James Lang is a professor of English and Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, and the author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. At its core, the book carries a simple ethos: there is no need to transform, overhaul or tear down and rebuild the way you teach. Rather, Lang says, you simply need to take a more mindful approach to class time and make an effort to use it better.
In an extract from our ebook, How to Make Class Time Really Count, Lang discusses strategies professors can use to make the most out of the first five minutes of class.
Five minutes to get into the moment
Faculty often like to ease students into the day’s material, which is fine—provided that students are actually shifting their focus as their instructor intends, and not using the leisurely pace of class to multitask with text messages, social media posts or other distractions. The first five minutes should be akin to flipping a switch. It’s the time for students to cement their focus on learning and on the relationships and the discussions in the hour to come.
“It’s not so much about doing any deep content, it’s more about just getting them into the moment of the class,” explains Lang. “You want to get them thinking, ‘Okay, we’re here now. I’ve got to start thinking about the readings.’ It’s going to activate the reading they might have done last night or two nights ago, and get them their mind back into the right place.”
Start with an open question
The simplest way to do that is to open with a question—but it has to be the right type of question.
Professors often use this tactic to try and spark discussion, but it can also fall flat if students don’t engage from the outset. Thinking strategically about what you ask can generate better results. Lang suggests formulating questions based upon the principle of prediction: ask students a question to which they don’t yet know the answer, but for which the course has already provided some of the answer’s building blocks.
“The idea of predicting is that when people have to wrestle with something, or try to make a guess or predict or solve a problem before they’re ready, this is actually very helpful for their long-term learning,” explains Lang. “So instead of just coming into class and launching into the content, present them with a question, or invite them to puzzle over a question or a problem or try something on their own.”
That kind of question will pique their interest by highlighting the gaps in their own knowledge. “That gets them curious. It gets them thinking, ‘Okay, well, I’m actually not sure how I would solve this problem.’ Only once you’ve done that can you then start to do the class in your habitual way.” You can then return to the same question at the end of class and measure how well they’ve absorbed the material you just covered.
Ask what they already know
“Evidence suggests that whatever knowledge students bring into a course has a major influence on what they take away from it,” explains Lang. “So a sure-fire technique to improve student learning is to begin class by revisiting, not just what they learned in the previous lesson, but what they already know on the subject matter.”
This particular questioning technique is as helpful for faculty as it is for students. By getting students’ knowledge—and misconceptions—out in the open in the first five minutes of class, professors can gauge how well-versed their students are on a particular topic. “That way, whatever you plan for class that day can specifically deal with and improve upon the knowledge actually in the room, rather than the knowledge you imagine to be in the room.”
Methods of engagement
Lang suggests polling, whether through clicker systems or a show of hands, as a way to evaluate students’ prior knowledge or attitudes, or even to verify that they’ve done the readings. “Faculty often think about doing polling questions at the end of class or midway through,” says Lang, “but it would be very easy to start class with five quick poll questions based on the reading that the students did, then using that as a way to get started and see where students are.”
Lang’s own preference is for brief writing exercises, no more than five to ten minutes in length, and often based upon the questions he’s devised to spur discussion. Once they write down their own answer, according to Lang, “they’re sort of more curious to hear what the group thought.”
Lang is quick to point out that he very much supports creativity and innovation in the classroom. “I’m not against reconceiving courses from the ground up and doing really new and innovative things. But sometimes one change can actually help you see the course completely differently. Incremental change over time can actually have a revolutionary impact.” The end result, Lang says, will make you a vastly more effective educator.
To get more insights from James Lang on making best use of the whole of your class, from beginning to end, download our free ebook How to Make Class Time Really Count.