More Ideas to Engage Learners From the Moment They Walk in the Door

This week our author Jennifer Stanchfield follows up on her August 25th post by offering more ideas to engage learners from the moment they walk in the door.

Strong Beginnings: Engaging Learners From the moment they Walk in the Door Part Two:

“It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task, which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.” -William James

Starting Off with Style:

Jennifer Stanchfield's Blog Post on Reflection

The first few minutes of an experience or lesson are a key time to hook and engage learners. Evidence shows that people remember most about the first few minutes of a learning experience, and secondly the last few minutes of learning experience. (Sousa, 2006, Medina, 2008). Some educators and cognitive neuro-scientists call this the primacy-recency effect (Sousa, 2006). This validates the importance of facilitating an engaging opening activity as well as providing some reflective prompt to “tie it all together” or “bookend” a learning experience. This research suggests it also might make sense to create as many introductory and closing moments as possible in your teaching and group facilitation.

Engage learners from the moment they walk in the door. Rather than using these precious moments for focusing on taking attendance, collecting homework, or other “administrative” duties, involve students in an activity that helps them transition into the learning environment, make positive connections with their peers, explore or review the academic material at hand and most importantly shift their focus to the “here and now.”

In workshop or group situations or when a classroom group is coming together for the first time, participants can feel awkward. Providing an activity for them as the group gathers together prior to a session or meeting can create a welcome focus and a way for them to connect with each other. A novel activity engages learners right away and helps draw learners into a positive experience and create buy-in to increase engagement.

In last month’s post I shared about using Dominoes, Postcards and Quotes as a way to draw learners into a lesson or transition into a classroom space. Here are a couple more of my favorite approaches for engaging groups from the moment they walk in the door:

Pin Back Buttons “Conversation Starters”

Conversation Starters From Experiential Tools

This is one of my “tried and true” activities for engaging educators, college leaders, business groups and other participants in laughter and dialogue together during a professional development session or meeting. I use pin back buttons from my collection of “Conversation Starters” with witty sayings such as “Same old circus different clowns,” “As is,” “Turn it up to 11,” “Keep Calm and Carry On,” or “It’s never too late to learn playground skills.” Lay them out on a table as participants enter for the program or meeting and ask them to choose one that represents their mood or attitude. The buttons are a way to transition into a classroom or workshop space. They also bring humor into group settings where individuals are reluctant to participate, helping them buy into the group process through humor. Resource: You can make your own buttons with a buttonmaker, or my own “Conversation Starters”  kits of 50 buttons are available at

Computer Keyboard Keys
A few years ago, Andy La Pointe from You Inc. (a therapeutic youth residential treatment and school program in Massachusetts) was inspired after one of our workshops on processing/reflection tools. He walked by a stack of keyboards in the recycle bin, and it sparked an idea.

When I arrived at his site for another workshop, he handed me a bag filled with the pieces of the keyboards that he had recycled. He said, “I bet these would be interesting to try with a group.” We tried them that day with his colleagues. After engaging in a problem-solving activity we asked group members to choose a key that represented their role in the process. I was impressed with the conversation the keys initiated and the connections group members made to various keys. It can be surprising where conversations go using such a simple tool.

Jennifer Stanchfield's Experiential Learning Post

Since that time, I have used them for an introductory or transitional activity as well as a processing tool. On the first Monday in January, after holiday break, I was working with middle school students. I asked them each to pick a keyboard key that represented their new years resolution as they entered the classroom. The way the students used the keys to represent their hopes and goals was creative and memorable. (For specific examples from the classroom see my “Inspired Educator” April 2011 post click here.)

At the very least take the time to greet your students/participants at the door. There have been a few interesting studies about the positive effect on student outcomes in classrooms where teachers greet students at the door upon entering the classroom (Allday & Pakurar, 2007, S. Patterson, 2009 and Weinstein et al. 2009). These studies involving both college students and middle school students suggest that when educators take the time to say hello students as they entered the classroom on-task behavior and performance can be positively impacted.

There is great opportunity for positively influencing learning outcomes by intentionally designing a strong beginning or “hook” for your lesson or group experience. Whether it is the start of a new program, the first day of the school year, the start of a single classroom session, or the beginning of a unit, the tone we set in the classroom and the frame and context we set for a lesson can greatly impact student engagement and retention.

Stanchfield, Jennifer Tips & Tools: The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation. 2007 Wood N Barnes Publisher, Bethany Oklahoma

Medina, John. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Sousa, David. (2006). How the Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

R. Allan Allday and Kerri Pakurar: Effects of Teacher Greetings on Student On-Task Behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analaysis. Summer 2007; 40(2) p317-20

Patterson, S., The Effects of Teacher-Student Small Talk on Out-of-Seat Behavior. Education and Treatment of Children Vol. 32, No. 1, 2009.

Weinstein, L., Laverghetta, A., Alexander, R. & Steward, M.:Teacher Greetings Increase College Student’s Test Scores. College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) June, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 2



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