The first 60 seconds

By Alex More

Your students have been born into a time within our history where knowledge is instant. At a click of a button or a tap, they have access to a wealth of learning resources so are used to instantaneous interaction. That’s why the first 60 seconds of your lesson are the most important, students need a quick engaging hook to get them interested. Call them starters, engagers, hooks or DNAs (Do Now Activities), they are all designed to do the same thing; gain interest and capture imaginations.

Here are a few I have been playing experimenting with complete with a brief explanation so you can have a go in your classroom. I am going to use activities that use Recall and low access, high challenge to engage students.


This task is simple, give each student a post it note and tell them they have 30 seconds to look at the image and then recall as many letters as they can, in any order. Have a go at this yourself ! 

How many did you get?

They key here is to keep to time very short and create a high cognitive load. After 30 seconds of looking at the image, ask them to write down as many letters as they can. Self-marking or peer marking works well and most students score between 10 and 12 correct letters.

Same but different – Recall 

Show them this image. Take a look at the letters, do you recognise them? Have you seen them before? Give students 30 seconds to do this task. 

I am sure you have worked out they are the same letters but presented in a way that is memorable, a way we can recall them and store them as identifiable schema. It goes without saying students ace this task with many scoring 100%. 

Have a conversation about why the second image is so much easier to recall than the first. Many students will tell you it’s due to the familiar pairings of the letters into acronyms that make sense to them. 

Taking recall a step further 

This is a tough task. Create 5 lines of random numbers with no sequential or numerical relevance to each other. Let me give you an example; 

311, 72, 9, 1020 & 239 

Just read the numbers out as you have written them and inform the students they can only listen and cannot write down any of the numbers until you clap your hands. Only when you clap your hands can they write the numbers down and they must do this in the order you read them out. 

Warning! This activity gets competitive and can be progressed to include key words, lesson objectives and get stats with a little savvy. In terms of focusing learning at the start of the lesson and highlighting the importance of listening and concentrating, it’s a game changer. Here is a numerical sequence you could use that adds up to 25 points.

Line 1:                   311, 72, 9, 1020 & 239 

Line 2:                  9, 414, 3034, 45, 856, 32

Line 3:                 81, 717, 0, 65, 847, 34, 117

Line 4:                 67, 82, 62516, 7980, 3, 43 & 6

Allocate one mark for each number that they record in the correct sequential order. The total is 25 marks so multiply by 4 to get a %. To make it even harder, drop in random facts and distracting stories between number sequences and watch students swirm as they battle to keep focus and recall the number lines. 

Recall using images 

Sticking with the theme of recall, magic happens when you replace numbers and letters with pictures. I teach students how to create memory palaces and these activities form the best foundation to really show how powerful images can be when recalling. 

The Emoji challenge 

You have 30 seconds to look at the image below. After 30 seconds you will be asked to DRAW as many of the emoji’s as you can. 

Ok, so most students recall between 6 and 8 emojis. The surfer, aubergine, peach, beer and santa. The ‘moai’ are quite popular too. Some of their drawings will be funny, perhaps offer bonus marks for detail (colour, likeness and scale). 

Create a story themed around ‘happiness’ that links 5 emojis. 

Creating and synthesis sit at the top of Bloom’s temple for taxonomy for a reason, they are hard to do. Starting a lesson with a creating task places quite a lot of stress on the cognitive load. Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is research based on the conceptual difference between the working and the long term memory and provides a number of strategies to optimise instruction within that framework. 

When students are asked to create a story or a narrative they begin to link pieces of information together. In this case, making a story they can read aloud keeps the mind focused on the task and gives students a reason to create fiction. To increase cognitive load enforce a time limit or perhaps allocate more emojis and themes. This is a great lead into memory palaces which use an ancient mind-mapping skill called the method of loci. The power of using images for recall is evident over time as students retrieve stories from their long term memory and recite them, or at least all the key words and characters. 

Low access, high challenge

Keeping the theme of images to spark curiosity ‘low access, high challenge’ is exactly what it claims to be. The ‘low access’ refers simply to the ease of which young people can relate to images. Everyone can interpret an image and express an opinion about that image so for that reason it’s an inclusive starter. Let’s look at the most basic form of low access, high challenge. 

Select an image. This image happens to be of some colour cards, perhaps from paint tin samples. Pick a simple question to provokes a response. 

The low access response could be simply the colour ‘blue’. In terms of high access, where you take the conversation next will determine how high the challenge goes. Let’s use Bloom’s Taxonomy as the mechanism to drive this particular discussion and scaffold our layers of questions to progress up the pyramid. 

How you can scaffold low access, high challenge. 

  1. What colour would you pick? Recall the options and select one so ‘remembering’ 
  2. Why did you select that colour? Understanding the colour you chose and the reason why, perhaps offering an explanation that applies your decision to a specific context. 
  3. Find 3 other people that selected the same colour as you and analyse their reasons for selecting that colour. 
  4. Evaluate the classes colour spectrum choices and create a way to measure this as a valid research instrument 

All of the above can be achieved in 4-5 minutes. All students should be able to access steps 1 & 2 which are the low access steps. Remembering and Understanding are important steps but not as difficult as evaluating and creating. To evaluate something you need sufficient background knowledge that contains all the facts. Here lies the high challenge element. Steps 3 and 4 can be offered to students who progress through the initial steps quickly. 

Starting a lesson with an image that requires students to make a decision is also a good way to go. Inevitably, students will have contrasting views and opinions which can lead to a healthy debate. Have a look at the examples below.

Screenshot 2019-03-03 at 7.33.47 AM

Using images to increase cognitive load. 

To increase the level of challenge students could be asked to create a question from an image and the answer. This creates high cognitive load and requires students to think deeply. 

Here is the answer … TO SCARE THE WASPS … what is the question?

There are many potential answers, but students reaching the answer is not the important thing about this activity. Deep thinking and problem solving are the key things you are aiming for, challenging and great to engage minds from the offset. 

Think like a Scientist, Historian, Explorer, Sports physio etc …  

Whilst I am a firm believer that students should use thinking skills across subjects, cross-curricular thinking, I acknowledge the need to think subject specific sometimes too. There are a wealth of websites out there with inspiring images you can lift and borrow, just make sure you credit the creator. Let’s try Unsplash which is a free image platform you can utilise to get inspiring, free images on to your screens. 

Step 1: Find an image that represents what your lesson focus will be. I taught a lesson on media in sport last week and used this image.

Within 10 seconds of the image going up, one of the students suggested the image might have been taken by a drone. This led to a short debate about whether drone cameras were invasive and a breach of privacy, which led to a discussion about sport and how famous footballers have to act responsibly in front of the media. The lesson was about media and sport and the golden triangle so by displaying one image students thought openly and came up with the sport-related content. A few also mentioned they would like to go on holiday to this place. 

Where is the Science in this? 

Where is the poetry in this? 

Where is the geography, history in this image? 

Creating links between images 

The next level on from single images is to present two images and ask students to make the link, create the story. Cognitive load comes into play here again as this is hard and requires complex thinking processes to take place. To structure this task use 5-3-1

5-3-1 is an organisational tool that students enjoy applying. For the image below, ask them to make 5 possible links between both images. Allow approximately 60 seconds for this. Next step is to discard the worst two links and keep three solid links they believe have credibility. Finally, select the one link that best represents your thinking and be prepared to justify that link. By this stage they have navigated around most of Bloom’s and will be confident to articulate their thinking out loud. Share opinions and offer students the chance to change their mind. 

So, there we go, lots of engaging starters to try with your students. Have a go and let us know how you go. 


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