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Five-Minute Interventions

Majid Alimani could sense from the moment students entered class that they were down. It was mid-semester week and students were exhausted and worried about their grades. He knew that today’s discussions were unlikely to be successful. Complicating the situation was the fact that today’s discussion topic was one of the more complex ones of the semester.

He decided to start class with each discussion group playing the “good news—bad news” game. He had one person in each group start with either a good news or bad news item. Then he asked someone else in the group to turn that into the opposite. He used the example: bad news – “I flunked my test today.” Good news – “I get to return to college for another football season.”

He gave each group five minutes to play the game. It didn’t take long for the entire class to lighten up. They were ready for a discussion. In fact, the discussions that day were outstanding. The groups seemed to be more creative. They were more responsive to each other’s comments. They were really enjoying themselves while they learned from each other.

We all have good days and bad days. Classes are like that also. We need to recognize the mood of the class and be able to adapt to it. That can be a challenge for faculty who carefully plan what they want to cover in class. In Alimani’s class, he realized that his original plan wouldn’t work given the lack of energy of his students. He invested five minutes to alter their mood. These five minutes were well invested because the result was a much better discussion than might otherwise have occurred.

How can faculty sense the mood of a class and adjust to it? Here are some ways:

  • Come to class early and talk with the students as they arrive. You can generally get a good sense of their mood when you talk to them.
  • Have a repertoire of five-minute interventions to use should you sense that students need a “warm-up” for the class discussion to follow.
  • Provide a segue at the end of the five-minute intervention to connect the intervention exercise to the discussion topic

You can also use the five-minute interventions to prepare students for the discussion. These could be stories, video clips, demonstrations, exercises, etc. Often these interactions can add a thread that runs through the discussion that day.

Glider pilots call themselves five-minute meteorologists because they have to adjust how they pilot the plane to the weather they expect in the next five minutes. As faculty, we often need to alter the “weather” of the class with five-minute interventions.

* * *

“While watching him work on the set of the film based on my life, I saw that whenever there was a stressful moment, Robin Williams would tap into his improvisation style to lighten the mood of the cast.” – Patch Adams, physician, comedian, and social activist


This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear on Wednesdays.