Starting a lesson with Initial Stimulus Material

Starting a lesson with Initial Stimulus Material

I’ve been reconsidering good ways to begin lessons and share objectives.  Looking beyond writing objectives on the board (and perhaps copying them into books), Rob Phillips (2001) suggests using Initial Stimulus Material.  He argues that stimuli such as stories, images or problems can help us outline objectives in “a clever, meaningful way”, posing hypotheses and establishing lines of enquiry.  We can stimulate curiosity while introducing key terms and ideas for future lessons.

The three examples below seek to move away from ‘starters’ and nearer ‘Initial Stimulus Material’.  (If you believe we shouldn’t be sharing objectives with students, it might be worth starting here instead though).

Version 1: The settler


We could use a word search or an intriguing image to get students concentrating from the outset.  We might ask them, for example, to count the squares (or corners) in the picture above.  This provides students with an immediate task, perhaps helping them settle into the lesson while requiring limited teacher explanation.  If the activity does not lead students to begin considering the content of the lesson however, there are probably better ways the time can be used – and we are doing nothing to share our goals.

Version 2: The starter


We could ask students to make inferences from a picture, or about a book from its cover: “What can you tell about Henry VII from this painting?”  I’d describe this as a classic starter activity: it certainly has its place, although examples like this can be restrictive, relying, as they do, on students’ guesswork and often limited prior knowledge.  Without careful questioning (and perhaps a richer stimulus) however, such starters will do little to set out the lesson’s goals: simply moving on to the main body of the lesson with a “Now we’ll find out which of your guesses were true,” is probably insufficient.

Version 3: Initial Stimulus Material


‘A Court for King Cholera’ has proved a productive stimulus to introduce the study of public health during the Industrial Revolution.  This is partly because the cartoon is incredibly rich, but carefully-planned questions are needed to help us set out our objectives.  We can begin with questions relating to the details of the image and life at the time:

  • How busy does the scene seem?
  • What is the child in the foreground holding?
  • What is the lady in the front-left doing?

This is merely a prelude to help students begin exploring the image however: we can then consider what this suggests about the era and the questions it poses:

  • What size is the coffin being carried on the right of the picture?  How much notice is everyone taking of it?  What does that suggest about death rates?
  • Why would the streets be so filthy?  Who do we rely on to keep things clean?  What impression of government action does this image give?
  • Given the signs for lodgings for travellers, what does this suggest about movement of people at the time?  What kind of houses are they living in?  How does this connect to what we know about the Industrial Revolution?

Through this discussion we can introduce (or revise) knowledge of key features of the Industrial Revolution and link them to public health.  Alongside this, we have posed questions which future lessons will address, such as ‘Why were governments so slow to improve public health?’  All of this has been achieved through a vivid, concrete example, which will be highly memorable (and can be reintroduced in future lessons – “Remind me what the cartoon suggested about government action…  Today we’re going to examine why the government were so slow to react.”

Initial Stimulus Material is a powerful way to share goals while provoking thought and curiosity.  It also reflects relatively well-evidenced principles of cognitive science: the usefulness of introducing new topics with pre-questions, and the value of integrating concrete representations – such as a cartoon of messy streets – with abstract ones, such as discussion of laissez-faire Victorian government (Pashler et al., 2007).  What I’ve been struggling to establish is exactly how Initial Stimulus Material would look and work outside history.  A few ideas occur, but I would love to see examples which have worked:

English – Offering a passage of text describing a character and using it to introduce a chapter (or a study of descriptive language)

Maths – Showing a maths problem, asking how we might solve it, what techniques we might use and how it is similar or different to past problems.



Science – Showing an image – of a skydiver for example – and asking what forces are at work, which direction the skydiver will go in, how their suit will affect this.  Using this as a way to surface existing student (mis)conceptions and identify what we need to learn to understand forces.

Further reading

Why does sharing learning objectives matter?

How can we share learning objectives effectively?

How I’ve tried to share learning objectives better

How can I start a lesson well?




Pashler, H., Bain, P., Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., and Metcalfe, J. (2007) Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning (NCER 2007-2004). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Phillips, R. (2001) Making history curious: Using Initial Stimulus Material (ISM) to promote enquiry, thinking and literacy. Teaching History 105 (19-25)