Bell Work

At the beginning of a lesson, I like to get everybody busy straight away, making a calm start to the lesson and very much like the idea of so-called ‘bell’ work. Give students a task that is simple to understand and requires no more than a simple instruction, question/s and/or diagram on the board (no technology required – unless you are in the room ahead of your students which offers more possibilities). This is a particularly useful idea if students arrive at different times. Students are expected to get to work as soon as they enter the room.

In current times, the students may well be in the room before their teacher, so could be given instructions at the end of a lesson on what they are expected to be working on at the beginning of the next lesson.

Some ideas

  • A short question or questions on a topic studied recently.
  • Ask students to write down all they can remember on any topic. They could perhaps draw diagrams or just jot down examples or vocabulary – anything at all – a ‘Brain Dump’, see ‘Brain Dumps: A small strategy with a big impact’ on Retrieval Practice.
  • Ask for some specific facts, eg write down the names of all the quadrilaterals they can with a quick sketch for each.
  • Students make up some short questions to review a topic – they could then put their questions to the class.
  • Provide students with a diagram, they write a question, (See ‘Here’s the diagram ….’). Particularly useful for providing a diagram or a question to write up quickly is Peter Mattock’ wonderful Goal Free Problems, a site he set up, in his own words “to allow teachers to access and share goal free problems created by myself and others. Goal free problems have been proven to support pupils in improving their knowledge and understanding by removing the cognitive load of the goal and therefore not prompting means-end analysis of a problem.” Here you will find hundreds of questions categorised by topic; there are also mixed questions available.
How Many Factors – nzmath
  • Prime numbers can be used for an exploring numbers type starter. Find numbers with exactly two factors. Three factors? (A square of a prime number). Four? Five? Or generalise (perhaps rather too long for a starter!) This investigation, How Many Factors on nzmaths requires students to  find ways to group numbers, which numbers have only two factors and which have only three factors? For further ideas see these possibilities from Nrich. Two Primes Make One Square or Penta Primes for example could make suitable starters.
  • Prime Number ideas and numerous other ideas can be found in Colin Foster’s KS3 Instant Maths Ideas (3 books) which are freely available online; these contain a wealth of activities to try in the classroom. Colin Foster is a Reader in  Mathematics Education in the Mathematics Education Centre at Loughborough University.
Colin Foster – KS3 Instant Maths Ideas

  • Also from Colin Foster on Nrich we have Mathematical Etudes where he discusses lovely rich tasks and tedious exercises! Note his Mathematical Etudes Project; scroll down the page for examples of Mathematical Etudes on Different Topics, there are many activities here for which instructions can be given to students easily.
  • Problems from Open Middle can be very simply explained, but can really get your students thinking.
  • Countdown type problems or Make 24, see 4 Numbers Game. If you just want to make a note of a few problems and solutions then you could use this page from Print out some Make a number puzzles with solutions from Brain Food. Note the other problems available on Brain Food, a Logi-Number puzzle could be written up quickly for example. Many such problems are available, see for example As Easy As 1234 from
  • UK Maths Challenge questions can make excellent starters and you don’t even have to provide the multiple choice answers!
  • Some of the problems on Transum Software – Maths Starter of the Day are simple enough to easily write up on the board. Note that there is a complete index of starters including the topic of the starter. Many of the Shine and Write activities would also make good lesson starters.
    A+ Click Maths provides another source of possible starters.
  • A book I like very much is ‘Thinkers’ from ATM, many questions here would be very simple to put to students at the beginning of a lesson.
  • At the end of a lesson – tell them what you expect them to do the minute they walk into the next lesson, so they know what there bell work is before thy even get to the lesson!

Mental Tests
Many schools are providing students with booklets for use in lessons. Alternatively or in addition to, why not give a mental test where the teacher simply reads a short question which the students can write down and then answer can make an excellent start to a lesson, or in fact can be used at any point in a lesson. These should be very much low stakes activities. There are many sources of questions you can use, for example, see

Corbett Maths Class Quizzes

Class Quizzes from Corbettmaths for a collection of questions designed to help students remember key facts. Looking at these will probably give you ideas for writing your own quizzes too.

A really useful source of questions which can be used this way are the mental tests from CIMT; these are included with their resources for Years 7, 8 and 9 and also for GCSE. For Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) scroll down this page for the Year 7, Year 8 and Year 9 course material, the resources include mental tests as part of the teacher support material. On the GCSE page scroll down to the teacher support material and note the mental tests available for most units, see this on Formulae for example.

CIMT Resources – Mental Tests
CIMT – Mental Tests
CIMT Mental Test – Formulae

Talking of mental tests reminds me of a long forgotten resource I used to use with Year 7 – The Three Little Pigs as a mental test. I found this many years ago on as a free sample.

Why not start a collection of such ideas? Many of these ideas could also be used for those odd moments in a lesson when you find you have some extra time.

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