Saturday, January 16, 2016

Those Important First Five Minutes

If you missed “Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class” in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, it’s worth checking out.  In the article, James Lang argues that rather than using up the first part of class with logistics (taking attendance, getting technology up and running, etc.) we should use that time to focus students’ attention and get them ready for learning.  He offers four suggestions:

  1. Open with a question or two that today’s class will answer (and perhaps return to that question at the end so that students can see how their understanding has changed);
  2. Have students talk about what went on in your last class (asking them to retrieve information places it more firmly in long-term memory);
  3. Reactivate what students learned in previous courses by asking them what they already know, or think they know, about the day’s topic (so that what you add can be fitted into their existing knowledge structure more easily);
  4. Have students write for 3 – 5 minutes on a question of your choosing (such as any recommended in items 1 - 3).

Lang claims that these kinds of short activities have major payoffs for students in terms of increased motivation, memory, and engagement.  Furthermore, they help teachers understand where students are at any given point, so that class instruction can be appropriately challenging, filling in foundational knowledge as needed and correcting any misconceptions that may be present.

I typically start by posting a list of the class objectives on the smartboard and asking if anyone has questions or additions, but my new year’s resolution, since reading this article, is to add at least one general discussion question to that list so that students know right from the start that they’ll be doing more than just listening passively to what I decided they should learn.

How about you?  I’d be interested in hearing what techniques you use to start your classes.  Any suggestions to share?

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