How to grab students' attention in five minutes or less

Chris Solieri

After 5 years of higher education graduating with a BA Hons from RHUL and an MA from Durham University, Chris has somehow retained an indubitable passion for education.

Now, the lead blog editor for LearnersCloud, a unique e-learning GCSE resource provider, Chris’s passion for innovative technologies has flourished and with it, a desire to share his own insights, reviews and experiences on integrating effective technologies within the classroom.

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Remember that moment when you get home from work or back from a night class and your partner’s in a bad mood? How long does it usually take you to work it out? Hours? Minutes? A few seconds?

Most of the people I ask say a few seconds, some even go as far to say that they can tell before they’ve even stepped foot in the room. However long it takes you, students are no different, they’ll make up their mind whether the lesson will be enjoyable or not within the first five minutes. This can mean the difference between an engaged learner and a disruptive one, and once an opinion has been formed it can take a lot for that to be changed.

TV show producers are all too familiar with this, which is why they’ll often pack the best bits in the opening five minutes, particularly if its only recently been aired. Great scripts, stories, and shows convince the viewer to stay tuned, to want to turn the next page and not be able to put a book down.

In this article we’ve cherry picked our favourite classroom tricks that’ll grab students' attention and get them focussed from the outset.

1. Energy that’s contagious

In each lesson try and teach a topic, section or question that you’re passionate about or use a method of teaching that you’re excited to use or test.

Within most schools there is a set curriculum, with set expectations on how to deliver it. But even when this is the case you can still bring in your own resources, whether it’s a news cutting, YouTube clip or podcast – building in your own unique subject content can spark discussions, raise opinions and infuse the class with a desire to speak and be heard.

Creating energetic intro tasks that get students on their feet and active, immediately tells the student that the lesson isn’t going to be a traditional textbook lesson, and demands their attention in order to keep up with the pace and to stay on task.

2. Lesson teasers

It’s never been a secret that the purpose of trailers, commercials and sound bites are to spark interest, to whet the audience’s appetite and leave them waiting for the next instalment. I’m not sure about you but I couldn’t wait for The Hobbit movie to be released after seeing the advert first appear on TV. Done well, teasers work – they grab attention and instil a need to want more – so why aren’t more of us using these in the classroom?

Teasers don’t need to be complex or take up endless amounts of time, they just need to be provocative. A statement about the current or upcoming lesson, what’s in store. Try and sensationalise it slightly without over doing it.

The response I usually go for is: "I wouldn’t mind seeing that or how do you think he’s going to do that?"

Here’s an example. Which one would motivate you more?

"In next week’s lesson we’ll be making mayonnaise" or "In next week’s lesson we’ll be covering emulsions and their applications?"

In order for a lesson teaser to work effectively, there are two key components. Firstly, the subject of the teaser must be related to the lesson content. An abstract, boring or irrelevant teaser is useless. Secondly, there must be substance to the statement or claim (teach what you preach). Students will quickly become wise to your tactics and stop paying attention if you fail to deliver, and their expectations are not met in the following lesson. Take the emulsions teaser as an example. Yes, the content knowledge centres on the scientific detail but by contextualising and making the lesson plan light hearted, group-based and engaging, students immediately become more attentive and interested.

The best teasers are ones that are well considered. This may take up a bit more time but once you become familiar using them you’ll fine tune your ability to come up with new ones.

You could even set it as a friendly challenge between your fellow teachers to give you that extra incentive to be more creative.

3. Creating the compelling

Most of us, at one point or another, have forgotten the artist of a song or the star of that famous TV show. It’s probably played on your mind for a while before it gets too much and you decide to Google it or ask a friend for the answer. It’s usually at the tip of your tongue, and when you get told the answer the sense of frustration is surprising. Imagine starting a lesson where students were posed a question that they had to find the answer to, not just because it was an assigned task but because they felt compelled to.

Based on the principle that questions should come before answers, asking a great question before anything else is explained can build a desire, a need to find out more – provided the question is compelling.

To create a question that captivates your learners you’ll typically need to consider three elements:

  1. relevancy to the subject or topic
  2. they target a student's interests and beliefs
  3. they amplify each individual’s sense of wonderment and curiosity

"What’s the tallest rollercoaster you’ve been on?" (Forces, motion and acceleration – GCSE Physics)

"How many Shakespeare plays have been made into Hollywood movies?" (English Literature)

"Why don’t 'good' and 'food' rhyme?" (English Language)

Whether they’re insightful, challenging or plain annoying, questions like the ones above excite students by differentiating from the way material is usually presented and raises their level of engagement.

The tips I’ve mentioned here are quick and easy to start using; let me know how you get on and please do share any compelling questions or lesson teasers that you come up with below.

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