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7 Teaching Strategies for Building Anticipation

Jordan Catapano

So often I walk into a classroom and announce, “Today we’ll be learning about ____________.” I fill in the blank with the teaching strategies for the day, and then I dive headlong into the lesson itself. When I start that way, students have no time to adjust themselves to the learning we’ll engage in that hour and have not had their background knowledge activated. One easy way to get students engaged in the lessons and primed for learning is to use what’s called an “Anticipatory set.” This essential teaching term is, according to teacher Jennifer Gonzalez, “A brief portion of a lesson given at the very beginning to get students’ attention, activate prior knowledge, and prepare them for the day’s learning. Also known as advance organizer, hook, or set induction.” It’s important that teachers take a few moments to carefully consider those opening moments of class to use teaching strategies that will help students become curious rather than bored, engaged rather than resistant. Here are a few teaching strategies for anticipatory sets that you might find worthwhile to try.

7 Anticipatory Techniques

“Later today we’ll talk about…”

It seems like every time I turn on the radio, the host has me hooked simply by telling me what’s coming up. “In ten minutes we’ll be talking to _______________, who will tell us ____________” is a standard phrase radio hosts use to keep us tuned in ten minutes from now.

Peter Stewart suggests to radio hosts in “Essential Radio Skills” that they use phrases like, “In a moment A, but first B.” This automatically creates attention on A, since listeners have to wait for it. It also could help mask a less desirable B option. Successful statements like these, on the radio, will arouse curiosity and will hint at information the listener will find useful.

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Why can’t this work in the classroom? Here are a few phrases to try:

  • “Later on today we’ll figure out why ________________ .”
  • “What does ____________ have in common with _________________? We’ll discover this later on.”
  • “In 10 minutes we’ll talk about something you’re not used to talking about in school.”
  • “Are you looking for a solution for ____________________? Later today I’ll tell you why the secret is really to ___________________.”

These sound like something you’d hear on the radio, but they can work just as effectively in your classroom to build anticipation and curiosity.

Hand Out a Mystery Object

Hand something to your students when they walk into the classroom that they’ll need to use later in class, but don’t tell them what it’s for. This will spark curiosity and speculation as to what you’ll be doing.

For example, at one point I knew each student would need to use a few index cards to generate ideas for a creative writing project we’d be doing. Instead of just handing those cards out when we were going to use them, I gave one pink card to students as they entered. “What is this?” they asked. Then I asked them to complete the statement, “I used to ________” on the card. That’s it. They were confused and intrigued at the same time, and we didn’t come back to the card until 20 minutes later.

If your lesson calls for different materials to be used, then handing out the materials at the beginning will get them interested in what’s to come.

Show a Video Clip

We can’t overlook the easy engagement a simple video clip provides. It’s tempting to show the clip at the appropriate time later in the lesson when it illustrates the content we’ve been talking about, but consider showing the clip at the beginning instead.

Part of anticipatory sets is to create just the right degree of confusion to stimulate attention and curiosity. If it isn’t evident to students what the video has to do with the learning, that’s OK. Proceed with the lesson with their ears extra attuned to figure out what relevance the video had.

Another goal of anticipatory sets is to activate background knowledge. Showing a video is a gateway for having students consider what they know about a given topic, and to stimulate a relevant discussion.

Give Students a Problem that They Can’t Answer

I witnessed one of my favorite anticipatory strategies in my friend’s science classroom. Instead of announcing to his physics class, “Today we’ll learn about measuring trajectories,” he told a story. Apparently some people were shipwrecked on an island, and a plane needed to drop supplies to them. Where should the plane release the cargo so it landed on the island instead of in the ocean?

The students didn’t know how to use physics to reach their solution … at first. He then proceeded to teach them what they needed to know, and then they returned to the plane cargo and were able to solve it.

So at the beginning of your class, consider beginning with a story or a problem. Then teach students what you want them to know, equipping them to return to the story problem and write the ending themselves with their new knowledge.

Mystery Box

Class begins as usual, then suddenly there’s a knock at the door. Instead of a person, there’s a box. Inside of the box are seemingly random options. The teacher claims not to know where this box came from or what the objects mean, and puts the box aside. The lesson continues.

Of course, the objects in the box do relate to the lesson. The objects should represent some of the key takeaway ideas from the lesson, so by the end of class the teacher can hold up each object and discuss how it helps represent what they learned. For example, one teacher had been talking about listening skills and held up the pair of earphones from the mystery box to relate to it.

The mystery box could also contain objects necessary to tackle the day’s task. In a chemistry lesson, for example, it might contain the “Mystery ingredient” that makes a chemical reaction. Or in a geometry lesson, the box contains objects of various geometrical shapes that can be measured and constructed.

What will be in your mystery box?

Ask a Question

Don’t just ask any question. Ask a good question that makes students think. Your question doesn’t necessarily have to have one straightforward answer. Instead, ask a question that can be explored and discussed.

When I ask a question, I like to open it up for discussion before we get to the lesson so students can share what they know, activate their prior learning, and feel primed to accept more information on the subject.

Sometimes I project a question onto our screen, and then ask each student to write their answer on the whiteboard. They’re engaged right away with the content, and we have a chance to see what everyone thinks.

End with a Cliffhanger

Who says the anticipatory set needs to take place at the beginning of class? Why not have it occur at the end of class the previous day? When I read a book and a chapter ends with a cliffhanging event, I can’t wait to read on. When I watch a television show and the episode ends with a cliffhanger, I can’t wait for next week to roll around so I find out what happens.

You can use this technique in your classroom as well. Consider not just how you’ll start class, but how you’ll end it with a question, a problem, a hint of information, a mystery of some kind, that will intrigue them enough stick in their mind. If it’s good, they’ll think about it over the next 24 hours and walk into your classroom ready to learn.

Be Creative and Willing

No single list that will cover every anticipatory technique. The ways you stimulate attention and spark curiosity is up to you. The only trick is to be creative and resist just announcing what the material will be. Ask yourself, “How can I get students to become curious and actively interested in what’s coming up next?”

It takes no effort or forethought to just announce the day’s lesson, and that’s why we get little effort or curiosity in return. To create meaningful anticipatory sets, you need to be willing to put in the extra time and energy. It’s not easy, but it is entirely worth it!

What are some of your techniques for stimulating curiosity and engagement? Share your anticipatory techniques with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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