Teaching Toolkit: The Warm Up

Ah the warm up. It’s a simple but powerful concept. Have the students do something when they enter the room.

I don’t know why, but it took me years…literally several years of teaching…to “get” warm ups. Are they supposed to look at a picture? Review their homework? Talk about something? Is there a difference between a warm up a hook and a set? How do find time to include a warm up? Do I check them? If so, do they count for credit? Do I need to do one every day? Etc.

After much trial and error, this is what works for me. (Full disclosure: Getting back to using warm ups was one of my New Year teacher resolutions. I don’t know what happened…one day I just realized I wasn’t using them anymore. Back on the wagon.)

The goal of a warm up

For me, the primary goal of a warm up is simply to get kids settled in, thinking about the content, and ready to work. Or in another sense, I simply want to prevent the loss of instructional time at the beginning of class. That’s it. Everything else is optional.

  • It doesn’t need to be exciting or innovative. To me, this is the key difference between a “set” or “hook” and a warm up. A set gets the students interested in the next lesson or topic, usually by getting them excited, agitated, or confused. For example, an interesting picture, a riddle or brain teaser, a map, playing music, etc. These are great and necessary components of good unit planning, but I don’t think they are effective warm ups. They get students wound up instead of them settled and focused. I prefer to use a set after the warm up.
  • It doesn’t need to provide a seamless transition between topics. If this happens, great. If not, no problem. Again, the primary goal is to get students settled and focused.
  • It doesn’t need to happen everyday. However, it should happen most days. Students should come in expecting to do the warm up. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter if I have a big flashy sign that says “WARM UP!!!” on the board…they aren’t looking at the board…they’re talking to their friends or reading a book. (Trust me…I tried that). My experience is that everyone gets into a groove if I have formal warm ups three days a week on average.


The first rule of warm ups 

Discussion and/or reading warm ups don’t work.

At least they have never worked for me. Don’t misunderstand me, I love small group discussion. I use “turn and talk strategies” every single day. But it doesn’t work as a warm up. The students aren’t tuned in yet.

Discuss your homework? Nope.

Hey, check out this picture, what do you think? Nope.

Read this section in the textbook? Nope.

Chat with your partner, what did we do yesterday? Nope.

Sadly, I have to keep re-learning this every year. Whenever I forget it, I find myself spending 5 (or 10…) minutes circulating around the classroom putting out fires and trying to get kids to pretend more effectively that they are actually reading or talking about the warm up topic. I waste as much time, or even more, than I was trying to save by doing the warm up to begin with!

The second rule of warm ups

Discussion and/or reading warm ups don’t work.


The ingredients of an effective warm up

The students need to produce something.

They need to take notes, draw a picture, write a journal, or write down the answer to a question. Here’s the trick though, it should be something that takes a few minutes of actual concentration or reflection on their part. Remember, the goal is to get the students settled down and focused. So in my opinion, simple questions (e.g., yes/no, fill in the blank, etc.) aren’t effective as warm ups, unless used in a list.

Bonus points:

    • If using a writing prompt, it is important to give length guidelines. My experience is that a 3-5 sentence response is the perfect amount for a warm up. 
    • I also like to have a mix of fact and opinion prompts.

Examples from my most recent unit:

Describe Sharia Law in 3 sentences.

Describe an example of how Sharia law impacts women in Saudi Arabia in 3-5 sentences.

What do you think is the most restrictive rule women face in Saudi Arabia? Why do you think so? (3-5 sentences)


Students should have a set place where they keep their warm up responses for a unit. Just have them reserve space in a physical notebook, or create a dedicated electronic document. This saves time AND makes the warm up more valuable for the students because they can serve as review notes.

Time management

The warm up is only useful if it doesn’t become a time sink. Remember, that is one of the problems I am trying to solve. As the students arrive, I direct their attention to the warm up and ask them to get started. Once the bell rings (i.e., a concrete start point), I start a timer and tell them how much time they have. I usually allot 3 minutes for writing, and give them a countdown update every minute. This might not seem like enough time. It is…if…they actually get started right away. Sure, once in awhile I might fudge it a little bit if they really need a few more seconds, but my recommendation is to stick to the timer as a rule.


A short follow up discussion is the glue that holds it all together.  It reinforces the concepts through multiple modes of communication. It provides an opportunity for me to address questions for clarification. At the very least, students do the warm up because they don’t want to be unprepared when I call on them. However, I don’t check warm ups for points, and it is OK if the student doesn’t finish the warm up. The goal was to get them settled and focused.

Bonus points:

    • If the warm up is a writing prompt or reflection, I ask students to read what they have written OR ask a question for clarification.
    • If the warm up is copying notes, I ask students to restate the concepts in their own words OR ask a question for clarification.
    • This is the perfect time to use a random selection method to call on students. If anyone is a potential target, everyone does the warm up.
    • Watch out for scope creep if the warm up is a review question or reflection. It is very easy for the discussion to turn take up too much time. I pick three students, take one to three additional volunteers, and then move on. The entire warm up process can be done in less than ten minutes once you get comfortable with it.


