Get Students' Attention Right from the Start of Class

“Let’s begin today where we stopped last class.”

How many college classes start this way every day? Some students attend by searching their notes or books to discover where the prior class concluded. But, for most learners, this opening fails to capture their attention, and they struggle to find some connections to the topic.

Here are a few ways to get students’ attention and prevent disconnect at the beginning of class:

Appeal to their senses. Instructional strategies to gain attention could be a demonstration, music, a large sign with information or a symbol, or a colorful display. A geology professor begins a presentation on caves by giving student teams rocks of various shapes and sizes. He then asks them to study the rocks and name some of their features. A history professor opens class on an era in 20th century America by playing popular songs from that time period.

Create an element of surprise. For example, novelty and incongruity are incorporated when I bring my Labrador retriever to an educational psychology class. She performs several tricks she has been taught using the behavioral learning principles of reinforcement and shaping. I follow up the demonstration by asking questions like, “How did Lipstick (the dog) learn to dance; to fetch?”

A Spanish professor I know uses novelty and incongruity to begin an intermediate-level class. He comes in dressed as a bandit and “robs” several students. He later returns as a police officer and asks for a description of the bandit. He integrates this opening into a lesson that aims to help students distinguish between two different verb tenses.
Use humor or emotion to capture attention. Though my joke-telling skills are limited, I have been successful in using an array of cartoons and comic strips to orient a class to a topic. Other strategies that depend on emotionality include those that personalize an opening by integrating student names into a story, question, or puzzle; current local media topics; or relevant campus issues. For example, the college’s team budgets as well as the athletic participation statistics for men and women are posted as the introduction and attention-getter to Title IX discussions in a women’s studies class.

Excerpted from Bored and Ignored or Gained and Maintained: Role of Attention in Beginning Class, The Teaching Professor, June-July 2005.