The Five Minutes BEFORE Class Begins

Steve Volk, October 12, 2018 (First published on February 1, 2016)


Michael Ayrton illustration (Radio Times, January 24, 1947)

In early 2016, 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).

Medieval scribe Jean Miélot (AKA Jehan), , ca. mid 1400s. Image published: 1885.

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. Continue reading