But I don’t have time for warm ups!

Yes you do.

If you don’t have a warm up system, you are losing time every class period anyway…probably more time than you think.

If you don’t devote time to review of concepts, then you are fooling yourself if you think they actually remember what happened last class.

If you are really jammed up for today’s lesson, skip it. Warm ups don’t have to happen every day…just most days.


So what does it look like in practice?

First bell rings…students begin to trickle into the classroom.

The warm up is posted on the board. What is sharia law? (3 sentences)

Me: “The warm up is on the board. Make sure to put it in your “Middle East Warm Ups” document. You can use your notes if you don’t remember.”

Second bell rings to start the class. At this point, students should actually be writing or rereading their notes. (Side note: I used to think that the warm up should be completed by the bell to start class. However, under no circumstances has that ever worked for me. I have come to terms with the fact that students actually need a few minutes to transition from class to class, no matter how stressed I might personally feel about time.)

Me: “Ok, you have three minutes, then we’ll discuss. You can use your notes if you don’t remember.”

John calls out: “I have a question about the next test.” (It’s a trap! If I answer John’s question I am signaling that I don’t really care about this warm up nonsense. Rest assured, three more students will immediately call out with their own questions…then a few side conversations…then everybody is just hanging out and talking like it’s lunch or something.)

Me: “I’ll answer that after the warm up.”

Me: “Two minutes.”

During this time I am circulating the class, taking attendance, etc.

Me: “One minute.”

Me: “Thirty seconds.”

Once the time is elapsed, I give any administrative announcements for the day. I know that they can hear me because everyone is settled and focused. Some students are still writing, but that’s OK. The announcements are also a way to surreptitiously buy some time for them.

Me: “OK, chat with your partners about what you wrote.”

This is an important step because it gives students a chance to clarify their answers before sharing with the whole group. However, this should only go for a minute or so.

During this time I use my random selection method (e.g., I use numbered popsicle sticks in a big coffee can) to pre-select students for discussion. If it is a student that struggles a bit, I can let them know in advance that I will call on them.

Me: “Ok Ryan, what is sharia law?” If he isn’t done, or doesn’t feel confident in his answer, I just ask him to read what he has written so far.

Me: “Ok Helen, can you add to that or say it another way?”

Repeat this step for any pre-selected students. I usually restate what each student said so everyone can hear.

Me: “Anyone else…is there something important we missed?”

I take a few volunteers (i.e., one to three max) then move on to the topic of the day. No worries if there are no volunteers to continue discussion, the warm up has done it’s job.



Comments and feedback welcome!

What do warm ups look like in YOUR class?



12 thoughts on “Teaching Toolkit: The Warm Up

  1. Great article David. For years my warm-ups-Bell Work- consist of sentence correcting and sentence diagramming. I know old school, but students get practice and new concepts are easily added. First, I started writing on the CHALKBOARD, then a whiteboard with markers, Portable WhiteBoard, Mimio, and now 800 series Whiteboard which I love. Students love the interactive, but mostly, they enjoy correcting each other. Thanks for the article; you are spot on.

    • Thanks for the comment Rob! I agree that the technology is less important than the interaction…it keeps them engaged and keeps them accountable to each other to give a solid effort.

      In that vein, I tried something new today. (Note: I am in a 1-1 iPad classroom and host my resources on a Moodle page). When students entered I had them complete their warm up questions on a Google form. Then, I projected the spreadsheet so that they could see the results as they were being completed. You can bet that they “upped” their game because others could see their work. But the part I am most excited about it that I shared the link to the document so that they could see everyone’s responses for the day. Took a little too long to use regularly as a warm activity, but it was also my first foray into collaborative documents. Unfortunately I can’t share the link here because users need a school ID to view.

  2. Could not agree more! I am in the same boat. Writing prompts always work best- I have also tried 4 corners types of things as well to get them moving. But you’re right (at least with high schools, especially during first block- discussing things from yesterday with your partner never works). I am a big fan of sticky notes.

    • Thanks for the comment Bre! I like the kinesthetic aspect, but it is admittedly one of my weak areas. I probably only think to do something like 4 corners once or twice in the year.

      Two things:

      1. Sticky notes – One of my colleagues shared that she uses a daily “pass the note” strategy. Students write down their answer to the daily prompt and trade with partners to correct.

      How do you use sticky notes?

      2. Kinesthetic – Another friend said that he has a 1-10 meter on his floor to use for polls. For example, he can ask a question like, “George Washington was the best general of the Revolutionary War. How much do you agree?” Students stand on the number to indicate their response.

