Starting with success


17 June 2024

Harvard Graduate School of Education researchtells us that the start of a lesson is the best time to engage the learner. If you use this time to take the attendance roll or take too long setting up the classroom, then that moment has passed, never to return.

Raymond Wlodkowski’s researchshows if you spend two minutes a session for 10 classes casually chatting with students, and especially underperforming students, it can result in an 80 per cent improvement in behaviour, and a 60 per cent improvement in the whole class.

Here are some tips to get your class engaged and motivated from the get-go:

1.Get there five minutes early to greet your students at the door. This allows your students to be seen as individuals rather than a big class. Research shows that when you build relationships with students by getting to know them and allowing them to know you, they will learn more.

2.Don’t wait for your students to arrive. Set an expectation at the start of the year that you will start on time every time. If students are running late, set a protocol for them to notify like emailing you. If students do run late and enter the classroom also set a protocol for this to enter the classroom quietly. Welcome them in with a minimum of fuss and follow up why they were late in the break.

3.Intermittently check-in with the class and get to know them. Use ice breakers throughout the year. Adults learn best and are most receptive when they are comfortable with the people around them. An example of an ice breaker is People Bingo because it's easy to customise for your group and situation and even easier to learn. For example, each square on the bingo card features a characteristic such as "goes fishing" or "travels for more than 10 kilometres to class" and participants must find a person that this is true for and get their name on the Bingo sheet.

4.Find some common ground with your class and individuals within the class. Asking students how their weekends were, or what hobbies they have or music they like. Or you can do it by using a five-minute activity in the class to get to know each other. This is a great way to build trust. Trust is like a bank account – one deposit at a time. Trust is the door mat to learning.

5.Go slow to go fast. Although Educators commonly have too much content to get through, if you build the base of trust and relationships at the start of the class, your class will trust you to ask questions, make mistakes and collaborate. It’s the key to engaging learners.

6.Be respectful and confident in your demeanour. Over time, work to be a good role model. Lots of students don’t know what respect looks like.

From doing to learning

Clarity is important. Outlining what we are learning today, not doing, can double the speed of learning.

  • Share learning outcomes by making a simple statement on the PPT or board such as:
  • We are learning to…
  • Ask yourself…

Or by communicating:

  • What do I want students to know?
  • What do I want students to understand?
  • What skill do I want students to develop?
  • Create learning goals in terms of what can be assessed.

Using a verb to describe what we are learning as all learning is active. Blooms taxonomy of verbsis a good reference (see figure 1).

Understanding success

Most importantly, what does success look like when students have achieved the learning outcome? Make it explicit and unpack the steps to success by creating

“I” statements:

  • I can... [and also use a verb]

Following is a worked example for “We are learning to serve responsibly”. Note the learning outcomes move from surface learning, or easy tasks, to deep learning or more complex tasks.

  • I can identify what is a standard drink.
  • I can recognize the signs of intoxication.
  • I can interpret behaviour to protect staff, patrons, venue and community.
  • I can articulate the laws around RSA4I can judge if a customer should not be served.
  • I can ask for proof of ID.
  • I can refuse service without offence or criticism and diffuse a situation.

Activate prior knowledge

Adult learners bring life experience and knowledge to learning and harnessing this benefits learning. As educational psychologist David Ausbel says: “The most important single factor in learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach them accordingly.”

You can activate student knowledge by either using a mind map by students writing all their ideas down about what they know about the topic or subject on butchers paper. Alternatively, you can do a “Think, Pair, Share”, which involves getting your students to think about what they know about the particular topic, write it down, then pair up with another student to share their knowledge on the topic, then form a larger group of four to discuss the topic.

Keep it accessible

Rather than ask a question to a new class cold, allow them to rehearse for response by allowing students time to think or prepare themselves before responding. Use this strategy when you ask questions of your group early on, until they learn that it is good to make a mistake!

When introducing new or industry-specific vocabulary and acronyms to your learners – be mindful that we can hold approximately five words or concepts in our working or short-term memory until it transfers to our long-term memory. Keep it to three to five key words each session to ease in your students’ brains when they first start. This allows you to create effective learning experiences for students and not to overwhelm them by too many complex words.

Curiosity counts

Finally, set your students up for success by creating a hook into the learning. Get them curious about what they will be learning. Curiosity sets dopamine off in your brain. You can do this by either by telling a story or dilemma relevant to the subject matter or connecting the subject matter to student’s lives or vocational outcomes.

One example is to play a short, funny video. You can also play a podcast or TV show, profile a case study or an article, play music or show a photograph and get your students to do a thinking routine: “What do you see? What do you think? What do you wonder?”This is a low-risk question where there are no right or wrong answers.

A popular way of providing a hook is to show a prop of what you are making or tell a personal anecdote or story. You can do a values continuum – do you agree or disagree with a statement where everyone lines up in accordance with their opinion on the topic. Or you can pose a provocative question, such as “If there were no constraints, what does your ideal solution/outcome look like?” It’s all about being creative, fun and it only takes about five minutes to instil confidence and hook your students into learning.

Find out more about Thinking Routines from Harvard Graduate School of Education Project Zero’s Thinking Routine Toolbox 2022 here:

By Karen Dymke

This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Autumn 2024