How interactive are your classroom activities? Do you have less energy for class than you used to? Do you find student grades declining? And are the teaching methods you’ve always relied on not working as well as they once did? We spoke to two college instructors, Chris Merlo and Monika Semma. Their strategies for interactive classroom activities will energize your class and get discussion moving again.
Why are interactive classroom activities important?
Merlo, a computer science teacher, says that interactive classroom activities are not new to students, and one main reason why teachers have trouble connecting is that they fail to adapt to their students’ perspective.
“My six-year-old son doesn’t find iPads amazing; to him, they’ve always just existed. Similarly, to a lot of students today, experiences like team exercises and flipped classrooms, while foreign to many instructors, are not new.
“If we care about reaching today’s students, who seem to have a different idea of student responsibilities than we had, perhaps we have to reach them on their terms.
“In my thirties, I could still find a lot of similarities with my twenty-something students. But now, in my forties? Not so much. What I’ve started to realize is that it isn’t just the little things, like whether they’ve seen Ghostbusters. (They haven’t.) It’s the big things, like how they learn.”
Semma, a humanities TA, found that the chalk-and-talk approach failed on her first day in front of a class. “It was a lot like parallel parking in front of 20 people,” she said. “I looked more like a classmate. I dropped the eraser on my face whilst trying to write my name on the board. One of my students called me ‘mom.’”
“I chalked it up to first day jitters, but that same quietness crept its way back into my classroom for the next tutorial, and the next tutorial and the next. While nearly silent in class, my students were rather vocal in the endless stream of emails that flooded my inbox. That way I knew they wanted to learn. I also knew that I had to find a way to make tutorials more engaging.”
From these experiences, Merlo and Semma now share some interactive classroom activities for students and for teachers that can turn a quiet classroom full of people unwilling to speak up to a hive of debate, making the student learning experience more collaborative for everyone.
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1. Open-ended questions
2. What’s wrong with this example?
3. Let students critique each other
4. Pass the “mic”
Open-ended questions don’t take any planning. All they take is a class with at least one student who isn’t too shy. I remember a class a few semesters ago that started with nine students. Due to a couple of medical conditions and a job opportunity, three of the students had to drop the semester. The problem was that these three students were the ones I counted on to ask questions and keep the class lively! Once I was left with six introverted people, conversations during class seemed to stop.
By luck, I stumbled on something that got the students talking again. I said, “What has been the most difficult thing about [the project that was due soon]?” This opened the floodgates—students love to complain, especially about us and our demands. This one simple question led to twenty minutes of discussion involving all six students. I wasn’t even sure what a couple of these students’ voices sounded like, but once I gave them an open-ended opportunity to complain about an assignment, they were off to the races. A truly successful classroom activity.
Students also love to find a professor’s mistakes—like me, I’m sure you’ve found this out the hard way. When I teach computer science, I will make up a program that, for instance, performs the wrong arithmetic, and have students find the bug. In a particularly quiet or disengaged class, you can incentivize students with five points on the next exam, or something similar.
If you teach history, you might use flawed examples that change a key person’s name, such as “King Henry VIII (instead of King John) signed the Magna Carta in 1215,” or match a person to an incorrect event: “Gavrilo Princip is considered to have fired the first shot in the Spanish Civil War (instead of World War I).” Beam these examples on the whiteboard, and let the students’ competitiveness drive them to get the right answer before their classmates.
This can go badly if you don’t set some ground rules for civility, but done well, classroom activities like this really help open up collaborative learning. One of my colleagues devised a great exercise: First, give students about half of their class time to write instructions that an imaginary robot can understand to draw a recognizable picture, like a corporate logo, without telling students what will happen later. Then assign each student’s instructions to a randomly chosen classmate, and have the classmate pretend to be the robot, attempting to follow the instructions and draw the same logo.
After a few minutes, introduce a specific student who can share their results with the class, then ask their partner to share the initial instructions. This method gives students a chance to communicate with each other (“That’s not what I meant!”) and laugh and bond, while learning an important lesson.
This exercise teaches computer science students the difficulty and importance of writing clear instructions. I have seen this exercise not only teach pairs of such students meaningful lessons, but encourage friendships that extended beyond my classroom.
As an instructor, it’s amazing how much information you can gather from a student centered review session. Specifically, if you leave the review in the hands of your students, you can get an easy and thorough assessment of what is being absorbed, and what is being left by the wayside. The more you encourage participation, the more you’ll see where your class is struggling and the more comfortable students will become with course material. Here’s how to transform a standard review into one of your more popular classroom activities:
- A week before the review, ask students to email you two to five key terms or theories that they feel they need to brush up on. Take all that data and compress it until you have a solid working list of what students want to review most.