  3. Thank you for sharing this! In music class, “warm-ups” are many times aural, as they are entering the class. For instance we are currently studying keyboard instruments–harpsichord, piano, synthesizer, pipe organ etc. Wherever we left off, that’s where I begin–so we finished harpsichord (and everyone got to play the one in the room), I’m playing the harpsichord or a recording as they enter–the question on the board is “the harpsichord is the oldest instrument we will study–you’re hearing it now–you played it lats class. Which instrument comes next on the timeline?” Does this sound like a good equivalent to what you are doing??Thanks for your feedback! Patrice

    • Hi Patrice, thanks for the comment! I think a musical warmup is totally appropriate for a music class, particularly when you are training them to evaluate the difference in sound between similar instruments.

      Is there any way you can have students create the sound?

      Do it as you described to get them settled upon entering the class. Then take a volunteer. Have the rest of the class turn around or close their eyes. Then the student plays a chord on the instrument of their choice and the class gets to guess. Maybe have them silently raise hands to poll so that your star musicians can’t call out and steal the show. Probably a bit too much to do everyday, but gets them a little more involved…plus check their skills on playing basic chords!

  4. My students work on style by looking at a mentor text, discussing the style, and writing a sentence modeled after the mentor text. Sometimes I choose a model sentence; other times students choose sentences from books we are reading in class. We also do free writes on occasion.

    • Hi Susan, thanks for the comment! Teaching style is a tough one, I agree that students probably just need a lot of examples as models.

      Do you ever have them use their own writing samples?

      Sometimes I pick a handful of the best ones and make copies to share with the class for style and content analysis (Note: I always get student permission first and do not include their names on the examples). I never share poor or weak student examples though. If I want to show a bad sample, I’ll make it up myself. Oddly enough the students seem to take pleasure in giving my constructive criticism on my writing…

  5. Great post! You speak to every thought I have ever had on what we call “activators” in such an articulate narrative! I like your idea of having warm ups 3x a week, because it’s best not to force it with an activity that doesn’t accomplish the goal. I struggle though with what to do when I don’t have a good warm up, but do have a really good hook or set (I’ve never heard that term, but it’s perfect). I was criticized once by an evaluator for being “confusing” at the end of a lesson when what I was doing was creating some drama to get kids curious for the next part of the lesson. (Topic was Sepoy Rebellion, and we ended class with a video clip of an Indian movie where Hindus and Muslims together were plotting an attack on the British and part of the plot was to destroy a mosque…so, yes, random, but the idea was to introduce this complexity to the story and set the stage for the partition of India-Pakistan.) For a long time I had doubts about using a “set” so , thank you for confirming my idea was not crazy, even if the execution needed work!

    My best warm ups are ones that require students to use the skill we will be focusing on in the main lesson, but in an easier way. So, request example is the students were going to need to rely on inference skills to complete a particular primary source reading on current China and what the average Chinese person knows about June 4th. So, as a warm up I had a photo of a car on a lawn next to a smashed shed, and asked students to use info in the picture to make judgements about what is not in the picture. It worked beautifully, and the China reading gave the students much less difficulty. The trick is to create warm ups like this all the time–or as you say a few times a week!

    • Thanks for the comment Mary! Great idea on training students to look for what isn’t there.

      Agreed that it’s all just a work in progress. I just found that I hit a wall when expect that I should always have a great creative “aha” kind of warm up. Whenever I pause and realize that I’ve not done warm ups in awhile, it is almost always because I’ve fallen back on my perfectionist mindset. Every now and then a light bulb will go off and I’ll have a cool new idea, but I feel much less stress to rely on a few “bread and butter” options for the day-to-day.

      I did India for the first time this year, and enjoyed it more than I anticipated. I gave a brief historical background to explain the formation of the British colony, but did not go into detail on that (i.e., Sepoy Rebellion). We probably spent more time on the disputed territory of Kashmir and not enough time on the partition itself, so I think the students did not get a full appreciation of the violence of that transition. How did you finish up your unit?

  6. I use something like this, but with CNN Student News. I have them look at it, then students are supposed write a connection somehow to the last lesson we covered. It’s tough for some, but most manage to tie current events with history. I do have to admit, however, that sometimes it turns to side discussions about the actual current event and not so much about the last lesson. This is something I have to work on. Like you said, I have to be careful with the time traps. I also liked the idea of answering questions after the warm up and should also do announcements afterwards. Thanks!

    • Thanks for sharing Miguel! I agree that Student News is a good resource, but isn’t always relevant to what we are discussing. I mostly use it as current events “filler” if I have some flex time for a particular class. I also like Student News as an opportunistic source. For example, using it the day after a significant event that is relevant to your curriculum. However, you obviously can’t really plan in advance for that.

      I like Scholastic’s Upfront Magazine a little better as a current events option because I can create an index of content specific articles. That way I can bring out an article that is on point to our topic, but still current. However, there is a subscription fee for it ($6 per student for the year). Even if you just get one print subscription for the library, you can still make copies of articles to keep on file.

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