Challenge the trumps! – a plenary or starter activity

This plenary or starter was inspired by my recent purchase – a set of Top Trumps cards on the First World War. I have written elsewhere about using Top Trumps cards in lessons but this mainly focused upon creating your own packs rather than using existing packs. Thinking about how to use this potentially engaging resource in an effective non-gimmicky manner, I thought perhaps the best way was to present students with a copy of the card on a PowerPoint slide and ask them questions based on judgements based on the criteria shown on the cards using the knowledge they have gained in the lesson if it was a plenary or if it was a starter then perhaps a card that covered a previous lesson’s content which links to the current lesson.


Such Challenge the Trumps! questions could be –

  • Has the card got it right about [Insert relevant criteria here]?
  • Overall, justify the judgements presented on the Top Trumps Card?
  • Which judgement is the most accurate?
  • Which judgement is the most inaccurate?
  • Which criteria would you remove and what would you replace it with?
  • Has the card got it wrong about?

To save you time, you could have a slide with the Top Trumps card on it with the six question frames above on it – each question is numbered. Then present the slide to your classes. Ask a student to throw a dice and they then have to answer, as a class, the question which corresponds with the number thrown on the dice. A link to an exemplar slide with Top Trumps card is below.

Top Trumps – Challenge!

Alternatively, if there are no Top Trumps cards that fit your topic, you can always make your own and frameworks for this can be found on my first Top Trumps blog post on this site. This may help you explain the task and outline what the criteria is and what the judgements mean [for example – are they rated out of ten, twenty or one hundred].

Caption competition – a useful starter or plenary activity

When teaching source skills in History, it can be a challenge to get students to go beyond the surface features of the meaning of the source, So often, students ignore the caption of a cartoon or fail to dig deeply when looking at a slogan of a propaganda poster, therefore missing vital information for analysis. This quick exercise aims to promote students awareness of captions and slogans by erasing them from a source and asking students to either predict when the correct slogan or caption is or [even better in my view] come up with their own. In doing this, this promotes discussion of the meaning of slogans and captions, thereby raising student awareness of this vital source of information as well as introducing a little bit of creativity and fun into the mix.

The resource below is a selection of visual sources on the topic of the Rise of Hitler with blanked out captions and slogans. I am going to use this in September as an activity to revisit sources that we have studied before the summer holidays.

Caption Competition – Nazi topic

Prove it! – an effective lesson starter or plenary

This idea was adapted from Mike Gershon’s new book, More Secondary Starters and Plenaries – which I can highly recommend.

The activity involves giving students four conflicting statements based on a topic being studied. So, for example, changing Nazi tactics in the 1920s four statements could be –

The change in tactics was successful for the Nazis.

The change in tactics was unsuccessful for the Nazis.

By 1929, the Nazis were still an insignificant party.

Mein Kampf was very important in helping the Nazis change tactics.

Students would then have to gather evidence either based on prior learning [if used as a starter] or from that lesson [if you were to use this as a plenary]. This can be extended to students having to write a paragraph or two if this was to be used as an extended activity. Then would tick the statement that they find the most convincing and explain why they have chosen the particular statement. Alternatively, students can share their ideas and evidence with their neighbours and can be given time to write additions or amendments to their own work after listening to others.

This, I think, is a very effective activity and can encourage students to apply their knowledge to show their progress rather than repeat what has been learned from a text book or other such teaching resource. Also it can display higher order thinking skills, such as synthesis and analysis. Even better, this takes little preparation on the teacher’s part. The resource below which I give to students for this activity takes very little time to prepare and can easily signpost student progress.

Nazi changing tactics statements

With or without you – a quick starter/plenary activity

Another quick and simple starter or plenary which needs no preparation and helps students to think laterally and apply the knowledge they have learned in your lesson so you demonstrate progress.

With or without you …….

Give students a statement to complete along the lines of ….

Without ……… there would be no ……..

For example …..

Without the Treaty of Versailles there would be no …….
Without the dagger in Romeo and Juliet there would be no …..

This encourages students to explore consequences and connections as well as applying their knowledge they have gained in lessons. Once students are used to this activity, then can then set their own examples and test each other in pairs or groups.

Mini saga – capturing the story in your lessons

I came across mini sagas in Neil Watkin and Johannes Ahrenfelt’s The Exam Class Toolkit [which I can highly recommend]. Mini sagas are stories that are exactly 50 words and have the same construct as a regular story in that they have a beginning, a middle and an end. They were first promoted by Brian Aldiss and The Daily Telegraph in the early 1980s. As Watkin and Ahrenfelt state mini sagas are most successful when they are cryptic and students must work out their meaning.

Mini sagas offer many different opportunities in lessons to explore stories and their meanings. They can be used in lessons as a starter in order to introduce a story, a person or an event. Because of their cryptic nature, students have to work out or guess their meaning, but also mini sagas as a starter can create curiosity and there is engagement right at the beginning of the lesson.

However, my main use of mini sagas recently have been for students to write mini sagas themselves as part of the revision programme. The lesson begins with outlining what a mini saga is and then I present one of my own making. Students have to guess what the mini saga is about, what the meaning of the mini saga is and also what is left out. The interrogation of a mini saga could centre around these questions –

– Who is involved?
– What is the subject of the mini saga is about and how does this relate to the exam?
– What has been left out?
– What else could have been included?

Once students are familiar with mini sagas and their construction, they then write their own based on any event, person or development that relates to the course. When the mini sagas are completed, each read out their mini saga to the rest of the class who then have to answer the questions above in evaluating each mini saga. Therefore, all students are involved and that each are peer assessing each others work.


For History, mini sagas work on a number of levels –

– If students are writing their own then the literacy OFSTED box is ticked especially as you are using creative writing as a device.
– Mini sagas is a another way of introducing content.
– Mini sagas can also offer reviewing and revision opportunities which are different and engaging.
– Mini sagas can utilise important source skills. In writing and evaluating mini sagas students are deploying skills such as applying their own knowledge to understand the meaning of a mini saga.

Please find below PowerPoints written for Key Stage 3, 4 and 5 lessons on writing mini sagas. If you try them let me know how it goes.

Mini Saga – Year 8

Mini Saga – Year 11

Mini Saga – Year 12

What’s the Question? – a quick and easy starter or plenary

A little something from my Signposting Progress workshop booklet –

Putting a series of key words or information up onto the board and asking students to come up with questions that fit the this information as answers. This sharpens students’ skills in questioning and checks their understanding of the lesson content. A very polished interactive whiteboard resource is available from Triptico which allows you to create a competitive game with this activity. It is easy to use and best of all, it is free to download.

The Pen of Power – a starter that checks understanding of learning objectives

This little starter with minimal preparation was taken from Claire Gadsby’s recent book, Perfect Assessment for Learning. I presented this at a couple of recent workshops called Signposting Progress as well as had excellent feedback on this strategy by my friend @kelliano35 who is a Head of Art at a Bedfordshire school. The Pen of Power starter is as follows –

Begin by giving a randomly selected student to use ‘the pen of power’ to highlight key words within the objective presented on the board and to explain their choices. This encourages the student to talk about the objective and annotating it to show their understanding.

US tactics in the Vietnam War resources

This PowerPoint outlines the key features of US tactics during the Vietnam War and comes with two activities – a series of anagrams based on the key vocab of the topic which can be used as a starter and a learning grid which can be used as a lengthy plenary to check progress and understanding. For more about learning grids, please see a previous post of this blog which outlines this activity in detail. I used this with my Y11 class.

US tactics Vietnam War