James Lang (Professor of English and Director of Center for Teaching Excellence, Assumption College; ), Small Changes in Teaching (March 2016):
The First Five Minutes of Class:
The opening five minutes offer us a rich opportunity to capture the attention of students and prepare them for learning. They walk into our classes trailing all of the distractions of their complex lives — the many wonders of their smartphones, the arguments with roommates, the question of what to have for lunch. Their bodies may be stuck in a room with us for the required time period, but their minds may be somewhere else entirely.
It seems clear, then, that we should start class with a deliberate effort to bring students’ focus to the subject at hand. Unfortunately, based on my many observations of faculty members in action, the first five minutes of a college class often get frittered away with logistical task. ...
I offer four quick suggestions for the first few minutes of class to focus the attention of students and prepare their brains for learning.
- Open with a question or two. ...
- What did we learn last time? ...
- Reactivate what they learned in previous courses. ...
- Write it down. ... Let a writing exercise help you bring focus and engagement to the opening of every class session. Build it into your routine. Class has begun: time to write, time to think.
In writing, as in learning, openings matter. Don’t fritter them away.
The Last Five Minutes of Class:
In my experience — having observed many dozens of college courses over the past two decades — most faculty members eye the final minutes of class as an opportunity to cram in eight more points before students exit, or to say three more things that just occurred to us about the day’s material, or to call out as many reminders as possible about upcoming deadlines, next week’s exam, or tomorrow’s homework.
At the same time, we complain when students start to pack their bags before class ends. But why should we be surprised by that reaction when our class slides messily to a conclusion? We’re still trying to teach while students’ minds — and sometimes their bodies — are headed out the door. We make little or no effort to put a clear stamp on the final minutes of class, which leads to students eyeing the clock and leaving according to the dictates of the minute hand rather than the logic of the class period. ... [L]et us turn to better ways we can make better use of the final five minutes in class.
- The Minute Paper comes in many variations, but the simplest one involves wrapping up the formal class period a few minutes early and posing two questions to your students:
a. What was the most important thing you learned today?
b. What question still remains in your mind? ...
- Closing connections. If we want students to obtain mastery and expertise in our subjects, they need to be capable of making their own connections between what they are learning and the world around them — current events, campus debates, personal experiences.
- The metacognitive five. We have increasing evidence from the learning sciences that students engage in poor study strategies. Likewise, research shows that most people are plagued by the illusions of fluency. The solution on both fronts is better metacognition — that is, a clearer understanding of our own learning. What if all of us worked together deliberately to achieve that? ...
- Close the loop. Finally, go back to any of the strategies I introduced in my recent column on the first five minutes of class and see if the suggestions can help you formulate a strategy for those final five minutes. If you began class with a few questions, put them back up on screen and have students use what they have learned that day to formulate their own answers. If you opened by asking students to tell you what they learned in the previous class, close by having them tell you what they learned in this class. Or if you started by soliciting their prior knowledge on the subject, close by having them explain how today’s class confirmed, enhanced, or contradicted what they knew before.
We have such a limited amount of time with students — sometimes just a few hours a week for 12 or 15 weeks. Within that narrow window, five minutes well-spent at the end of class can make a difference.
(Hat Tip: Legal Skills Prof. Blog.)