New Potential: The Power of Classroom Priming Activities

Priming activities

Lately, I’ve become fascinated by the idea that seemingly irrelevant activities at the beginning of a class might lead to improved student outcomes. Two ideas have stood out so far: using some variation of a hypnotic script and psychological priming activities in the classroom. In this blog post, we’re going to explore the latter.

The human mind is a fascinating machine, capable of rapid processing and intuitive leaps of understanding. In his influential work Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores how subtle cues and unconscious biases can shape split-second judgments. In this book, he explores the concept of psychological priming, which I believe holds immense potential for the classroom environment.

Priming involves activating certain thoughts or associations in the student’s mind, gently nudging them towards a particular mindset. When done strategically, priming can subtly enhance motivation, receptiveness to learning, and the ability to connect new material to existing knowledge.

Understanding Priming in the Classroom

Think of priming as a mental warm-up. It involves subtly introducing a word, image, concept, or even a feeling that subtly influences how students process subsequent information. 

Our brains are fantastic at organizing information into networks or patterns, called schemas. Priming activates a specific schema. So, if you show an image of a microscope, you activate the schema for “science.” This makes it easier for students to access related knowledge (experiments, vocabulary, concepts) for an upcoming science lesson.

Semantic Priming for Unconscious Motivation:

Semantic priming involves activating prior knowledge or related conceptual networks within a student’s mind, subtly influencing their thought patterns and receptiveness to new information. For example, before starting a science lesson on photosynthesis, briefly show images of plants, sunlight, and leaves. This primes students’ knowledge about the biological world and prepares them to learn the more complex details of the photosynthetic process. It is a great priming activity.

Affective Priming for Unconscious Motivation

Affective priming focuses on subtly influencing a student’s emotional state or mindset, thereby shaping their motivation and receptiveness to learning. For example, to subtly boost self-efficacy before a difficult math test, display a quote that emphasizes the importance of effort and perseverance, such as  “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” – Confucius.

Priming Activities for Enhanced Learning

Classroom priming activities

By using these subtle priming techniques, teachers can create an environment that unconsciously predisposes students towards motivation and a willingness to learn. Remember, the key is to keep these activities brief (5-10 minutes) and to connect them to the day’s lesson objectives. Most importantly, students cannot know the real reason for doing these activities! Unconscious priming only works if it remains unconscious.

1. Word Unscramble

Students unscramble words related to the lesson’s topic or positive mindsets, activating prior knowledge and building anticipation. Example: Lesson on Fractions: Scrambled words: “numerator,” “whole,” and “denominator.”

2. Sentence Unscramble

Students rearrange jumbled words into meaningful sentences, subtly reinforcing positive attitudes or sparking curiosity about the lesson’s direction. Example: To prime a growth mindset: “Learn I from mistakes my grow and.”

A variation of this is to have a list of five words and ask them to make four-word sentences. You might want to have a keyword in each sentence but not relate it directly to a growth mindset. Example: “Focus glasses help to eyesight.” This leads to more than one possibile answer.

3. Image Flashing

Quickly displayed images spark visual recall, activating the brain’s pattern recognition and priming knowledge associated with the images. Don’t leave enough time for students to consciously process each image. Example: For a lesson on the American Revolution, include Brief flashes of a musket, a map of the 13 colonies, a portrait of George Washington.

4. Odd One Out

Students identify the outlier in a set, stimulating critical thinking and highlighting concepts that may be key to the lesson’s topic. Lesson on types of energy: Images of a solar panel, a windmill, a nuclear power plant, and a picture of an apple (odd one out: food because it isn’t a source of electricity, or nuclear power plant because it isn’t a natural source of energy).

5. Color-Word Association

Mismatched word pairings prompt students to make rapid connections, priming abstract thinking and potentially revealing unconscious associations. Example: Color “red” paired with word “sky”. Discussion can revolve around unexpected connections.

6. What Am I?

Clues about a concept, person, or event are given, requiring students to activate relevant knowledge and make connections to deduce the answer. Example: I am a unit of measurement. I describe length. I am divided into smaller units called centimeters. (Answer: meter)

7. Image Association

Students brainstorm words associated with an image, activating a network of concepts and preparing them to build new connections with the upcoming lesson. Example: Image of a volcano. Students list words like: lava, eruption, geology, heat, natural disasters.

8. Musical Hook

Music sets a tone and can subtly prime associated concepts or emotions related to a lesson. Example: Before a lesson about the American Revolution, play a brief, stirring piece with trumpets or snare drums, priming with a sense of urgency and conflict.

9. Object Exploration

Hands-on engagement with an object related to the lesson sparks curiosity and primes students to readily absorb information about the object’s significance. Example: Before a history lesson on Ancient Egypt, provide small scarab beetle replicas for students to examine.

10. Inspirational Quote

A short quote about growth, perseverance, or discovery subtly primes students with a positive, motivated mindset. Example: “The expert at anything was once a beginner” – Helen Hayes

11. Gratitude Prompt

Practicing gratitude promotes a positive outlook, subtly priming students with a receptive attitude toward learning. Example: Students jot down one thing they feel thankful for before class begins.

12. Storytelling

Stories activate knowledge structures, emotions, and a sense of connection, priming students for themes, concepts, or mindsets. Example: To foster a sense of resilience, tell a story about someone (perhaps someone famous) who overcame some disadvantage and persevered. Take this Toni Morrison story, for example.


Brief & Focused: Priming is meant to be short (5-10 minutes max). Don’t let these activities take away from valuable instruction time. Think of them as mental stretches before the main learning workout!

Connect to Content: Tie activities to your lesson goals for the strongest impact. Priming is not just a fun exercise; it should subtly prepare students to successfully engage with the upcoming material.

Mismatched word pairings prompt students to make rapid connections, priming abstract thinking and potentially revealing unconscious associations. Example: Color “red” paired with word “sky”. Discussion can revolve around unexpected connections.

Tips for Successful Priming Activities

Tips for successful priming activities
  • Consistency: Integrating priming into your daily routines creates predictability, which can help students mentally transition into learning mode.

  • Relevance: Prime activities must connect to the lesson’s objectives. Random word puzzles might be enjoyable but won’t prime the mind in the same targeted way as activities aligned with your learning goals.

  • Keep it Brief Priming is meant to be a quick “warm-up” for the brain. Longer activities lose the impact of the initial nudge.

  • Variety for Engagement Don’t rely on the same activities each day. Mix it up to keep it novel and stimulating for students.


Incorporating priming into your classroom routine can yield subtle yet significant benefits for student learning. These techniques can enhance receptiveness, motivation, and engagement by thoughtfully activating prior knowledge, influencing mindsets, and setting a positive tone. The beauty of priming lies in its simplicity and adaptability; even short activities tailored to your content can make a difference. If you’re eager to dive deeper, numerous books and articles explore the psychology of priming, offering endless ideas to transform your classroom with the power of these subtle nudges.

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