By Cathy Sargent Mester
“Did you hear the one about the dog and the hot air balloon?” In reading that question, you decided whether to read more or not. This article, like every public act of communication, can succeed or fail with the impact of just a few precious seconds, those at the beginning of the message and those at the end. The importance of those seconds is especially critical when the public communication is oral rather than written, because listener attention is very lightly held overall. When we listen we are much more susceptible to physical and mental distractions than when we read. The good news, however, is that listeners are at the peak of their attentiveness at the opening and at the closing of an oral message. These are golden opportunity times.
With a strong beginning, we capture the listeners’ attention and interest. With a strong ending, we help the listeners to remember the main points just covered and make them interested in returning for more.
The classroom is just such a public communication event. As instructors, oral communication is our stock in trade and the students are our audience. Thus, whether the class is planned as a lecture or an interaction, the beginning and ending are critical components that should be specifically created in relation to the class goal and overall instructional design.
Students as Audience
In our dreams, we envision students eager to learn, excited about our subject, mentally focused, and well-prepared for each day’s work. Some students live up to our dream, but many do not. Often, they are mentally distracted by their other classes or even their out-of-class responsibilities to jobs and families. Some are physically drained by the demands of rushing between classes and dealing with a plethora of emotional stresses. As a result, they are not ready to learn the moment class begins and they start to think about their next set of responsibilities or problems well before the class ends. Consequently, during those golden seconds at the beginning and end of class, our listeners may not even be tuned in.
Knowing such communicative challenges of the classroom, many instructors have been propelled into creative action. They find techniques that entice student attention in the class’s beginning and enable remembering the day’s lesson in the closing.
Remember the sense of anticipation experienced when listening to the crescendo music of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” as the opening credits of 2001: The Space Odyssey rolled on screen? That’s strategic drama! It makes the listeners’ eyes rivet to the front of the room, their ears tuned to nothing but those sounds of the speaker’s creation, their whole being waiting to find out what comes next.
Though limited by classroom logistics a bit, we can still use a variety of dramatic devices to open a class and generate a similar degree of eager anticipation in our students. Props displayed, the instructor appearing in a role-playing costume, music playing, an opening humorous anecdote, or unexpected rearrangement of the classroom furniture can all have the effect of capturing the students’ attention instantly upon entering the room.
Props are noted as enhancements to attention no matter when used in a lesson, but if incorporated at the very beginning of the class, they can instantly grab the students’ curiosity and help them focus. Of course, props should never be displayed until they are relevant to the point being made. But an opening point that can be enhanced with a prop should be. Whether the item is as large and active as a live animal or as small and static as a coin, showing it to the students as a lead-in to the first point takes their random thoughts and transforms them into a perceptual set for understanding the day’s material. For instance, when teaching students about the impact of attention and prioritizing on memory, one professor begins by displaying enlarged, incomplete pennies and asks the students to “fill in the blanks.” The question is actually a stumper, which serves both to make the point about memory and to start their brains for the day’s lesson.
Nearly everyone has used props, but few instructors have experience with full-fledged role-playing, though many of us have tried it to a limited extent. One professor reports that just throwing on a bathrobe and entering class acting old and confused is a great way to capture the students’ attention for a discussion of dementia. Others, who have created entire costumed characters, complete with music and props, include instructors in the sciences, literature, politics, and social sciences. They all report the characters’ success in generating rapt attention from the students – a great state for them to be in as class begins.
As for opening anecdotes, suffice it to say that they are sure winners – even if the students don’t laugh. It is in the attention-getting department that they are winners, because our human nature makes us attend to a story. Students who hear a story are, at the very least, putting irrelevant thoughts out of their minds for those important opening seconds as they listen to your tale of the dog and the hot air balloon (or whatever the topic may be). They are focused, and that’s good.
We can even get students focused without saying a word. Classroom spaces, including chair arrangement, are subject to unwritten rules of uniformity. Even without assigned seats, students come in and sit in the same seat day after day. That physical routine sets them up to expect that each day is going to be the same as the last. So, surprise them by rearranging the chairs one day and you will instantly convey that they should expect something different from this day. A simple tactic, for instance, is to rope off the last row or turn all the seats to face one another instead of the front of the room. You will have their attention and their curiosity without having to say a word.
Initiate Interactive Learning
For a class intended to be interactive, it is best to begin with some kind of teacher-student dialogue. The classic example is in the foreign language classroom where roll calling is accompanied by specific questions for each student asked in the language being studied. The same methodology can be applied in any discipline, including psychology.
In order to be effective as discussion-starters, the questions must be answerable. Questions should not require recall of a specific point in the previous night’s reading, since the student may not have completed or understood the reading. If that were the case, opening questions just adds to existing stress rather than inviting curiosity about the day’s material. Instead, ask a personal question, such as “What did you eat for breakfast this morning,” “What model is your family car,” or “What color was your most recent clothing purchase?” Such questions could lay the groundwork for a discussion about subliminal impacts on judgments, for instance. Collectively, the questions will engage the students and make them wonder about the connection between the information elicited by the questions and the day’s stated topic. Although they may be confused as to the motivation for the questions, they are nonetheless intellectually engaged. Attentive and curious – now you’ve got them.
