The Minutes Before Class Begins

Small Teaching Tip: get to class early and engage your students right away. Consider posting a class outline, a thought-provoking image, or play some music.

Many of us arrive to our classrooms without time to spare.  We then concentrate on taking attendance, turning on the computer and projector, or reviewing our lecture notes. Meanwhile, our students sit silently, gazing at their phones.  We may not consider the minutes before class begins as consequential, but they offer a fertile opportunity to get to know your students better and build a more positive classroom environment.  So make it a goal to arrive to your classroom early and use those extra few minutes to chat with your students and set the stage for the rest of the class period.  Here are a few ideas:

Display a class agenda or outline.  This is a simple way to help students see how the class period will be organized and understand how the information they will learn today relates to what they learned last week.  As an expert in your field, you have a clear understanding of the framework of your discipline and how concepts are interconnected.  But novice learners tend to see facts, concepts, and skills as discrete pieces of knowledge, without much awareness of the connections that join them.  Thus, a simple outline can help students to better organize information in their memories.

Display a thought-provoking image.  Encourage your students to start thinking about the class content, rather than staring at their phones, by displaying something that will pique their curiosity such as a political cartoon, quote, or video clip.  For example, Peter Newbury posts NASA’s “pic of the day” for his students to look at as they file into the classroom.  On each image, he types two questions:  “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”  This simple visual prompt serves multiple purposes: it grabs his students’ attention, serves as a conversation-starter, and provides an opportunity to discuss how the images connect to previous course material.

Play some music.  Playing music is a great way to “warm up” the room and create a less stuffy environment.  Music can be used strategically to establish a particular atmosphere, such as energizing your lethargic students or calming them before an exam.  Steve Volk creates playlists themed for each class and encourages students to bring their own music.  He then shares the playlists with his students at the end of the semester.  This strategy is not relevant only to those who teach in the arts.  Think creatively about how music might relate to your course content, such as playing protest songs, Renaissance madrigals, or Native Andean flute music.

If these ideas aren’t appealing, I challenge you to identify a strategy that works with your teaching style and course content.  Both instructors and students need a little transition time at the beginning of class to get mentally prepared to learn and engage.  So don’t waste those precious few minutes!


This post is part of a series which will present low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.  This post also appears on my work blog: tlt.cofc.edu

For more small teaching tips, check out:

Strategies for Deeper Learning and Long-Term Retention

The Essential Role of Memory Retrieval in Student Learning

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About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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