Lesson starts are very important in terms of behaviour management, routines and maximising opportunities to learn. The start of a lesson can set the tone for the rest of the lesson; when lesson routines become established and consistent, they become entrenched as the normal classroom expectations.
Teachers often have their own routines in place for their classes, from lining up outside of the classroom and waiting for the teacher to entering and standing behind tables or sitting at desks ready to complete a “Do Now” activity. When possible, it is ideal for a teacher to greet students with a warm welcome to create a supportive learning environment, but each teacher will have their own preferred style and routine with their students. The key to a successful start to a lesson is to ensure students are focused and ready to learn.
“Starters’ tasks” were previously focused on engaging learners from the very start of the lesson. Teachers were encouraged to prepare attention grabbing task or “lesson hooks” to inspire curiosity and intrigue. Whilst promoting interest and securing the attention of learners can be effective, it is important that the starter task is relevant, challenging, and an effective use of precious lesson time. Rob Coe et al. (2014) identified engagement can be a poor proxy for learning—just because students are engaged it does not necessarily mean they are learning!
Attitudes and approaches to the start of a lesson have progressed and tend to focus on recall and review. Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction: Research Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know (2012) have become well known and widely referenced in education. Among these principles, Rosenshine encourages teachers to “begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.” Paul A. Kirschner has advised teachers, “before you start something new, review the old” (2017).
Below are some examples of classroom tasks that can be used to promote a smooth and successful lesson starts. Each can be used to provide opportunities for regular retrieval practice:
Do Now: The aim of a Do Now is to ensure students have a task to focus on and complete as soon as they arrive at the lesson. The task should be ready for the class as they arrive, and they know they are expected to begin the task on arrival. Most types of questioning techniques—from an entrance ticket to quizzing—can be used as a Do Now to ensure a prompt and punctual start to the lesson.
Quizzing: There are many ways quizzing can be used at the start of a lesson. This can include students answering multiple choice questions, either on paper or digitally via an online quizzing app or website. A short answer quiz can be set for students to recall the correct answers from long term memory; mini-white boards can be ideal for this style of low-stakes quizzing. Quizzes can combine a range of different question types depending on the content. Dylan Wiliam has offered this useful advice to teachers, “The best person to mark the test is the person who has just taken the test” (2017). Therefore, self-assessment is often a workload friendly and effective method of feedback to use with a starter quiz.
Think-Pair-Share: Another well-known classroom technique is Think-Pair-Share (which works for many tasks, not just at the start of lesson). This involves providing students with a question, statement, or problem to solve. The initial stage involves students working independently. It is important not to skip this stage; ensure students are provided with adequate think time on their own. To find out what students are thinking it is helpful to instruct students to write down their initial answer and thoughts, in their class books or using a mini-white board.
The next stage of a Think-Pair-Share involves students collaborating with a partner to discuss their answers. At this stage, all students need to contribute to the pair discussions—which may result in students confirming or amending response.
The final stage involves sharing their response with the whole class. This can take the form of all students showing their mini-white boards or the teacher cold calling on students.
Free recall: This warm-up at the start of a lesson is essentially the most challenging type of retrieval practice, as it involves recalling information from long-term memory with little or no support or prompts (e.g., “What can you recall from memory about the causes of WWI?”). Students then must answer this, through a written or verbal response, recalling as much relevant information as they can.
Research by Jaeger et al. (2015) and Karpicke et al. (2016) has shown younger children can struggle with free recall; their answers may be vague, generalised, or irrelevant. Younger learners need support for the initial retrieval task, and this can be achieved through cued recall questions. These are more specific and provide guidance as to what should be retrieved (e.g., “What can you recall about how the alliances caused WWI to break out in 1914?”). Cues can be provided in the form of key terms, images, or verbal prompts.
Entrance tickets: An entrance ticket can be used in combination with the techniques discussed above. For example, the entrance ticket can contain questions for the Do Now task when students arrive. Any type of question can be included on an entrance ticket—multiple choice, short answer, free recall, and elaboration are all effective. These are akin to exit tickets, but are used at the start of the lesson instead of the end. The teacher collects the tickets and uses them to gain a snapshot of students’ learning. This information is used to highlight misconceptions or misunderstandings and inform a teacher’s next steps.
There’s no precise recipe for a perfect start to a lesson. Every teacher needs to consider their expectations for their classroom—and the learning goals for a particular lesson. These techniques are options for a teacher to consider when designing an effective lesson start strategy. As with many great techniques, they are easy (and largely free) to implement and make a key part of any teacher’s practice.
Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. Sutton Trust. https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-Makes-Great-Teaching-REPORT.pdf
Hendrick C. & Macpherson R. (2017). What does this look like in the classroom?: Bridging the gap between research and practice. John Catt Educational.
Jaeger, A., Eisenkraemer, R. E., & Stein, L. M. (2015). Test-enhanced learning in third-grade children. Educational Psychology, 35(4), 513–521. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2014.963030
Karpicke, J. D., Blunt, J. R., & Smith, M. A. (2016). Retrieval-based learning: Positive effects of retrieval practice in elementary school children. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00350
Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2005.00507.x
Wiliam, D. (2017). Assessment and learning: Some reflections. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 24(3), 394–403. https://doi.org/10.1080/0969594X.2017.1318108