Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! Improving and innovating teaching can take quite a lot of time and sustained effort. But like with every big endeavour, instead of letting it overwhelm us, we can try to break it into smaller tasks: these are achievable with only small to moderate effort and can bring us the satisfaction of having moved forward. This is why this week, as for many of us it’s the beginning of the semester/term, I’ve put together several examples of such small steps you can take in order to refresh your teaching. These activities don’t take more than 5 to 10 minutes to implement, work in classroom, online and hybrid environments and require minimal (if at all) prior preparation. Nevertheless, designed strategically, they will quickly bring visible benefits to your overall teaching and to the learning experience you provide to students. So… let’s get started!
3 things to do in the minutes before class starts
Pre-class conversations with your students: it may sound like common sense, but we are often so caught up in our thoughts and plans for the class, or making sure technology works, that it’s easy to forget the obvious- interacting with students even before the class starts (small talk, showing interest in their other courses or activities) can contribute greatly to a positive classroom atmosphere and has spillover effects on the quality of in-class engagement; in online synchronous meetings you can easily do it in chat;
Put up the class agenda on the screen or on the whiteboard/ flipchart: it is a great way to keep students focused throughout the class and to make the way you organise the session visible to them; refer back to it as you move on, this will make it easier for students to relate to the framework you are using and start making their own connections; online this can be a recurring slide you show throughout the session;
Post an image/short quotation/ headline on the screen: as students come into the classroom- physical or virtual-, this will facilitate informal discussions which you can then continue in the first minutes of class; use something that creates wonder, something surprising or intriguing that will help students focus on the topic of the day by activating their prior knowledge.
3 things to do in the first 5 minutes of class
Start with questions: your aim here is to capture their attention and prepare them for learning; so what better way than posing a few questions related to the day’s topic, either orally, on chat or on the whiteboard/ screen? These can be (at least in part) the questions you asked them to consider when reading the literature for the class. You may want to have a few minutes discussion right away or come back to the questions at the end of the class (see below);
Ask students to briefly summarise the main points of the last session: here you are using “retrieval practice”, an effective learning mechanism whereby students, by regularly retrieving knowledge from memory, are beginning to master it (more in the “resources” section). You can then build on their summary and transition into the new topic;
Activate prior knowledge, from other courses or everyday life experiences: you can combine it with activity 1 in this section or ask separate questions; activating existing knowledge makes students more receptive to the new knowledge they are about to get and helps them put it in a broader context; this activity also has benefits for you as you get to see where your students stand and can adjust your teaching accordingly.
*All the three activities above can also have a written component: this allows shy students to express themselves as well, and writing things down helps students leave aside other distractions and focus on the class that is about to start.
3 things to do in the last 5 minutes of class
Minute paper: this is a very short reflection piece that students can write on a small piece of paper/a post it/ online on Padlet or similar, anonymously or not; the idea is to leave about 3-5 minutes at the end of each class for students to write down briefly the answer to one or two questions. You can ask them to write down the most relevant thing they learned that day or the thing they still struggle to understand (in this case the exercise is called “muddiest point”); the benefits are two-ways: they get to reflect on their learning instead of just running out of the class and moving on to the next distraction and you get to see whether they are on track to reach the learning goals;
Metacognitive five: beside the content of your course (but still very relevant to learning), it is useful to have students also reflect on their learning habits. For example, before an exam take 5 minutes at the end of the class and ask them to write down how they prepare for the assessment to come. You can then correlate what they write with their exam results and make a point in a subsequent class, if you wish, or keep it for your own reference;
Close the loop: now it’s time to go back to activity 1 from the first 5 minutes of class; facilitate a short discussion on how their answers may have changed while integrating the new knowledge. This can also serve as a reflection point and can be an oral variation of the “Minute paper”.
3 things to do to support your students’ learning
Ask students regularly to make connections between the content of your course and what they learn in other courses, as well as their everyday experiences: this is a valuable activity as it gets students into the habit of making connections and constantly putting what they are learning into perspective. You can do it in various ways: by asking them in the beginning or end of the class, in a “Minute paper”, or in a more sustained manner by means of a learning diary (paper form) or blog or e-portfolio (electronic form);
Design spaced learning: next to the “retrieval practice”, “spaced learning” is another effective practice (more in “resources”). You can make use of it when you design your course by planning several assignments spread out throughout the course, instead of one or two exams; also, make sure each assignment has a cumulative feature- giving students the opportunity to retrieve “older” knowledge and link it to the new one;
Give students a say: giving students control over a part of your course, no matter how small, is not an easy task; but studies show they are likely to be much more motivated and engaged if they can contribute to the way the course is run. Some ideas you could consider is asking them (in groups) to come up with exam questions (that, together with your questions, will give you a good pool to design the actual test) or leave, on purpose, small parts of your syllabus blank, asking them, for instance, to come up with a few extra 3 readings for a specific session. If you want to go even further, you can leave 10% of the grade for an assignment that you don’t specify in the syllabus but decide on with your students in the first class.
Incorporating Principles in Cognitive Psychology to Improve Student Learning- some more ideas on how to use cognitive psychology principles in learning design;
Transforming the Learning Journey with Retrieval and Spaced Practice- a student’s view on using retrieval and spaced practice;
How to Teach a Good First Day of Class. Advice Guide, by James M. Lang- your go-to guide for getting off on the right foot this semester;
Encouraging Metacognition: Helping Students Learn How to Learn- some techniques on how to encourage metacognition as a tool for learning;
Using Student-Generated Questions to Promote Deeper Thinking- tips on how to support students in generating meaningful questions that help them learn.