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Teaching Tip: Class Openers

“Beatrice Pym died because she missed the last bus to Ipswich.” It’s a great opener, one of my favorite first lines in literature (from Daniel Silva’s The Unlikely Spy).

We know that first impressions matter. It’s also likely that students are will enter our classrooms distracted by everything from their latest text messages to difficulties in finding a parking space on campus. Classroom openings matter; they “offer us a rich opportunity to capture the attention of students and prepare them for learning” (James Lang).

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published James Lang’s brief but helpful article titled “Small Changes in Teaching: The First Five Minutes.” The essay offers practical strategies for focusing students' attention at the start of class. The suggested class-opening activities are easy to implement and can significantly increase student engagement and retention of key concepts. From reactivating previous learning to using short, low-stakes writing assignments, there's something here for everyone. Here are excerpts from the article:

  • Open with questions that frame discussion. For example, write four or five questions on the board or show them on a slide. The class proceeds as normal, but at the end returns to the questions for application and discussion.
  • Ask students to identify key concepts learned in the last class. Request that students remind you of key points from the previous class meeting. This not only gives students practice at retrieving knowledge, but works as a natural transition for new learning.
  • Activate students’ prior learning. You might start by introducing a new concept and asking students what they already know about it, what they’ve learned in other classes, or what they’ve heard in the media.
  • Use writing as a tool for learning. Ask students to write their responses to any of the above prompts. Limit writing time to three-to-five minutes and use responses to begin discussion.

Submitted by:
Dr. Connie Ruzich
University Professor of English and Coordinator of Innovative Teaching
Robert Morris University
6001 University Blvd
Moon Twp, PA 15108
ruzich@rmu.edu