Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

The First 5 Minutes of Class: Strategies for Engaging Students

by Ashley J. Holmes, PhD, CETLOE and Department of English

In his book Small Teaching, James Lang encourages teachers to make small adjustments to their teaching to make our courses more engaging for students and to enhance their learning. Lang tells us that Small Teaching approaches are

  • Brief (5 – 15 minute) interventions into individual learning session, 
  • Involve a Limited number of interventions or activities within an entire course, and
  • Minor changes to course design, assessment structure, or communication with students. 

In other words, these small changes to our teaching don’t mean overhauling our syllabus or changing course content. Instead, they are small adjustments we can make to our teaching–next month, next week, or even within the next few days!

While some small teaching practices focus on how to prime students for learning before class and how to “hit pause” during a lesson, one of my favorite approaches to small teaching is to more effectively use the first 5 minutes of class. Our students at GSU (and we ourselves as teachers!) are rushing in from a class across campus or the parking garage or metro Atlanta traffic. Using the first 5 minutes of class to help students transition into a learning mindset and to retrieve what they’ve learned or experienced previously can help make the start of class something not to miss. 

For example, I like to start some of my classes with a provocative image or photograph that sparks discussion. When I teach visual rhetoric, for example, we talk about how murals or other public street art communicate rhetorical messages to passersby, and I’ll begin class discussions by posting murals (some more well-known and others more obscure) in the Atlanta area. 

What images, photographs, murals, or visual data sets might spark engaging discussion or problem-solving to start off your class?

Here’s a list of a few more ideas for how you might change things up to better prime students for learning during those first five minutes of class: 

  • Put up a question for students to consider before beginning class. 
  • Give weekly low-stakes assessments. 
  • Ask students to recall and reflect on prior learning. What did you learn last class?
  • Even prior to first content exposure, ask students to write down what they already know about the topic. 
  • Give students time to discuss a confusing or challenging point from the prior class/homework assignment. 
  • Tell a story, present an intriguing fact, image, or quote to elicit emotion or capture attention. 
  • Open class with silent contemplation, journaling, or a mindfulness exercise for deepened awareness and concentration. 
  • Communicate enthusiasm for your discipline and the day’s topic. 
  • Encourage students by giving them examples of growth language (e.g., “mistakes train your brain”; “I believe you can learn to do this”).
  • Provide students with learning outcomes for the current course content. 

Try something new and let us know in the comments how it goes! Or, if you have a favorite activity to start off the first 5 minutes of class–share it with us in the comments. 

aholmes • August 17, 2021

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