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The First Day

Managing nervousness | Breaking the ice | Setting the atmosphere


Managing nervousness

Your first tutorial or demonstration is important; as with most encounters in life, first impressions count. This is as true for new tutors and demonstrators when meeting students as it is for an employer meeting a prospective job applicant. But the first tutorial/demonstration is often the time that you may feel most unsure or even, nervous. There are however strategies that can pre-empt those feelings and ensure that you start strongly and positively:

  • Prepare – careful preparation ahead of your first tutorial/demonstration will minimize the unexpected. You may even consider drafting a lesson plan where you really think through the structure of the various components, the flow of the session, and the timing. (Link to Preparing to Teach)
  • Practice, practice, practice – good teaching has a performative element, and tutors benefit from practice. You might like to think of having a cognitive dress rehearsal in anticipation of the first class. Imagine yourself moving through each part of your plan, hearing yourself greeting the students, or leading them in a short ice-breaker. The more you practice before teaching, the more familiar you are with the things you are planning to do, and therefore the more confident you feel and look when entering into the classroom.
  • Be early – arrive at the timetabled room or lab a few minutes earlier to ensure that the room is set up as you would like it. It also affords you time before you commence with the class to welcome individual students as they arrive and chat more informally with them. This will make you and your students more comfortable with each other.
  • Plan an activity – often our nervousness or discomfort is about the thought of an unfamiliar group or class looking at us. Plan a short activity where students get an opportunity to talk to each other first. This ensures that their attention is on the task, and each other rather than you. 
  • Teaching as conversation – you might like to consider the use of conversational rather than formalized style in your teaching. Conversations tend to be more naturally engaging than say, a formal presentation. So imagine that you are having a conversation with students, you will feel your body relax, and your voice sound more natural.

Breaking the ice

For many new tutors/demonstrators the prospect of meeting the students for the first time can be a little daunting. Your students too may be feeling the same about meeting you for the first time. Follow these simple strategies and you will have the beginnings of a good relationship with your students:

First, introduce yourself and say something about your area of study. Tell your students what you find genuinely interesting about this course and what your other interests are. If you are enthusiastic about the subject and the field of study, chances are your students will also feel more positively predisposed to the subject area. 

Let your students know what you want them to call you. Help them to learn your name by writing it down on the whiteboard on the first day and putting it down on the PowerPoint for your lessons.

Provide an opportunity for students to introduce themselves briefly, in pairs or in groups. Encourage them to use each other’s name as soon as possible. You may even have them place their preferred name on a name card [folded A4 piece of paper], or on a self adhesive label. It does not really matter how. The point is that getting to know your students by name is a really important part of cultivating a positive rapport with them.

You might want to use one of our Top 5 ice-breakers, guaranteed to take the chill out of any small group!!

  1. Two Truths and a Lie Divide the class into groups of four. On a sheet of paper, have the students write down two truths about themselves and one lie (not too strange). Then each group member takes turns to share their truths and lie and have the other members to guess which one wasn’t true. Students, after the guess, may explain briefly the truths about themselves.
  2. Fabulous Flag Ask your students to take out a sheet of paper, colored pens/pencils, colored markers, or crayons (if available). Explain to them that the activity is for them to design their own flag using symbols or objects that symbolize who they are or what they find enjoyable or important. Allow students 10 to 15 minutes to draw. Then divide them into groups and get them to share and explain what their flag means.
  3. Expectations Divide your students into small groups of four or five. Have them 1) introduce themselves; 2) share their expectations of the course; and 3) add a wild prediction of the best possible outcome should their expectations be met. Encourage the students to be as specific, or as silly or fun if you want, as possible.
  4. Four Corners Give each student a sheet of paper. Students divide the sheet into four boxes/squares by folding the paper in half twice or by drawing a horizontal and vertical line in the middle. Give students four topics, for example, ‘hobbies’, ‘favorite place(s) for vacation’, ‘most important thing in life’, and ‘one thing you like about the subject (field)’. Ask students to put down one topic in one box/square in either clockwise or anti-clockwise order, and then respond to the topics in the form of drawing. Encourage students to be as creative, hypothetical, or deep as possible. When everyone is finished, divide them in groups and get them to share their drawings. This icebreaker is an excellent way for students to show-and-tell what makes them unique!
  5. Unique and Shared Get your students to form groups of four or five. The first half of the activity is the ‘Shared’ part. Students discuss to find out 5 (or as many as possible) common traits or qualities that members of the group share. Avoid things that are immediately obvious (e.g., everyone has hair, is an undergraduate student at HKU, etc.). Encourage students to dig deep. Allow about five or six minutes and then have a spokesperson from each group to report the list of common traits.

    The second half of the activity is the ‘Unique’ part. Students, staying in same groups or rearranging into new groups, discuss and find out traits or qualities that are unique only to one person in the group. Encourage students to strive for things that are deep and unobvious. When time is up, have a spokesperson read a quality one at a time, and have the other groups to guess who it was. Student whose quality or trait is mentioned then briefly explain what that means.

Setting the atmosphere

What kind of tutorial or demonstration would you like to create? If you imagine, and we encourage you to do so, that your tutorial/demonstration is going to be supportive, fun, lively and intellectually engaging, then you need to start thinking about how you can create such an environment. Here are a few ways that you might consider:

Capture your students’ interest   –   start strongly and in a manner that motivates students’ interest in the course. For example you might want to tell a story relevant to the subject area; present a visual/graphic organiser for the course that allows students to see the whole picture; survey (or get students to brainstorm) real-world applications for subject topics; or give a real-world, open-ended problem that requires course-related knowledge to solve and have students work in groups to generate ideas for solving it.

Establish expectations – Establish your expectations, as well as theirs, for the tutorials/demonstrations on the first day. This is particularly the case for first year courses as students will be new to university learning environments, and may be unsure of what is expected of them, and what to expect. So make the expectations and roles clear: e.g., you expect them to participate in discussions, to ask questions, to engage in small group work etc. You may also want to address some or all the following: approaches to teaching, role of tutorials in relation to lectures, preparation expected from students, and attendance.

Model the kind of tutorial/demonstration you want – as early as the first tutorial or demonstration, students will decide how and to what extent they will participate, so the first tutorial is a good place to start modelling the kind of tutorial you want and incorporate from the start the kinds of learning activities you want your students to participate in. For example if you want your tutorials to be highly interactive, with students working collaboratively you might want to include an activity where students work in 2’s or 3’s. Another strategy to promote interactive tutorials is to allow students to reflect upon the material learnt in lectures or readings through questions from you and themselves. For example, you may first ask a couple of thought-provoking questions to start the discussion. “What’, “how”, “why”, “what if” types of questions are more powerful than “yes/no” questions, or more descriptive questions such as “which”, “who”, and “when”. Then, you may invite questions from students or get them in groups and give them chances to ask each other questions (see Questioning techniques).

Create a supportive learning environment and establish a good rapport with students   –   let students know clearly how (e.g., phone number, e-mail address), when (office hours) and where (office location) to contact you. Specify your policy for replying to emails, your policy for outside-office-hour meetings and any hours when you do not want to be contacted.