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Lesson Planning

Maximising Learning Time: Effective Lesson Starts

As February starts, teachers with examination groups across the country suddenly become acutely aware of the passage of time; seconds, minutes, hours, lessons, days, weeks, months; no matter how you measure it the looming examination season tends to sharpen focus on what has been done and what there is still to do when supporting students towards performing at their individual best in May or June.

Our recent NTEN CPD audit has made me reflect upon the concept of diagnosis.  What am I expecting to see at different stages of a lesson? After discussions with colleagues the importance of an efficient start to all lessons became an important focus; if learning time can be maximised then we are helping to make the best use of the remaining available time.

The old phrase, “you never get a second chance at a first impression” is acutely accurate in the context of teaching.  The start of every lesson gives students their first impression about what the lesson ahead of them holds and how they should approach it. I often feel that students are like mirrors; the image or messages they reflect back can tell us a great deal about the messages, intentional or subliminal, that we are broadcasting.

It is important to remember that in this post I am just referring to the first few minutes of a lesson as students enter and engage with learning, not necessarily the Connect stage of the lesson (in Oriel terms) when links between previous learning and planned learning for the lesson ahead are drawn.

I consider there to be three key areas to the start of lessons: (notice none of them involve the copying out of a learning objective!)

Effective lesson starts

It is clear that there are several tactics that the most effective teachers employ during the three key stages at the start of each lesson to ensure that is as time and learning efficient as possible:


Students are welcomed as individuals by a friendly well prepared teacher and directed to the planned initial learning activity.  In old money this was the starter, but the best teachers clearly do more than just throw a worksheet on the desk with a cheerful, “crack on…!”  The best examples have teachers coaching from the moment students enter the room, expectations are reinforced, issues are dealt with before they arise to ensure that maximum time is spent on learning. There is something very powerful in the message delivered by a smiling and well prepared teacher that sets the tone for what is about to happen in the forthcoming lesson.  The sub text clearly reads, “Welcome to my lesson, in which you will be learning and be progressing towards your goal with my help and support.”


The first learning activity in a lesson is of vital importance.  Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion calls this the Do Now.  The level of challenge is vital; too easy and the message is sent that it is an irrelevant activity, too hard and the degree of struggle may cause a slower start than planned! Remember that this is not the time to introduce brand new concepts, the aim is for students to engage with challenge yet accessible learning. This is an ideal opportunity to include some distributed practice into your lessons. Aim for students to become stuck and with your help unstuck in their learning to occur later in the lesson.  Work that is designed for individual completion is an essential component of the effective start to lessons; whilst I am a strong advocate for group work and collaborative learning this has to be carefully managed.  It is my view that this process happens best when managed well by the teacher, the initial five minutes of a lesson as students enter the room is not the best time to achieve this.

Whilst the students are engaging with the initial learning task the teacher has several important tasks to undertake:

Don’t engage! Ensure that the students are doing the work and exhibiting on task behaviour; not getting you to answer question after question.  Carefully pitched work and clear expectations will help in this.  The first time you really go to town on this your class may take a bit of time to get used to it if it is a change from your usual routine.  Persevere!

Scanning the room to see if they can spot students who are struggling; try to break down the barrier to understanding if you can without providing the answers.  If the task has been carefully chosen this shouldn’t be a problem unless you are revisiting learning from some time ago.  If students become stuck this can send a powerful diagnostic message to the teacher for future planning.

Planning who will assist in the review.  Who will you question? How will you extend answers and thinking? Maximum coverage? Maximum engagement?


The key elements of this stage are:

Checking for completion and accuracy.  Make the students accountable, after all it is their learning.  This will go a long way to reinforcing expectations.  If there are inaccuracies what caused them?  Is it an individual or class issue?  React accordingly; a whole class issue requires some reteaching, an individual issue requires a student specific action.  Without time on your side it is important for everybody for teachers to be able to make this distinction accurately and effectively.

Extending or reinforcing learning with questioning.

Can you reinforce a keyword or concept quickly & efficiently?

Which students did you plan to use in the review?

Are you involving many students as possible?

Once you have checked for accuracy do you provide an opportunity for self reflection or paired discussion about the what and why of any inaccuracies?

I have included the powerpoint presentation from the Thursday Morning Thriller session on March 15th for download below.  It was a great session with a bumper crowd!

Effective Lesson Starts

Click the image below to download the strong start guidance notes from Teach Like A Champion, they do have some really useful resources available here about a range of topics.

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 10.41.40

Credit: www.teachlikeachampion.com

To make the most of the learning time available we have to make the most of every minute in every lesson.  The approach above works for those who use it, indeed many of us use this approach without realising it!  I always find it useful at this time of year to reflect upon this part of my lessons as the impact of an effective start to every lesson has an impact upon much more than the first five minutes of the lesson; it can set the tone for the next five months!




  1. Pingback: Connect: quick out of the blocks! | Purple Pedagogy - January 31, 2015

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