- In class, provide students with visual access to the list (I found writing all the terms on a chalkboard to be most effective). Instruct the class to have their notes out in front of them, with a pad of paper or blank Word document at their fingertips, and encourage them to take notes as the review is in progress.
- A trinket of sorts (I highly recommend a plush ball), used as a “microphone,” helps to give students equal opportunity to direct the review without putting individuals on the spot too aggressively. The rules are simple: she or he who holds the “mic” can pick one term from the list and using their notes, can offer up what they already know about the term or concept, what they are unsure of, or what they need more elaboration on.
- Actively listen to the speaker and give them some positive cues if they seem unsure; it’s okay to help them along the way, but important to step back and let this review remain student centered. Once the speaker has said their piece, open the floor to the rest of the class for questions or additional comments. If you find that the discussion has taken a departure from the right direction, re-center the class and provide further elaboration if need be.
- Erase each term discussed from the list as you go, and have the speaker pass (or throw) on the “mic” to a fellow classmate, and keep tossing the ball around after each concept/term is discussed.
Students will have a tendency to pick the terms that they are most comfortable speaking about and those left consistently untouched will give you a clear assessment of the subjects in which your class is struggling, and where comprehension is lacking. Once your class has narrowed down the list to just a few terms, you can switch gears into a more classic review session. Bringing a bit of interaction and fun into a review can help loosen things up during exam time, when students and teachers alike are really starting to feel the pressure.
Do you remember the pure and utter joy you felt upon seeing your professor wheel in the giant VHS machine into class? Technology has certainly changed—but the awesome powers of visual media have not. Making your students smile can be a difficult task, but by channelling your inner Bill Nye the Science Guy you can make university learning fun again.
A large part meaningful learning is finding interactive classroom activities that are relevant to daily life—and I can think of no technology more relevant to current students than YouTube.
A crafty YouTube search can yield a video relevant to almost anything in your curriculum and paired with an essay or academic journal, a slightly silly video can go a long way in helping your students contextualize what they are learning.
Even if your comedic attempts plunge into failure, at the very least, a short clip will get the class discussion ball rolling. Watch the video as a class and then break up into smaller groups to discuss it. Get your students thinking about how the clip they are shown pairs with the primary sources they’ve already read.
6. Close reading
In the humanities, we all know the benefits of close reading activities—they get classroom discussion rolling and students engaging with the material and open up the floor for social and combination learners to shine. “Close reading” is a learning technique in which students are asked to conduct a detailed analysis or interpretation of a small piece of text. It is particularly effective in getting students to move away from the general and engage more with specific details or ideas.
If you’re introducing new and complex material to your class, or if you feel as though your students are struggling with an equation, theory, or concept; giving them the opportunity to break it down into smaller and more concrete parts for further evaluation will help to enhance their understanding of the material as a whole.
And while this technique is often employed in the humanities, classroom activities like this can be easily transferred to any discipline. A physics student will benefit from having an opportunity to break down a complicated equation in the same way that a biology student can better understand a cell by looking at it through a microscope.
In any case, evaluating what kinds of textbooks, lesson plans and pedagogy we are asking our students to connect with is always a good idea.
Interactive classroom activities, in short
Making your classes more interactive should help your students want to come to class and take part in it. Giving them a more active role will give them a sense of ownership, and this can lead to students taking more pride in their work and responsibility for their grades.
A more interactive class can also make things easier for you—the more work students do in class, the less you have to do. Even two minutes of not talking can re-energize you for the rest of the class.
Plus, these six methods outlined above don’t require any large-scale changes to your class prep. Set up a couple of activities in advance here and there, to support what you’ve been doing, and plan which portion of your class will feature them.
The reality remains that sometimes, students do have to be taught subject matter that is anything but exciting. That doesn’t mean that we can’t make it more enjoyable to teach or learn. It may not be possible to incorporate classroom activities into every lecture, but finding some room for these approaches can go a long way in facilitating a positive learning environment.
And let’s not forget, sometimes even an educator needs a brief departure from the everyday-ordinary-sit-and-listen-to-me-lecture regimen.
Want to learn more teaching techniques and classroom activity ideas? Our free e-book, Active Learning: The Perfect Pedagogy for a Digital Classroom, covers the ways that digital textbooks can re-energize a classroom and offers tried and tested tips from professors.
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