Building Knowledge at the Beginning of Class
When designing our courses, most of us sequence the topics, assignments, and activities to build on one another. This approach tends to work well because our courses are also a series of experiences through which students construct knowledge and develop skills over time. Between class meetings, though, students take several other courses and have extracurricular experiences as well. When they arrive back in class, they may not recall exactly what they were working on during the last session, much less earlier in the semester. Starting with a brief recap helps to activate prior knowledge, so they can make connections.
In his book Small Teaching, James Lang explains the importance of remembering:
The challenge for students, or for any of us, is not jamming facts and information down into our long-term memories, but instead drawing those facts and information out when we need them…Every time we extract a piece of information or an experience from our memory, we are strengthening neural pathways that lead from our long-term memory into our working memory, where we can use our memories to think and take actions.
Thus, another benefit of starting class with a recap is that it can give students opportunities for retrieval practice. When they practice recalling pertinent information from the class, they get better at retrieving that information when they need it again, like on a quiz or an exam. For this to happen, though, the instructor can’t be the one to provide the recap; we need to prompt students to provide it, so they have the opportunity to recall and think about the information.
Lang suggests that the simplest way to do this is to begin class with questions that students can respond to either orally or in writing. You might ask them to recall topics or work done in the previous session or in several parts of the course. Even better than asking them to simply recall, you can ask them to think more deeply, for example by making connections or organizing information to main ideas and related details. The recap might take the form of a brief discussion, or if you want to make sure all students are getting retrieval practice (and not just the ones most comfortable speaking), you can ask them to respond to the question(s) first on a note card, or make it a survey in Canvas that students respond to on devices at the beginning of class. Providing a moment to think and to write can also help them feel more prepared to participate in a discussion.
If students have difficulty doing this recall at first, Lang encourages us not to give up on it:
If you have never tried this before, you might be surprised and disappointed at how difficult students will initially find such retrieval exercises. They will stare at you with jaws agape when you ask them about material you covered the day before yesterday—material you spent many hours preparing with care in your office. Take heart and persist. The more you do it, the better they will get at it—and the better they get at it, the more deeply they are learning from it.
So if starting class with some writing or a brief discussion doesn’t fit best for your teaching context, you might find another method of helping students remember and build on what they’ve been learning in the class: low-stakes quizzes, clicker questions, concept maps, small group activities, brief student-made recap videos, or something else. As our colleagues at Yale put it, “The ‘first five minutes’ is often heralded as the most crucial, and underappreciated, moment to promote student motivation and engagement.” We can use opening questions to draw our students into the class.
If you’d like support to design recaps that will prompt your students to recall information and build on what they’ve been learning, we’re happy to help. You can contact us at email@example.com. We look forward to working with you!