First impressions matter. And it can be hard to overcome a bad one. So it should come as no surprise that the first day of any class is crucial in laying a foundation for a productive semester. The first day of class presents an opportunity to accomplish several important things:
- Get to know the students and to let them get to know you. Let the students introduce themselves. And share your background with the class. It can help to establish credibility and let the students know where you’re coming from—both inside and outside of the classroom.
- Establish a supportive and encouraging learning environment. Demonstrate your own enthusiasm for the course and for teaching and working with students. Encourage students to ask questions and to come to office hours.
- Convey high—but achievable—standards. Let the students know that (a) you have high expectations, (b) they are capable of meeting them, and (c) you are ready, willing, and able to help. Studies have shown that such messages can improve student performance, particularly for minority students.
Despite your best intentions, though, the first day doesn’t always go as well as you’d hoped. Sometimes, frankly, it’s your fault; you forgot the necessary supplies, or you tried an ill-conceived joke that fell flat. Or maybe it was something beyond your control—the power went out or the projector crashed. Or maybe it was an issue with the students—a clash of personalities or unrealistic expectations.
But a bad first class doesn’t have to doom a whole semester. Psychology researchers and business leaders teach us that we can overcome bad first impressions by “present[ing] the perceiver with abundant, attention-getting evidence that they have the wrong idea about [us], over a long period of time.”
Academic studies in the higher education context offer a similar, hopeful message for law professors: first impressions matter, but students’ impressions can change as they gather more information about our abilities and methods. For example, a 2016 University of Michigan study tested the effects of first impressions on teaching evaluations by having students watch short video lectures and then evaluate the instructors. In half the videos, the instructors opened with approximately a minute of behavior designed to make a “good” or “bad” first impression. Then, the instructors went on to deliver either an organized and engaging lecture or an ineffective lecture. The results showed that while the bad first impressions did impact the students’ evaluations, the overall instructional quality of the lecture mattered much more. While the experiment considered only individual lectures, the researchers extrapolated their findings to the context of full semester, suggesting that “[c]onsistent good instruction throughout the term should be sufficient to overcome any negative impressions formed by a poor first class.”
So what to do if the first day doesn’t go as planned? There are some things you can do to maximize your chances of overcoming a bad first impression:
- Don’t panic. It’s perfectly natural to fret when things go poorly—especially on the first day. But while you may think it was a bad class, your students may not feel the same way. And even if they do, remember: you’ve got plenty of time to change their minds.
- Address the issue head-on—then move on. Offering a sincere apology or explanation for the bad first impression can be an effective way to start recovering. But excessive apologizing can magnify the gaffe or make you appear overly insecure. So keep your mea culpa short and sweet.
- Get in front of your students. Again, one of the keys to overcoming a bad first impression is repeated opportunities to change the other person’s mind. Fortunately, law school faculty get plenty of in-class access to their students. But anything you can do to get additional face-time also helps, whether through one-on-one meetings, lunches, or extracurricular activities.
- Be patient. Guidance from psychologists, business leaders, and academics is consistent on one point: while first impressions are formed quickly, overcoming a bad one takes time. But with sustained effort, reinforcing the correct impression you intended to leave, you can get things back on track and show students your true self.