The bookends of a class—the first few moments, and the wrap up at the end—can transform all the material addressed in the middle.
Good openers introduce new concepts to students in ways that evoke wonder and extend engagement for the duration of the class period, while good closers provide students with opportunities to review and consolidate recently learned material.
But effectively drawing students into a lesson at the start of class, or checking for understanding and correcting misunderstandings at the end of class, requires more than simple “do nows” or reminding students of homework assignments as they pack their bags.
While you don’t have to use any of the following activities every day—some days a simple warm-up activity suffices—strategically mixing them into your week at crucial junctures can work wonders, according to teachers.
1. Rapid review: Have students quickly huddle with a classmate, summarize their learning from the previous class, and then present it to the larger group. High school world history teacher Henry Seton recommends previewing a question—such as “what are John Locke’s views on private property?”—to get students going, and give them 90 seconds to turn and talk before each pair presents to the larger group. The activity is a quick way to get students warmed up, to practice retrieval, and to give you a view into what they recall from the previous day’s lesson.
2. Bait and switch: Help kids confront—and debunk—common misconceptions about the topics they’re learning with a fun quiz activity used by education professor Curtis Chandler. For a lesson about oceans, for example, Chandler says misconceptions might include statements like “all oceans have the same salinity,” or “nothing lives in anoxic mud.” Give students a quick true/false quiz with these seemingly plausible, but incorrect statements. Unpacking the real answers after the quiz, Chandler says, is an effective way to preview the day’s lesson, and help students take on potentially tricky content without realizing it.
3. Informational hooks: These can be any type of short, targeted media or text related to the topic at hand: YouTube videos, clips from a podcast, news headlines, or photos, for example. The idea is that the material, presented without context, will “hook” students attention, but not distract from the lesson, Chandler writes.
Rebecca Alber, an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education suggests finding a provocative quote about one of the subjects of your study—a historical figure in history class, a scientist in science class, an author in English class, for example—and asking students to write responses to prompts such as: “What is the meaning of this statement?” or “How can you connect this statement to something happening in the world at the time it was said?” If the quote is sufficiently meaty, you can follow up with a five minute debate leveraging their thinking.
4. Vocabulary splashes: Provide students with key vocabulary terms for the unit they’re studying—you can mix terms from previous classes with new terms they’re about to encounter—along with brief definitions, and have students sort the words in any way that makes sense to them.
Before you lead a discussion about the terms, students can turn and talk for a few minutes, or meet with a small group and discuss their sorting rationales and compare and contrast their respective methods. The activity, Chandler writes, allows teachers to preview “the most crucial” vocabulary terms they’ll need to know, and also helps students establish connections between terms that will prove useful down the line.
5. Low stakes quizzes (and pre-quizzes): Quizzes and practice tests help students gauge their understanding of recently learned material, and identify areas of strength and areas where they need to grow. To use quizzes effectively as openers, research suggests it’s better to keep them low-stakes (or no-stakes!). This will reduce anxiety and allow students to focus on recalling information.
Although it sounds odd to test students on material before they’ve learned it, research shows that pretesting students is surprisingly effective. According to the 2021 study, students who took a pretest outperformed peers who studied more traditionally by 49 percent on a follow-up test. Researchers concluded the mistakes students make on pretests prove useful in motivating them to “search for the correct answers” when they actually encounter the new material.
6. Brain dumps: Giving students just a minute or two to write down everything they know—or think they know—about a specific topic or question you’re about to teach is a simple, flexible tool to test their knowledge. You can also use this approach to create longer term retention of material they’ve recently learned. To make group work out of it, ask students to compare their work and identify gaps, similarities, and differences, for example.
1. Rate the learning or lesson: This is a great way to audit your lessons in real-time, Alber suggests. Ask students to rate—on a scale of 1 to 10—how well they understood the lesson that day. If their rating is 6 or above, for example, you might ask them to jot down three key things they learned. If it’s low, have them briefly explain what they needed, such as a simpler explanation of the concept, a better understanding of key terms, or more practice questions. Collecting the ratings and sorting them can give you a better sense of the clarity of your lesson, and also whether you need to reteach the concept.
2. Two-dollar summary: Tell students to imagine that each of their words are worth 10 cents and ask them to write a concise, two-dollar summary of the lesson they just learned, Reading Rockets suggests. To make things more challenging, Todd Finley, professor of English Education at East Carolina University, recommends asking students to include key terms related to the material or to write the summary in a way that would be simple enough for a first grader to understand. This activity asks them to retrieve material, pushes them to distill their learning, and requires them to decompose and simplify complex ideas and concepts.
3. Clear or cloudy: Ask students to identify what is clear about what they’ve learned (what they understand) and what is cloudy (what they’re having trouble understanding). You can use this Teachers Pay Teachers simple “Clear or Cloudy” handout to record responses.
4. Measure (or signal) your knowledge: A human bar graph is an interesting closing activity. According to Literacy Minnesota, you can create your graph by labeling points along a line drawn on the floor or across a wall that show different levels of mastery: I’m confused, I mostly get it, I totally understand. Ask students to stand where they feel most comfortable.
An educator on Twitter created a simpler version using a picture of a traffic light they affixed on the door. Before students leave the room, have them write their names on three sticky notes and leave one thing they learned on the green light, one thing they’re still thinking about on the yellow light, and one thing they still don’t understand on the red light. Collecting the responses can help you better understand what topics need revisiting.
5. Create news “headlines” or “six-word summaries”: Ask students to summarize what they’ve learned that day into a short, snappy news headline, suggests Teach Starter. Students can work in pairs, or the activity can be done amongst the whole class: Collect suggestions, write them on the board, and discuss which one works best. For a different spin on this, educator Sarah Frisby Cook recommends limiting students to a “six-word summary” of the most important idea or concept they learned that day. On Facebook, Cook told Edutopia that because students are limited in word choice, “they really have to think about what is most crucial to say.”
6. Rock, paper, scissors: Educator Shannon Kenyon transforms this familiar game into an effective opportunity for students to reflect on what they’re learning. Using this downloadable version of her worksheet, students can identify the hardest to understand part of the lesson in the “rock” section, the main idea of what they’ve learned in the “paper” section, and note some of the less important details that they learned today that might be worth discarding in the “scissors” section.
7. Quiz the next class: This one will probably take you a good chunk of time, and might be deployed as you end a unit. Regardless, research suggests that asking students to generate good questions about what they’re learning can promote deeper engagement with the content—and better retention, too. Educator Nikki Cobb-Struzynski puts these findings into practice by asking students to come up with quiz questions—and multiple choice answers—to give to peers in other sections of her class studying the same material. To make the quizzes easy to share, students can create them using free platforms like Kahoot!
8. Make your classroom a beach: Write reflective questions on a beach ball using dry erase markers. They might include: “What is one thing you learned during today’s lesson?” or “What was challenging about today’s lesson?” As the ball bounces around the room, educator Eman Bekheet suggests coming up with a way to decide which question students have to answer out loud—such as the question their pointer finger is touching, or the first question they can clearly read. The responses can help generate further discussion about the day’s lesson.