Similarly, we can successfully lure the students into discussion by opening with a case study. If the day’s focus is on the psychology of aging, you might begin with the story of the 90-year-old master swimmer, holder of several age-level sprint records, who is worried about the “younger girls” coming up. Just the juxtaposition of the words “90-year-old” and “sprint” should improve the reception on the students’ listening antennae. We can then build from there to entertain student perspectives on the assigned reading as well as their own experiences.
You might even open by creating your own case study, as in the classic thief-stealing-teacher’s-briefcase scenario opening a criminal justice class. That demonstration has been used to elicit attention in many classes dedicated to selective perception, stereotyping, selective memory, and other topics.
In the same vein, many instructors in the sciences and engineering find success by opening the class with a problem – no prelude, just a small problem to get students thinking. The same process works well for one award-winning psychology professor who begins a class about statistical probability by displaying a casino-style Plinko game and asking the students where to drop the chips in order to win. The problem turns on the students’ brains – they are ready for learning.
A Technical Caution
Given the current infatuation with instructional technology, a word of caution is needed about opening a technologically-assisted class. Many instructors have put together remarkable computer-assisted presentations that are carefully planned to fill the class period with vividly graphic, informative images. As impressive as that content is, we still need to have the students’ attention before dimming the lights. We must have piqued their curiosity at the start if we expect them to be receptive in the darkened room throughout the remainder of class. If that is not done, the first slide had better be Zarathustra-like.
“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.” When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote those words, he was not a teacher. He had no knowledge of our experience of finding our closing eloquence disrupted by the sounds of papers, books, pencils, and calculators being repacked in bookbags while last sips are noisily drained from cups and mugs. Yet his insight is well taken; ending a message is a great art.
We must plan to end, not have it thrust upon us by the clock. No matter how long the class session, wrap up the lecture or interactive activity at least five minutes before the class officially ends. Use those five minutes for some mnemonic strategy that provides a specific way for students to remember what was most important in this class hour.
Many faculty find that some version of a “Parting Paper” accomplishes this goal very effectively. Usable in a full range of disciplines, the assignment is for the students to write a summary of the lesson’s key points in under a minute or two. The papers are handed in and are awarded some credit towards a grade, so there is incentive for the students to be reasonably reflective and coherent. By writing such a summary, the students’ ability to remember the material weeks later is greatly improved.
One variation on the “Parting Paper” is to ask the students to write three questions for a pending exam based on the day’s material. Again, some credit is awarded, the students’ memory has been strengthened, and you have a head start on writing the exam.
Another writing option for the closing minutes of class is for students to make brief notes summarizing their own participation during the class period. The participation could have been outward, such as answering or asking questions. But participation could also refer to the students’ mental processing of what others have said. In that case, the assignment calls for the student to articulate personal reflections on the topics covered, which not only aids individual memory of the material but also engages the student in very meaningful metacognition.
Oral versions of these kinds of closing summaries also are possible. Some instructors report doing a “lightning round” of quick review questions on the day’s material. Being highly interactive, the oral “lightning round” definitely heightens student attention and crystallizes their mental focus on the class material, not what they have to do before their next class.
Finally, a very effective mnemonic device is to return to the questions or cases raised at the beginning of the class, asking for a post-analysis of that opening issue. This strategy ties up the class into a tidy package easily filed in the memory for later recall.
That’s what a good ending does – it makes the middle memorable.
Unlike the stand-alone character of most oral rhetoric, the classroom lesson is part of a continuing rhetoric. So, one function served by the lesson’s ending is the creation of interest in succeeding lessons. In the best theatrical tradition of “Who Shot J. R.” and every successful Friday soap opera episode, we must leave them wanting more.
The suggestion here is still to use those final seconds of class for some form of summing up, but also plan a “teaser” relating to upcoming material. For instance, describe another case study whose relevance appears mysterious, or pose a question that can only be answered by putting together today’s material with some not yet covered. In educational psychology, one instructor ended class with the question, “So, if individuals’ cognitive processing varies, what hope is there for learning in a class of 500 students?” Since many of the students were in classes that large, they were quite interested to come back the next class and consider the question.
Some instructors create suspense with an amazing quote or visual image that is interesting and memorable but not completely clear. For instance, you might summarize an introductory lesson about cognition and pose the question “What does thinking look like?” while displaying thermal images of brains at work. Looking something like colorful Rorschach tests, the puzzling images are rather dramatic. The strategy has the effect of making the students think about the image and the concept during the days in between class meetings and return with great opening questions.
An Overall Caution
All the ending strategies just mentioned work well – but only when the students are accustomed to paying attention at the end of class. It is imperative to establish something of a time-management contract with the students from day one of class. Agree to end class on time, every time, remind them of coming assignments without rushing at the end of each class, and never try to cram in one more segment in the waning moments of class. For their part, students agree to keep their notebooks open and coats on the chair backs until it is clear that the class is finished for the day.
Speaking of Finishing
Still wondering about the dog and the hot air balloon? This is the true and very comical and dramatic story of one Labrador Retriever’s frustrated attempts to leap to the noisy, colorful balloon sailing over his fenced-in yard. Like the optimistic dog, we, as faculty, are leaping for something seemingly beyond our grasp – in our case, student attention and memory. Unlike the dog, we actually have a chance of succeeding. If our efforts to create strong class entrances and exits are specifically and strategically planned as suggested here, even the noisiest and most colorful students will be ready to learn and ready to remember – our “balloon” retrieved.
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