3 Ways to Engage Students in the First 5 Minutes of Class

Students' attention is highest during the first five minutes of class. Use that time to focus their attention and engage with the course material.

Active learning environments depend on student interaction, involvement, and engagement demand both you and your students to be ready, focused, and on-task. 

When you teach using any of the learning-centered or student-centered approaches, the quality of your class time depends on your students coming to class ready to participate and engage.

That’s why I recommend adding a focusing activity to the beginning of class, especially if you teach using flipped or active learning approaches.

What is a focusing activity?

A focusing activity is designed to focus students’ attention as soon as they walk into the room. It is designed to capture students’ attention about the topic, connect them to the course material, and encourage them to immediately engage with the content and with each other.

A focusing activity usually takes less than five minutes of class time, although you do need to set aside some planning time to decide which activity you want to use and what resources you and your students will need.

What are the benefits of focusing activities?

  • Students are more likely to arrive to class on time.
  • Students are more likely to be prepared and ready to participate.
  • Spark involvement and engagement immediately.
  • Transfer learning from the pre-class homework assignment.
  • Maintain momentum from one class to the next.
  • Assess student learning and identify areas of confusion.
  • Help establish routines in your course.
  • Enhance motivation as students see the value of preparing for class and engaging with their peers.

How is a focusing activity different than an icebreaker?

Focusing activities go one step further than icebreakers. Unlike many icebreakers, focusing activities are specifically connected to your learning outcomes. 

While both icebreakers and focusing activities can be used to set the stage for collaborative work, problem-solving, and the sharing of ideas, the difference is that a focusing activity is attached to the course content.

Here are three focusing activities you can use to engage students in the first five minutes of class:

1. Focus and engage students with a challenge

Some students enjoy a challenge, and this can be an effective and engaging way to start a lesson. Post a challenging question, prompt, problem, or task for students to review as they arrive to class. 

For example: How many of you can solve ______? Do you think it’s possible to ______?  You can solve ______, but what if I changed ______?  You can also set up challenge competitions between groups or teams if you need to raise the stakes.

2. Focus and engage students with "What’s missing?"

Give your students a list, an image, a problem, a formula, or a description of a concept based on a topic in your course. But, leave something out. See if your students can find what’s missing.

Encourage them to work alone, in pairs, or in groups.  This activity creates immediate curiosity and generates discussion as students try to figure out what’s missing – especially when it’s not immediately obvious.

3. Focus and engage students with a graph

Find or create a graph based on the topic for the day. Post it on the screen or provide it on a handout. As students arrive to class and as you prepare to begin, ask them to see if they can interpret the graph.

You can provide questions to prompt reflection, discussion, and debate:

  • What do they think this graph represents? 
  • What findings can they interpret from the data? 
  • What if the trend illustrated in the graph continues? 
  • Who is impacted by this data? 
  • What additional information is needed to interpret the results? 
  • What if you owned this business and data in this graph reflected your first quarter earnings. What decisions would you need to make? 
  • What factors can they identify which might have contributed to these findings? 

These questions will help students focus on what’s important and move them beyond simple interpretation into more complex analysis and evaluation.

I hope these three ideas help you think about new ways to design the first five minutes of your class time.

Get the book! FLIP the First 5 Minutes of Class: 50 Focusing Activities to Engage Your Students