Engaging students in the first five minutes of class

January 24, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Beatrice Pym died because she missed the last bus to Ipswich.

̶   Opening line from Daniel Silva, The Unlikely Spy (Signet).

 First impressions matter. They matter in literature. They matter in life. They matter in classrooms.

 Students will enter our classrooms distracted by everything from their latest text messages to difficulties finding a parking space on campus.

 How do you open your class to help students navigate the transition from everyday life to the life of your classroom? A good classroom opening enables instructors to “capture the attention of students and prepare them for learning” (Lang, 2016). James Lang’s essay in The Chronicle  based on his recent book (Small Teaching) offers practical strategies for focusing students' attention at the start of class.

 Engaging opening activities are easy to implement and can significantly increase student engagement and retention of key concepts. Strategies range from activities that reactivate previous learning to short, low-stakes writing assignments to orient students to the day’s topic. The variety of Lang’s suggestions are likely to provide at least one strategy that will fit your needs and teaching style.

 Open with questions that direct attention and frame discussion. Write four or five questions on the board or show them on a slide as an introduction to the day’s discussion. The class proceeds as normal but closes with a return to the posted questions. Ask students to discuss the relevance of the class discussion to these questions.  

  • 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. Begin class 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.


 Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lang, J. M. (January 11, 2016). Small changes in teaching: The first five minutes. The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-The/234869


This tip is based on “Class Openers” submitted by Dr. Connie Ruzich, University Professor of English and Coordinator of Innovative Teaching, Robert Morris University to the Western Kentucky University Teaching Issues Writing Consortium used under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/), which permits non-commercial reuse, adaptation, and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly attributed to the author.

 “Engaging students in the first five minutes of class,” modified and edited by Claudia J. Stanny is Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by Claudia J. Stanny.

tmd 1/24/2017