How do you start your lessons?
Do you begin by explaining to your students the intended learning outcomes for the lesson? Many schools function this way, with teachers often writing these outcomes on the board and having students note them down in their textbooks to begin.
Lots of 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 opening with learning objectives can have benefits (such as helping teachers choose the appropriate activities for the lesson and letting students know what they’ll be taught beforehand so that they’re not confused), the science of learning suggests that there are more effective ways to start a lesson.
This is what we will explore in this blog: what are the best ways to start a lesson according to research? Which alternative approaches can help students learn more effectively? Here are some ideas to use in your lesson plans to improve your students’ learning.
Let’s try a quick experiment. I have two questions for you: what are three ways you can start a lesson? When is the “testing effect” most beneficial?
If you know the answers to these already, well done – but if you don’t, that’s perfectly normal because they are “pre-questions”. This means they’re questions you can ask someone about material that they have not yet learned.
This might sound counterintuitive, however a recent study found that students who had been asked pre-questions were later able to recall almost 50% more information than their peers who had not. Here are some reasons why pre-questions are so effective:
- They allow students to preview the nature of the material they’ll learn in the lesson.
- They help reduce overconfidence in learners who may think they already know everything, thus opening them up to new material.
- They create a sense of curiosity and engagement by drawing in the attention of the learner.
Because of this, 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. These effects were found to have a positive impact regardless of if the pre-questions were given as multiple choice, open-ended, fill-in-the-blank or short-answer questions.
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. For example, if they are reading a page of text, students may be tempted to skim-read to locate key information and disregard other important parts of the text. To make sure you’re maximising their effect, maybe use pre-questions in lessons based on videos or PowerPoint presentations so you can control the pace.
Play memory games to harness the testing effect
Retrieval practice, sometimes referred to as “the testing effect”, consists of any activity that gets students to generate an answer by recalling previously learnt information. This can take the form of quizzes, multiple choice tests or simply answering questions.
It was highlighted by Ofsted as a great teaching and learning strategy, as we explained in our recap of their new proposed framework at the beginning of the year. With good reason, as researchers consistently 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 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”.
So, 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.
This doesn’t have to take up more than a few minutes at the beginning of your lesson. So, try giving your 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. Here are some blogs we recommend you read if you want to find out more about retrieval practice:
- Harnessing the testing effect
- How to actually use retrieval practice
- Why you need to know about retrieval practice
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.
One study investigating the effects of developing a sense of purpose divided students into four groups:
- The first 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;
- 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 findings of another study, 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 found that helping students develop both a sense of purpose and a growth mindset helped improve their performance in English, maths and science lessons, and was particularly beneficial for disengaged students.
These results are not to be frowned upon, and they don’t even need a full intervention to be seen. Beginning your lesson with one sentence that will help your students understand the importance of what they’re about to learn and how the material relates to their future success is a great start.
While starting lessons with an explanation of the learning outcomes of the lesson makes sense, years of research into the science of learning inform us on the most effective ways to begin teaching. Using pre-questions, retrieval practice and/or creating a sense of purpose can help improve your students’ attention, engagement and recall.