Teachers: here's how to get your lessons off to a flying start

Teachers: here's how to get your lessons off to a flying start

How do you start your lessons? In many schools, classes will begin the same way – with the teacher explaining two or three intended learning outcomes. These are often written on the board and students will note them down in their textbooks.

Some teachers believe that this is what Ofsted wants. But in its 2012 report, Made to Measure, Ofsted highlights an example of good practice that involves a teacher deliberately not sharing a lesson’s learning objectives “until later in the lesson, at which point they challenged the pupils to articulate for themselves what they have learned”.

Although there are benefits to opening with learning outcomes – helping teachers choose appropriate activities and letting students know what they’ll be taught – the science of learning suggests there may be more effective ways of starting a lesson. Some alternative approaches can create a sense of purpose and even improve how students learn. Here are some ideas.

Ask pre-questions

Let’s try a quick experiment. I have two questions for you. 1) What are three ways you can start a lesson? 2) When is the “testing effect” most beneficial?

You may not know the answer to these yet. That’s because these are “pre-questions” – questions asked about material before someone has learned it. A recent study found that students who had been asked pre-questions were later able to recall almost 50% more than their peers who had not. This is thought to be because this method draws in the attention of the learner and creates a sense of intrigue.

The same study found that not only did students remember the correct answers to the pre-questions later on, but they also remembered other key information from the lesson better. However, it’s worth noting that this benefit is mostly felt when the teacher controls the pace of the learning. When it is self-directed by pupils, the effect may be lessened. If they are reading a page of text, for example, students may be tempted to skim-read to locate key information and disregard other important parts of the text.

Play memory games

Retrieval practice, sometimes referred to as “the testing effect”, is any activity that forces the students to recall information in order to generate an answer. This can include quizzes, multiple choice tests and simply answering a question. Researchersconsistently rate this type of strategy as one of the most effective ways to help students improve their long-term memory. As cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham [pdf] says: “Memory is the residue of thought, meaning that the more you think about something, the more likely it is that you’ll remember it later.”

How can teachers best use the testing effect? A recent meta-analysis found that it’s most beneficial if it is low-stakes (that is, not stressful) and if feedback is given straight away. The word “test” is a loaded one in education, so it is perhaps best to think about retrieval practice in the form of games and activities that get students to think carefully about the answer.

Try giving students individual quizzes, team competitions or multiple choice questions. Even something as simple as having pupils recall key terms and definitions from the previous lesson would work well.

Create a sense of purpose

Whereas pre-questions and retrieval practice help improve student memory, creating a sense of purpose is all about improving motivation, engagement and effort. It involves explaining to the students not just what they are going to do but why it will be beneficial to them. This can be something as simple as one sentence at the start of the lesson. 

One study [pdf] investigating this divided students into four groups. One group was not given a reason as to why they should work hard, the second was told that there would be a test at the end, the third was told they should put in effort because was expected of them, and the fourth group were told that it would help them achieve their future goals.

The results? The students from the latter group rated the lesson as more important and put in more effort than the other groups. This echoed the finding of another study [pdf], which found that this brief intervention improved learning, engagement and motivation in maths classes.

Further support for this technique recently came from Stanford University, where research [pdf] found that helping students develop a sense of purpose and a growth mindset helped improve performances in English, maths and science lessons, and was particularly beneficial for disengaged students.

This article was originally published in The Guardian on 7th June 2017, you can read it here along with Brad's other articles: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/bradley-busch

New Call-to-action