The Importance of ‘Learning Gain’ Starters

Many schools insist that lessons begin with a ‘starter’. However, including a starter for the sake of it is rather pointless. Pointless starters are ‘non-gain starters’1 – neither students nor the teacher gain anything from them. They are included with the sole purpose of keeping students busy as others arrive, settling the class, or beginning the lesson with something ‘fun’. Typically, they take the form of puzzles or games. Often, there is a loose link to learning, but this just disguises their non-gain nature. For example:

  • in a history lesson, putting a selection of dates in chronological order
  • in a music lesson, finding the names of different instruments in a word search
  • in a science lesson, solving anagrams relating to key terminology.

Students are quick to see through such starters and devalue them. Rather than rushing to class to get started, they are more likely to take their time, thinking: ‘It’s just the starter – I won’t be missing much.’

This is not how we want students to be thinking. We want them to see the start of a lesson as an essential part of it. Accordingly, we need to plan starter activities as carefully as we do any other part of a lesson.

‘Learning gain starters’

Learning gain starters’ are starters that support student and teacher learning. Rather than filling time, they add value. Typically, they are concerned with reviewing specific prior learning.

Their value to students comes from knowledge recall. Using them will:

  1. Strengthen memory (this is the Testing Effect in action).2
  2. Help students to recognise what they know and don’t know (or can and can’t do).
  3. Motivate students to study.3

Their value to teachers comes from the information they get from this, which they can respond to in this lesson or a future lesson.

Because ‘learning gain starters’ are typically concerned with review, the term ‘Daily Review’4 is better than ‘starter’. It helps to get away from the association with ‘being busy activities’ that add little value.5

Types of review

Daily Review can take many forms, some open and some more structured. We shall explore a selection of these.

Open review

A simple but effective Daily Review activity is Last Lesson, whereby students are asked to think about the question: ‘What did we learn last lesson?’ Framing this as ‘learn’, as opposed to ‘do’, is important, because it is learning that we want students to focus on.

Alternatively, students could be asked to Empty Your Brain,6 writing down everything that they remember about particular content.

Structured review

Rather than using ‘open activities’ of the type we have discussed, there is often value in teachers guiding student thinking in a more structured way. Teacher-quizzing tends to be an effective way to do this.


In teacher-quizzing, questions can be a variety of types. These include:

  • short answer response
  • fill in the blanks
  • true or false
  • odd one out
  • deliberate mistakes
  • multiple choice

To make the most of quizzing, teachers need to know what students have previously been taught. Where a curriculum is vague, Daily Review becomes tokenistic and nebulous. Teachers who have a full overview of the curriculum for their discipline, including what has been taught previously and what will be taught in future, are able to make more effective use of Daily Review than those who don’t.7

For example, quizzing could be used to review content taught several months or years ago. Rather than asking, ‘What do you know about the Romans?’, the teacher can ask specific questions about specific content that students should already know.

Show-me Boards

Students can write the answers to teacher quiz questions in their jotter or on Show-me Boards. The advantage of the latter is that they allow teachers to check the learning of all students, in real time. Answers in jotters tend to remain hidden from view.


Rather than the teacher setting the quiz for the class, there can be value in students Self-quizzing. For example, students could be asked to use the first few minutes of a lesson to test themselves using flash cards, or engaging in a ‘read, cover, write, check, correct’ activity, using their Knowledge Organiser.8


Similarly, Peer-quizzing can be a powerful Daily Review activity. For example, students could use flash cards to test each other, or their Knowledge Organisers to ask each other questions as the teacher would have in a teacher-led quiz.

Recent and less recent material

Daily Review is often best when it includes a mix of recent and less recent material. By getting students to revisit material from some time ago, we strengthen their memory of this.

For example, if there are five questions in a quiz, three of these might relate to the previous lesson, one to a lesson from last week, and one to a lesson from longer ago. I once observed a teacher who used a template to help them do this as a matter of routine:

Make the most of every minute

Every minute of a lesson is precious. Let’s not fritter any of it away with activities that are good for keeping students busy but less good for helping them learn. Focus on ‘learning gain starters‘ and reap the benefits for both you and your students.

Taken from The Teaching Delusion 3: Power Up Your Pedagogy by Bruce Robertson, published by John Catt Educational. Available at:

References and notes

  1. McCourt, M. (2019) Teaching for Mastery
  2. ‘The Testing Effect’: retrieving knowledge from long-term memory strengthens the memory of it
  3. Enser, M. (2019) in The researchED Guide to Education Myths
  4. Rosenshine, B. (2012) ‘Principles of Instruction’
  5. ‘Being busy activities’ were discussed in Robertson, B. (2021) The Teaching Delusion 2. These are activities that engage students, but don’t require them to think hard about specific content. Hence, they don’t typically lead to learning.
  6. Some authors refer to this as ‘Brain Dump’. You can take your pick as to which term you prefer.
  7. Myatt, M. (2018) The Curriculum
  8. A Knowledge Organiser is usually one side of A4 which details the specific knowledge, including vocabulary, that students need to learn in a topic

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