In your experience, what’s the hardest part of a lesson to design? For me, it’s the “hook”—the first screen of an eLearning course or the first few minutes of an instructor-led course. It’s not that it’s especially difficult, but it requires creative and careful thought. It’s also arguably the most critical part because it sets the tone for the rest of the lesson.
How do you effectively gain the learner’s attention and motivate them to want to learn what you have to teach?
What NOT to Do
Like most instructional designers, I was taught to list the learning objectives at the beginning of each lesson. After all, how will learners know what to expect and what to focus on if we don’t tell them the objectives? I’m embarrassed to admit this way of thinking has led me to create some boring slides in the past, similar to the one pictured below.
Be honest: did you read that list? As discussed in Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning, objectives have no benefit if learners don’t read them and reflect on them. And do you know learners who do that? I don’t.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t share the objectives with the learner at all. To paraphrase Michael Allen again, if you don’t provide guidance, the learner will set expectations of their own—which may or may not align with your intentions for the lesson. Communicating learning outcomes is important. But we have to do it in a way that is meaningful to the learner.
5 Ways to Start a Lesson
If we’re not supposed to start a lesson by listing the learning objectives, what should we be doing? I’ll share my five favorite lesson starters, with examples of how to transform the boring list of objectives into content that learners will care about.
1. Address Pain Points
Start with your learner’s pain points and how the lesson will help solve them.
Consider the lesson overview below, which uses the same objectives as the previous example, but this time, they’re communicated with the learner’s pain points in mind.
This example provides some context to help the learner answer the all-important question, “What’s In It For Me?” (WIIFM). It speaks directly to the learner instead of about them. Each bulleted item is shorter, and some of the instructional design jargon is eliminated, such as “for a given scenario.” The list is more meaningful to the learner than the complete wording of the learning objectives. However, there’s still a chance the learner will skip over it, because it’s still a bulleted list.
Ask a Thought-Provoking Question
Asking a reflection or critical thinking question at the beginning of a lesson can motivate learners to learn more while also activating prior knowledge, as Clark Quinn advises.
We could take essentially the same slide as the previous example and replace the bulleted list with a question that compels the learner to keep going to find out more.
Another approach is to ask a question that relies on activating the learner’s prior experiences to provide motivation and context.
3. Use a Teaser
There’s a reason your local news station will offer a sensational tidbit like “A pregnant mom is being hailed a hero for rescuing three children today” with a promise of “More at 11.” Teasers get our attention and leave us hungry for more.
Try writing your lesson introduction in the style of an internet headline or advertisement.
4. Tell a Story
By far, stories are one of the most effective ways to motivate and teach. Starting a lesson with a relevant scenario immediately shows learners how to apply the information in a real-world context. You can present the story using videos, animations, photos, illustrations, or even plain text.
5. Present a Challenge
Consider starting your lesson with a challenge question or even a brief quiz or self-assessment. I’ve had clients balk at the idea of “testing” learners before presenting content, but the fact is, it’s an effective way to teach.
Challenge questions pair nicely with scenarios, like wine and cheese. Let’s pick up where we left off in the previous example and follow up with a question.
Cathy Moore begins her book Map It with a short quiz called “Are You Infected?” Readers are asked to record their natural reactions to 10 statements (disagree, agree slightly, or agree completely). That quiz helped me see some fallacies in my thinking and compelled me to keep reading.
Think outside the pretest box. Keep the focus on engagement and motivation.
I like to start a lesson by using these five methods to motivate and engage learners:
- Addressing pain points
- Asking a question
- Using a teaser
- Telling a story
- Presenting a challenge
What are your favorite ways to begin a lesson? Post a comment below.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like last week’s post on using reflection in lesson summaries.
- Design for How People Learn, by Julie Dirksen
- Learning Science for Instructional Designers: From Cognition to Application, by Clark N. Quinn
- Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel
- Map It: The Hands-On Guide to Strategic Training Design, by Cathy Moore
- Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning: Building Interactive, Fun, and Effective Learning Programs for Any Company, by Michael Allen
- Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences, by Nancy Duarte
As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn a small amount if you purchase from the links above. This doesn’t cost you any more than you’d pay otherwise.
(P.S. If you want to know about the pregnant hero, it’s a real news story.)