Teaching Strategies

How to Engage Students the Moment They Enter the Classroom

Openers matter and set the tone for the lesson that follows. Here’s how to start strong when you need to.

January 13, 2023
Maskot / Getty Images

The first few moments of class, like the opening lines of a novel, are critical. For teachers, they’re the starting gate for the lesson that follows and “the key to enlivening—or extinguishing—student interest and learning,” writes Curtis Chandler for MiddleWeb. Making sure that your warm-up activity is both substantive and highly engaging, or even downright fun—drawing students into the classroom and the lesson—takes practice and some trial and error, but veteran teachers say it’s worth the effort to get it right.

“The battle against student disengagement and disinterest is winnable when we work to infuse the opening minutes with experiences designed to pique student interest, activate prior knowledge, have some fun, and prepare them for the day’s learning,” writes Chandler, a professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho and former middle school teacher. 

Class warm-up strategies aren’t new—but they can get less attention than they should, especially when the focus for teachers is on moving quickly into the content. Middle school math teacher Jay Wamsted says he began his 8th grade math class the same way for more than a decade: with a warm-up problem on the board and the expectation that students immediately get to work solving it. Except, he writes, that’s not how things went most days. 

“What really happened was that out of 30 students, maybe five of them would diligently engage in the problem. The rest would delay with tactics ranging from pencil sharpening to grabbing a few extra winks,” Wamsted writes. After greeting his students at the door, he says he’d have two choices: “Go over the warm-up problem for less than 20 percent of the class—typically the 20 percent that didn’t need it in the first place—or waste time for the on-task students by giving the less proactive students a few extra minutes.”

How can you do better?  Some days, of course, you’ll opt for keeping things low-key with a traditional warm-up activity, but other times, you might want to change it up. Here are seven warm-up activities, sourced from Chandler, Wamsted, and our Edutopia archives, designed to build connection, activate prior knowledge, and be engaging enough to pull kids into the content.

Taking a few moments at the beginning of class to help kids connect what they already know to new content—a strategy known as previewing—helps create more durable learning, “especially for students with limited background knowledge,” Chandler writes.

Bait and switch: Begin by briefly discussing common misconceptions students may have about the topic of the day’s lesson, Chandler writes. For a lesson about oceans, for example, everyday misconceptions might include statements like “all oceans have the same salinity,” or “nothing lives in anoxic mud.” Have students take a quick true/false quiz focused on statements that “all seem plausible but are all false,” he suggests, before revealing to the class that all the quiz statements are in fact false—and that they’re about to learn why throughout the lesson. 

Informational hooks: Designed to get kids interested in the lesson ahead, informational hooks can be any type of short, targeted media: videos, clips from a podcast, news headlines, photos. Even a great anecdote might work. To vet relevant hooks, Chandler suggests considering the following questions:

  • What concepts or skills will the hook highlight?
  • What is “truly unique, novel, or useful” about the hook?
  • Will the hook grab their attention—but not distract from the lesson?

Productive failure: Inspired by the research of learning scientist Manu Kapur, consider occasionally designing a short problem-solving activity, perhaps focused on crucial target concepts, as a warm-up exercise before jumping into instruction.

The problem should be just beyond students’ reach and designed to activate prior knowledge, motivate them, and surface what they do and do not know. Explain to students that the exercise is designed to be confusing and frustrating and that struggling is normal—even expected. Though a regular productive failure exercise might take 30-40 minutes, a warm-up is clearly much shorter. Allow students to wrestle with a problem for a few minutes, and then step in and build off their ideas and solutions, comparing and contrasting, and then teaching how to correctly solve the problem. 

Vocabulary splashes: Present key vocabulary terms and concepts, along with brief definitions, and ask students to sort the words in ways that make sense to them. With a partner, or in small groups, have them discuss their sorting rationales. “The teacher then leads a discussion of how the terms and concepts are related to each other,” Chandler writes, and connects them, if possible, to students’ “interests and prior knowledge.” Consider closing out the lesson by having students sort and explain the words once more.  

Rapid review: Have students partner with a classmate, discuss what they learned during the previous class, and then present to the group. It’s a quick, effective way to “get students active, and helps the teacher know what actually ‘stuck’ from the previous day’s lesson,” Chandler writes.

Sometimes, warm-ups don’t need to be overly complicated and a few minutes of chatting about things unrelated to content can be enough to get class started. In Wamsted’s math classroom, he’s found that “just about any investment in actual conversation—whether it’s about doughnuts or spiders or the ramifications of this being the one-year anniversary of the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan—will pay off mightily in the long run,” he writes. 

Cold opens: Remote learning pushed Wamsted to reevaluate his staid warm-up routine and now that he’s pivoted to a new approach where “we hit the ground running,” once math class begins, he writes. “All I’ve missed is the time when I used to wheedle them to ‘do the warm-up problem, please.’” 

At the start of class, students see a playful message on the board that’s designed to start conversations: “Wednesday? Wow! Halfway through!” or “Test next week? Probably!” for example. He then briefly shows the day’s agenda on the board and follows up by showing a slide of some type of non-sequitur—he calls it his “cold open”—designed to generate more chatting: “It might be a picture of my dog. It might be a trivia question about the top five fastest land animals,” he notes. 

Attendance questions: Once the chatter dies down, Wamsted introduces an attendance question. “At its best, the attendance question connects to the cold open. … It lets me share something about myself and opens the door for my students to share a little bit with me,” he says. If he showed a photo of a dog during the cold open, his attendance question—inspired, he notes, by Jessica Kirkland, a 9th and 10th grade ELA teacher—might involve asking about his students’ pets, for example.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Student Voice
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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