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by Elizabeth Wagenheim, Associate Professor, Language Studies

Syllabus, rules, policies… The first class meeting of the semester is a time to orient students to the course at hand. The first class meeting also establishes much of the tone for the course. We can use a variety of teaching activities that lend themselves to charting a good course for the semester. These techniques have proven successful for me in the past as ways to establish active learning and discover information about students, which allowed me to more fully engage them in the class.

Find Someone Who

Rationale: Find Someone Who promotes discussion and active learning by highlighting students’ prerequisite knowledge while bridging the gap between life experience and academic coursework. The information gleaned by the instructor about students’ past experiences allows the instructor to assess prior learning and provides the instructor with a stock of experiences from which to draw throughout the semester.

Format: This interactive activity is done "cocktail party style."

Special Features: Limited advanced preparation is needed; the activity can be done in a class of any size, provided the room has enough space for students to mix and mingle.

Materials: The main item is a handout for each student with a series of sentences that have the subject omitted.

Examples from a U.S. history course: __________________ has visited Gettysburg or another civil war battleground; ___________ has lived in both a northern and southern state.

Examples from a Spanish course: _______________ can name two Spanish holidays; _______________ has visited a Spanish speaking country; _________ can name the president of Mexico.

Procedure: I give students a copy of the handout. I then instruct the students to speak with one another in search of a student who meets the description of the sentence. When they find someone who meets that criterion, they write the classmate’s name and continue searching for students to complete the other sentences. The activity is over when one student has completed each sentence with classmates’ names. Once the class has reconvened as a group, I debrief the students by discussing pertinent information or topics featured on the handout.

Identity Chain

Rationale: While Identity Chain can be time consuming, it guarantees that students (and the instructor) will begin to learn classmates’ names, and provides the opportunity for the class to identify shared interests, questions, and experiences. It can also be used to bring to the forefront questions or issues pertaining to the course content or syllabus.

Format: This activity is done as a whole group, with students arranged in a circle (seated at desks or standing).

Special Features: No advanced preparation is needed. Because of the time factor, this activity works best with fewer than 15 students.

Materials: No materials are needed for this activity.

Procedure: With desks arranged in a circle, the student to my left begins. He is instructed to introduce himself (I ask for first names only) and give one piece of information (suggestions to follow). The student to his left repeats the first student’s name and information and adds his own. This continues so that each student has a longer list of names to recall, culminating with the last student in the circle. I put myself in the hot seat and repeat every student’s name and information. If a student encounters difficulty, I solicit help from classmates to provide the missing name/information before too much time has elapsed in order to minimize discomfort and maintain a fast pace.

The information that students provide about themselves provides valuable information about their past experiences, interests, or expectations about the course or course content. I have asked students to briefly remark on one skill or experience that they bring to the class, one expectation they have about the course, or one question that they hope will be answered this semester. I challenge students to think of a unique response, and I do not accept duplicate answers. If I ask for questions, I make a list of the questions asked and copy them for the students to keep in their notebooks and answer as they are addressed in the syllabus or lectures

What Do You Want to Know?

Rationale: Rather than merely distributing the syllabus and expecting students to absorb the pertinent information, this activity facilitates an active exchange between instructor and students about the course expectations, policies, and so on. It is student-led, and requires that students explore their own questions and expectations about the course. Additionally, it reinforces reading skills (skimming and scanning).

Format: It is an instructor-fronted, whole group activity, which is easily adapted to small group work.

Special features: No advanced preparation is needed. The instructor controls the amount of class time necessary.

Materials: A copy of the course syllabus for each student; a black or white board

Procedure: I pose the question, "What do you want to know about the course?" Students individually volunteer questions they have about the course requirements. I serve as a recorder, writing the questions on the board. As an alternative, I might ask a volunteer to record questions on the board while I solicit responses from each student. After the class has composed a comprehensive list, I distribute the syllabus. I then give students time to find the answers to as many questions as they can. A volunteer will then write the answers on the board. The syllabus may not directly address all of the questions, so I would use my discretion in answering the other questions.


Incorporating these types of activities early in the semester has helped me create a community of learners. Students engage each other in meaningful ways, and I have been able to tailor examples and explanations to the interests and experiences of students. In one class, students developed a sense of interrelatedness to the extent that they formed an informal weekly study group outside of class time. In another class, a student was struggling with the conventions of a process essay, choosing topics that required vocabulary and knowledge she did not possess. During peer editing, her classmates were able to guide her towards a topic that drew from her job experience. When I write practice exercises or test questions, it is possible for me to use a context that is pertinent and interesting to the students.

As a faculty member in the Language Studies department, I have the opportunity to learn from my colleagues’ best teaching practices as they are shared in our monthly department meeting "What Works" section. This issue of Instructional Forum presents an occasion to cross-pollinate with other disciplines. If you have questions or suggestions about these teaching ideas, please feel free to contact me at


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 19, No. 2

Spring 2004