Illustration by Alex Mitchell, MCAD MFA `16

One Weird Trick: Getting Started with Warm-Up Activities

First, the video primer:

My thoughts on teaching and warm-up activities, part of our new One Weird Trick video series.

As inspiration, I’ve included a few more examples of class openers below:

Example 1: What’s Wrong with this Picture

In my math classroom, I’ve used Michael Serra’s “What’s Wrong with this Picture?” as warm-ups. They’re visual, easy to start, and have just enough silliness to take the scare out of doing math.

Example from Michael Serra’s excellent book: “What’s Wrong with this Picture?”

Have students work in pairs to discuss/debate (typically 5 minutes). While they’re working, make the rounds listening to the conversations, posing guiding questions to those that may be stumped, or new questions to pairs that need an extra challenge.

When you bring a group together for discussion (another 5 minutes), it’s important ask students not just which are wrong and which are right, but also why.

TIP 1: Practice doing your warm-ups in the allotted time. You want to give students enough time to be successful, and leave yourself enough time for good discussion when questions arise. If you’re on a strict time budget, you may need to simplify the warm-up.

Example 2: Make It Match

When teaching my online Web Development course, I will often start with a simple activity where students need to recreate what they see.

In the activity below, students are given a screenshot of a Nav Menu and some basic HTML, they need to add CSS to make the bottom part look like the top screenshot.

Example coding warm-up from my Web Development 1 course, using CodePen’s awesome editor.

Warm-ups like this can seem like simple skill-review exercises on the surface, but when carefully designed have depth and require critical thinking.

The coding example above accomplishes several objectives:

  • Reviews previous content
  • Asks students to deconstruct a bigger problem into smaller ones
  • Allows the class to explore and analyze several solutions, each with their own tradeoffs (e.g. flexbox, inline-block, floats, positioning)
  • Acts as a good informal assessment: do all students understand? What misconceptions do they have? What connections are they making? What items might I need to review before proceeding?

TIP: In general, warm-ups that are open to multiple approaches and solutions are better. They allow for more points of entry, ensuring that you can challenge your fast students to go further in the allotted time (“Is this the only approach? Which one would you recommend?”).

Example 3: Compare/Contrast

Compare and contrast think-pair-share activities make for good warm-ups, too. For example:

Compare and contrast the User Interfaces of Ebay and Etsy
A handy screenshot of Ebay and Etsy

Start by having students work on their own for a couple minutes. Then, in pairs, they’ll share their ideas. Finally bring the whole class together and examine common themes to set the stage for further exploration.

Final Thoughts

Almost anything can be honed to become a good warm-up: games, puzzles, real/fake/silly world problems, news items, pop-culture, etc. I’ve even used silent warm-ups (“What am I doing? Why?”), where students just observe my actions and try to discern their purpose and how it may related to what’s coming up.

Remember that is a warm-up is a bridge which connects students to the upcoming learning activities. Keep it short, easy to start, and easy to extend.

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