Intellectually taking hold of your students: The First Five Minutes

“I’ve lost them.”

I hate the realization that I have lost my class. I don’t care if I’m teaching 15 or 150 students, I want to grab a hold of their minds and fill them with critical information. This is particularly true in applied statistics.

We all know, many of our students don’t want to take applied stats. Let’s face it, some of our colleagues don’t even see it as being useful. And, there are even some people teaching applied statistics who don’t  want to! [I have tips for those who don’t want to teach stats here:]

But this world has some real problems facing it, and I suspect those of us teaching applied statistics understand how through the application of statistics … if done well … those problems can be solved. And as students grow to understand how statistics works, when to use it, what it can tell us and what it can’t, they begin to appreciate why applied statistics matters, too.

However, they aren’t going to naturally come to class with that understanding. Instead, they come to class worrying about everything from how they are going to pay their bills next month to are their eyebrows looking good! Most of our students are connected 24/7 to their phones that perpetually eat up their working memory capacity, and now we have to get them to focus on the class.

James Lang [] explains why the first five minutes of class matters so much. Lang also provides four examples of how to change up those first five minutes to encourage intellectual engagement. I encourage you to read his well written article. Building on his thoughts, I’m going to add a few of my own.

Students often want to take control of the first few minutes – Don’t let them:

I have been beginning my classes, including the first one of the semester, the way Lang describes since I’ve been teaching college. However, I always have …in every class … two or three students who want to interrupt the flow of the start of the class by asking about homework, or wanting back their exams, or any number of logistical issues that can and should wait. I would say about once every two years or so, the student is so insistent, class after class, I have to talk with them about what I am doing and why. Yes, questions are important, and students should feel welcomed to ask them … but as you are attempting to help students transition from the world into the classroom, you need to be the one to do that, and students questions or comments will disrupt that process.

Either deliver Logistical Issues before class starts or wait until the end of class: 

In my classes with student helpers,  I have the student helper put up a looping powerpoint for about 8 minutes before class begins. On it, there are reminders about upcoming assignments, quizzes, and office hours. For classes like applied statistics, when I finish one segment of the class and before transitioning to the next, that’s when I review the logistical issues of the class, never at the valuable beginning. As for attendance… I actually don’t take attendance on the first day of class, it eats up too much time. I take it before class starts. If I’m running late, I don’t take attendance that day.

Start with the working memory:

Remember, working memory is the amount of information a person can hold onto at any given moment and time. As professors we should do everything we can to maximize students’ working memory. That means, getting them to think about the class and nothing else. This is where Lang’s “Start with a Question” comes in handy.

You remember that looping powerpoint that my student helper puts up prior to the start of class? Interspersed between the logistical comments, I also include questions about information we have covered in the past to get the students thinking.

In applied statistics this makes so much sense … because aren’t we all about answering questions using statistics??? As a result, I make students come to the second class with a question they want to answer. In Quantitative Psychology, it has to be about Psychology … like, what causes happiness. In Quantitative Business Analysis it’s about a Business question, why are people willing to pay more money to shop at Wegmans where there is a much cheaper Walmart across the street. (etc.)

Some times I ask the question … some times I ask for a question. Often I’ll use that question as the basis for discussion during class as well.

However, we don’t just have to ask questions.  We can get students thinking and maximizing their working memory by also telling a story.  I start with saying … “On my drive into school…” Or yesterday I was reading … ” and the students pay attention. Whenever possible, I try to make it about something funny or shocking and always about statistics.

Another story approach is “The Statistical (or Psychometric) Schmuck of the Week.”  …

For this, I find a story or research about someone who has misused statistics (or psychometrics) in a way that it’s embarrassing! What a Schmuck … I’ll say to the class. [For those of you who don’t know, a schmuck is Yiddish slang for a foolish person. Use the slang that fits your student population.]

Some times if I don’t come in with a Schmuck of the week story for a while, they’ll even ask  for one! They love to hear about how people have drawn terrible conclusions by misusing statistics (or psychometrics).

The goal isn’t the question or the story, the goal is to get their attention, and maximize their working memory capacity while we prepare them to learn about statistics.

Activate their mental representations so they can receive the information:

I know … I’m showing my information processing roots. I do think of mental representations in a very Piagetian manner. That is I believe students form something akin to schematic structures regarding the information I am teaching. As a result, the best way to make sure the new information gets encoded and stored effectively is to activate the previously stored schema!  The best way to activate their schemata is by quizzing them or questioning them. Within the first 5 minutes of class, and even in between transition from one section to the next, I have my students retrieve information, and I always make them write it down first, while my student assistant and I walk around the class and give thumbs up to those who have gotten it correct.

So, for Tuesday’s class, I’ll be asking my students what were the four classifications of statistics we learned about last week. Write them down, and define them for me. After 30 seconds or so, I’ll put up the first letter of each of the four words.

They are …

  • Descriptive Statistics
  • Inferential Statistics
  • Hypothesis Testing Statistics
  • Finding Association Statistics

This not only helps students to evaluating the effectiveness of their studying, but it also serves as a “self test” thus they get all of the benefits of that. It provides me with a sense of who is on track and who might need a bit of a push. Most importantly, it activities the schema from the prior class, so the new information being added today will be more effectively encoded and hence stored.

James Lang isn’t alone in believing the most important time in your class is the first five minutes … make it count!

I hope your semester is off to a great start!

Happy teaching!!!


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