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October 9, 2014

Teaching@Pitt: Building a strong beginning for your class


One element of a class frequently overlooked by faculty is the introduction to the day’s lesson. Typically, introductions have three functions: to help students recall what they already know; to communicate to students the objectives of the lesson, and to demonstrate the relevancy of new material.

You can help students recall what they know in varied ways. For example, when some students walk into a math or science class, they immediately can use skills from a previous class by working on a problem that is projected onto a screen. Comparing their answers with a neighbor’s prepares them for a class discussion about the problem.

A quiz based on the readings or the previous class also can be used to prepare students for a discussion. Alternatively, consider distributing a survey prior to class via CourseWeb and posting the results at the start of class. This strategy is good for identifying assumptions and attitudes that the upcoming class will address.

Regardless of the tactic used, notice that you are not telling the class what they have covered previously.  Rather, the students are providing the information about their knowledge. By letting the students recall and reveal what they know, you are activating their readiness to learn and revealing errors or gaps in their thinking so that you can address these misconceptions before progressing.

After encouraging students to recall prior knowledge, it is important to inform students about the objectives, or what they are expected to know and be able to do after that class. This alerts students to the skills they should focus on that day. Communicating the objectives also provides students with a study guide. When you explicitly tie your assessments to the course objectives, students become aware that they are being told what will be on the test. Just imagine your students’ attention when they realize that nugget of gold.

The last element of the introduction to the day’s lesson, establishing relevancy, is an area where your creativity can flourish. A relevant lesson answers the questions, “Why does it matter?” or “How does it connect to or dispute what we already know?” As a way of sharing the relevancy of content, Ken Bain, author of “What the Best College Teachers Do,” advocates posing an “intriguing and beautiful problem” that is authentic to the field, inviting the class to tackle the problem either silently while listening to the instructor or by reasoning aloud with other students.

Establishing relevancy can be emphasized by explicitly sharing the way a lesson is organized. In “How Learning Works,” Susan Ambrose and her colleagues recommend beginning each lecture, lab or discussion by communicating the organization of the lesson. When students realize how a lesson is organized, it helps establish a framework for retrieving key ideas. When students learn that they will be learning the features of concepts, the application of a model or the four factors leading up to a specific event, a foundation is laid for future lessons.

Carol Washburn is a senior instructional designer at CIDDE.