Steve Volk, February 1, 2016
Early last month, James Lang, an English professor at Assumption College and a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote a lovely piece on how to best use the first five minutes of class. In it he argued that, much like the opening sentence of a novel (“Call me Ishmael!”), how you begin your class can make a difference in your ability to capture and hold student interest. (We can push this even further and paraphrase Tolstoy by noting that “Happy classes are all alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own way!”) In any case, I couldn’t agree more. Instead of the basic kinds of housekeeping that often take up the start of a class, think about saving those for later and launching the class in a more engaging way. Among Lang’s suggestions:
- Open with questions (on a slide, the board, or just spoken) that point to the heart of what it is you want the students to engage with in that class. What are the questions that students should be able to answer by the end of the class?
- Ask them to review the material covered in the last class: What were the main points? What key things were learned? Have them answer without consulting their notes, from memory. This kind of exercise helps spur the “retrieval effect”: if we want to remember something, we have to practice. Frequent, low-stakes quizzes can do the same thing.
- Ask them what they already know about the topic you are going to be examining in the day’s class. It is important to know if they have any misconceptions so that they can be addressed (or, alternatively, if you need to pitch the class at a higher level).
To these I would emphasize another point that Lang mentions: have students write down answers to these early questions. If you begin with a questions that is too broad or complex, you’ll often get few answers or, more likely, the same students will answer each time. Try questions that are easier to address and give the students a minute or two to write their answers. This allows you to begin the class by calling on students who don’t often speak in class and encourages them to prepare for the class by doing the reading.
The Five Minutes Before Class
Besides what Lang has suggested, I would argue equally that the first five minutes before class are just as important. A bit of background: I’ve come to the realization that there are basically only two kinds of people in the world: those who get to the airport ridiculously early, and those who arrive when the plane is already boarding. I’m in the first category and I’ve stopped fighting it (or, I should say that my travel companions have stopped fighting it). I’m like that in everything, from arriving at movies (who doesn’t enjoy watching the 20 minutes of commercial nonsense they screen before they start the 20 minutes of previews before they start the film?), to going to parties, to getting to class.
From my earliest teaching days I have arrived at class early (and since I often teach the first class in the morning or at night, that usually means 10-15 minutes early). I used to think it was a matter of courtesy to the students to be able to start on time even though I went to school under the “old rules” regime: you wait 5 minutes for an assistant professor, 10 for an associate professor, 15 for a full professor before it’s OK to leave. (I knew they rules even though I had no idea what those terms meant and which category my current teachers inhabited. Do students still do this?)
What has changed over time is what I do with those before-class minutes. Part of this is technology driven: there is probably no quicker way to lose a class than spending the first five minutes trying to get your slides to appear or the video clip to play, so it’s good to get there ahead of time to set up. (And if something fatal with the projector has occurred, it still gives you a bit of time to get AV to rushing over before all is lost.)
But once your technology is set up, I’ve found that few remaining minutes are incredibly useful for establishing the proper environment for the class. Whether you are lecturing or leading a discussion, the room needs to be “warmed up,” to feel lived in, and the best way to do that is to get people talking: to each other or to you. If the room remains quiet before the start of class, the chances are that students will be more reluctant to speak, less likely to engage in discussion or answer questions. I have no particular data on this that can confirm this thesis – I just know it to be the case from years of observing my own classes and those of others. The more lively the class is before its formal beginning, the more participation you’re likely to generate during the class.
This most often occurs naturally as students get to know each other and feel more comfortable in the setting – and often the problem is how to settle them down in order to start the class. Sometimes students will use the time to ask you questions or to clarify assignments or issues, which is often better done before the class begins rather than at the end when they’re running off. But you can also engage the discussion by asking them how they are, what they did over the weekend, if they saw the film showing at the Apollo, or attended some lecture you had recommended. If there was a speaker on campus or a film or performance particularly appropriate for that class, you can ask them what they thought and link it in to the beginning of class. All of this can help prepare your students for the class about to begin.
My own trick for creating the right atmosphere (and getting the students away from their individual worlds) is easy enough: I play music, usually themed to the particular class. I’ll put together a short playlist of songs or other music (which I’ll credit on the first slide) which they hear as they come in. (My entire play list, which I give out at the end of the semester, is probably the most popular handout of the course.) Not only does it “warm” the room, but it also encourages some students get to class early, and others to remove their individual headsets/earbuds and become part of the larger group. (It’s also a great way to have students contribute their own favorites.) And — added benefit — it gets me up for class. It’s 9:00 AM, I’ve been up for a while: what better than Calle 13 or Astor Pizzolla to get me ready to teach!
Music is also a fine way to transition into the class: toggle the volume down, greet your students, and you’re ready to start your “First Five Minutes” of class!
Do you have other ways to prepare your students for the beginning of class? Share them with us.