put the essence of what we need (not want) to teach into the course, and that always involves elimination. We choose with discernment,  but we have to put the essence of what we want to say into our classes.


Louise Bourgeois. Photo by Topyti, “Shadow of a Doubt,” CC-Flickr

Expectations and Reflection

So, returning to the first week of classes, here’s a suggestion. Sometime during the first week of classes, hand out an “Expectations Reflection Paper.” Many of us do this, or engage in a similar exercise, both to help students think about their expectations for themselves and the course and for us to learn more about them (and what they think they have signed up for. It can be a sobering experience to realize that their expectations and your syllabus aren’t in any particular alignment.)

You can set aside some time in the class for students to respond to the assignment; I have them work on the assignment outside of class. they are required to turn it in at the start of the next class. Some faculty ask students to put their names on the assignment, others explicitly don’t. If you want to use the exercise as a way to get to know your students, you’ll need to know who authored the papers.

I always have them put their names on the paper, and make the reflection paper a course requirement, for another reason. I collect and read the reflections at the start of the semester and then hand them back to the students at the end of the semester. This time I ask them to think about what they wrote earlier and to reflect on what they feel they have accomplished, where their expectations might have fallen short, and what they learned about their own learning in the process.


Mimo Paladino, illustration for 1998 folio edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

What to ask? Here are some starting ideas:

  • Why are you interested in this subject, or what prompted you to take this class? (Don’t be afraid to admit that you need it to fulfill a requirement.)
  • Have you taken other courses in this area or have you had other experiences (in classes or outside of the classroom) that you think are relevant?
  • What content knowledge do you hope to gain by taking this class?
  • What skills do you hope to gain by taking this class?
  • How do you learn the best? Formal lectures, class discussions, small group discussions, readings, assignments, practical engagement, group work, other?
  • Do you know of anything that might get in the way of your full participation in this class and which you can disclose? For example: Is this a particularly busy semester for you? Health issues? Family issues? Part-time work? Worries about your community or events in the world beyond the college? Lack of particular skills? Shyness? Please list anything that you feel comfortable listing, anything you think I can help with or should be paying attention to.
  • Do you have any particular worries about this class that derive from these concerns? Anything about the reputation of the class or what you have heard from other students?
  • What can you tell me that can help me remember you? (E.g., “I’m the one with pink hair who loves Bach and always sits in the back row.”)
  • In this class, do you expect to work more, less, or the same amount as in other courses?
  • Are you doing anything else this semester (or in general) that relates to or corresponds with the subject of this course (either in terms of what you are studying or things that you are doing outside of your classes)?

Finally, there are two questions that I always include:

  • What one thing can I do to help your learning in this class?
  • What one thing can YOU do to help your learning in this class?

Do you have other suggestions? Send them along.

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