There are many ways to start a lesson. Some teachers start with a discussion point, some go straight into an explanation and some just have students write a title, date and learning objective. One lesson starter growing in popularity is to start with a number of questions on prior learning that students complete in silence. This kind of starter takes many names, and is often referred to as a Do Now.
In a recent Carousel webinar, I asked participants what the point of starting a lesson like this was. Here are some of the results:
“Settler, a bit of retrieval and info for me on what we need to work on”
“Students can get started immediately, retrieval”
“As retrieval for the beginning of the lesson”
“Retrieval and retention”
“Quick recall check/help settle students for lesson etc.”
“To ascertain knowing and understanding of all pupils”
“engagement and retrieval”
To try and condense these a bit, we have:
● To settle the class (behaviour)
● To provide retrieval practice (memory)
● To gather information about student knowledge over time (assessment)
If you had asked me a couple of years ago what the point of a Do Now is I would have given you the exact same answers and, to be clear, they are definitely strong justifications. But, in an important way, they are also strikingly inadequate. In this post, I’d like to explain why as well as suggest a fourth and more important reason to start your lesson with a Do Now.
Are Do Nows there to settle the class?
It’s probably not particularly controversial to point out that any quiet and independent activity would do to settle your class. The two key variables here are:
- The way you bring the class in, challenge non-compliance and get quiet
- The difficulty of the task
If the task is too challenging, you probably won’t do a great job of settling the class, as students are likely to stop doing the task and get distracted. Some students will just call out their question to you, and others will put their hands up and have a quiet chat with a neighbour. Noise begets noise, and the “settled class” atmosphere you were aiming for will not descend. Conversely, if the task is too easy (or short) your students will rattle through it and are likely to then start the noise off like above.
In the first years of my teaching, I confess that because of all this my starters were all long and super-easy, things like codebreakers and wordsearches. In terms of actual learning, they left quite a bit to be desired, but the students settled into them pretty quickly. Retrieval practice, by contrast, can be deceptively difficult. Often, teachers assume that simple recall questions are “easy” because they are low down on Bloom’s taxonomy or the like, but in reality if you are using content students haven’t seen in a while, their memory has faded so much that even such straightforward questions can be extremely difficult.
These questions may look easy, but if students haven’t seen them for a long time they can be challenging to the point of becoming impossible
So yes, a Do Now featuring retrieval practice can help to settle your class, but if that were the only goal then, being honest with ourselves, we would probably pick something easier and a bit less rigorous.
Are Do Nows there to give you information about student knowledge over time?
This one is a little complicated. If you do a Do Now, and your students don’t know the answer to whatever question, you can make an inference that they don’t possess that knowledge. But gathering that information is complicated. Some issues include:
● To really see what students have written, you need to circulate extensively, something which is often sacrificed to the register and other start-of-lesson admin.
● In review, you can verbally ask a student what they wrote, but that only gives you one piece of information
● You can always say things like “hands up if you agree” or “hands up if you got it right” but those strategies rely quite heavily on students being genuinely honest and rigorous with their assessment
● The best thing to do would be to use mini-whiteboards, but that would totally kill the “settler” element of the Do Now
So do Do Nows give you information about student knowledge over time? Again, yes, but they probably aren’t the best way to do so.
Are Do Nows there to provide retrieval practice?
Next up is the stated goal of providing retrieval practice. Answering questions on prior content is pretty much the definition of retrieval practice, so I’m not going to attack the point directly. Instead, I’m going to address the way it actually plays out in the classroom. All too often, teachers implement a Do Now every lesson, but that’s close to the sum total of the retrieval practice that their class does on prior learning. The class might do some exam questions in the run up to a test, but by and large this is the only time students are exposed to content from days, weeks, months and years ago.
A simple and inelegant calculation shows the inadequacy of such approaches. My GCSE chemistry question bank has somewhere north of 550 questions in it. If I wanted to ask each question just twice over a two year course, I would need 1100 questions to do so. If I did a 5-question starter each lesson, I would need about 220 lessons. Across the two year GCSE course, I only have around 150 lessons, which is patently too few. And that’s for just two repetitions. For most individual questions and most classes I’m probably hoping for closer to ten repetitions for every question. Needless to say, 5 questions a lesson isn’t going to cut it.
You could counter that most teachers will embed questions into the body of their lessons and resources as well, but I’m not sure that’s true. The standard issue science text-books don’t do this, neither do revision guides or the majority of in-house schemes of work that I’ve seen (probably around 15). So it may be the case that some teachers do this, but I doubt most teachers do.
One of the most common issues teachers raise with me regarding their starters is that they take too long. They discover that their students don’t know anything and end up having to spend many precious minutes in review. My answer: if this is the only retrieval you are doing, then that’s why it takes so long. Your students are just forgetting everything, and your starters will never be enough.
So are Do Nows there to provide retrieval practice? Yes, in a sense. Students are doing retrieval practice. But if that’s all the retrieval they do, or even most of it, you aren’t going to achieve much.
So what is the point of the Do Now?
In our department, we have come to view the Do Now differently, based on the central issue of students getting enough retrieval practice. We know that an in-class Do Now is never going to be enough retrieval, so we make sure we set massive amounts of retrieval as homework on Carousel. This allows us to very easily triple or quadruple the amount of retrieval students are getting. However, whilst we have put in mechanisms to stop students from cheating or taking the easy way out with their retrieval, we can’t be sure that they are doing it properly. So instead of thinking about Do Nows as:
● I use my Do Now to give my students retrieval practice in class
we think of the Do Now as:
● I use Carousel to give my students retrieval practice at home, and use the Do Now to check they are doing it properly
Our circulation and Do Now review is not focussed on specifically what the students got right or wrong, but it’s focussed on whether they got things right or wrong. If students are getting lots of questions right, then all is well and we don’t worry too much about which questions they are and what frequency they have come up with and the like. But if they are getting them wrong or leaving them blank (easiest to spot in circulation), then we know there is an issue with the way they are doing retrieval at home, and we intervene accordingly. We make sure students do all their Do Nows in the back of their books and mark them in a different colour pen not because of arbitrary-school-things-like-pen-colour, but because it allows us at any point in the year to quickly leaf through the back of their book and see how they are doing in the Do Now, and thereby infer if they are doing retrieval properly at home.
It’s not a total 180° turn, because the three reasons we looked at first are still there. It is a settling activity. It is retrieval practice. It is an opportunity for us to figure out if there are specific things students know. But, for us, this fourth reason is more important because it tells us about something bigger than this one lesson today, and this one piece of information — it tells us if students are doing the hard work at home. Because, ultimately, however good our explanations, however deep our relationships, however skillfully crafted our checks for understanding — it’s retrieval practice which will make the biggest difference to what students know and can do in weeks, months and even years from now.
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