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Search the Web for "first day of class activities" and what you'll find are a lot of gimmicks: long lists of icebreakers and all manner of unusual and goofy ways to get students to read the syllabus. Most of the suggestions take for granted that teachers need to try to "hook" students on the first day. We've got a few of these tips on Pedagogy Unbound, including a suggestion that you block off the back row of seats with caution tape (to get students to think about why they gravitate to the back of the classroom).
In fact, there are good reasons why teachers may want to begin with activities that differ widely from the tone of the rest of the semester. For one, students have a lot on their plates in the first week, with up to five new courses to attend, so diving right into the material may feel like giving them more than they can handle. Something fun that gets them comfortable with their classmates and the teacher is a gentler beginning.
Second, instructors want to get students interested and excited for the course, and convince the uncertain ones not to drop it. Just like you might begin a conference paper with a humorous anecdote or quotation to spark your listeners' interest, a gimmicky activity in the first class starts things off on a memorable note, priming students for the more serious and rigorous class periods to follow.
Not wanting to be left out, I've got a first-day gimmick of my own to share with you. As with all teaching tips, you may not want to use this one exactly as I describe it, but I hope it inspires you to craft your own version.
My advice: On the first day of class this term, teach the last day of class.
Wait, stay with me. When your students file in to class for the first time, act as if you've seen them all before, every week, for the previous 15 weeks. Turn around and write December 7, 2014, (or whatever the date of your last class session) on the board, along with the main concepts that your exam will cover. And then launch into it: Start summing up the course, exactly as you would on the last day of term. Review the important ideas that the course will have covered. Refer frequently to exciting details that the students would surely remember. Let them know what they should study if they want to do well on the exam. Make a point of reminding them that this is stuff they should know, that you've gone over it before (you want them to get the joke).
How long you can keep up this charade is going to vary according to your temperament and how game your students are. But try to do it for at least 10 minutes before breaking character. The idea is certainly a gimmick, designed to be a memorable and disarming start to the course, drawing students in with an initial mystery: What's going on here? But it's more than just silliness. It starts off class exactly how you should be starting off class--by thinking about, and encouraging students to think about, the desired outcomes of the course.
Before the first class, spend some time thinking about how you'd like the last class to go. Ideally, what will your students have learned by the end of the semester? What will they be able to do? If everything goes as planned, how will you conclude the course? By beginning at the end, even as a joke, you remind students that they're not in class just to get course credit. There are clear course objectives, a destination you're all traveling toward. Use this approach and you'll start planting answers in your students' heads to the most important question they'll have on the first day: What's the point?
After you end the playacting, use the rest of the class period (or most of it; you'll want to cover the syllabus at some point) to build on the exercise and start a class discussion about the course, its objectives, and what students are expecting from it. This last item is not unimportant.
Understanding what students hope to get from the course can help you tailor it further (or help you nip any wild misconceptions in the bud). You can explain that you have very specific things in mind that you'd like the students to be able to do at the end of the term, and that you've constructed the course as a way to help them get there. If you have enough time to prepare it, you could even leave students with an exam-prep handout; they can refer to it throughout the term to remind themselves what they'll be expected to know and do by the end of the semester.
I understand if some of you resist the idea of starting the semester in August by pretending it's December. That may be a little too theatrical for some teachers' sensibilities. But however you adapt this idea, I think we should all consider giving our students a sneak preview on Day 1 of the end of term. It lets them know that we've thought through what the course is all about, that we care about what they get out of the course, and that we have specific expectations. And if that doesn't work, you can just hand out candy and send them home early.