A Brief Guide to In-Class Activities
As often as we can, we like to speak with students about their experiences—how does it feel to be a student at FSU at this point in the semester? What we’re hearing now is that there’s still excitement about the new term, but students are feeling isolated. They wish they knew their classmates better. They’re hoping that they’ll begin to feel more comfortable in discussions, but they’re not quite there yet, so they may need a nudge from us.
There’s still plenty of time to build the sort of community that jet-fuels learning. Our classrooms are actually great places for friendships to start because they can provide “the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other,” according to sociologist and gerontologist Rebecca G. Adams. “This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college,” she explains.
Creating opportunities for students to interact with one another in class isn’t just being “nice”; learners need to examine and articulate their thinking in order to process their learning. Class time is well spent when students simultaneously get social contact and do their own thinking. As Terry Doyle insists, “the one who does the work does the learning.” Class activities can (and should) be opportunities for students to construct knowledge, practice higher order thinking, solve problems, and even self-assess.
What students get out of the experience depends, in large part, on the activities we design and how we facilitate those activities in class. When we’re designing in-class activities, we must start with the goal(s). What should students learn from the activity, and what can they do that will facilitate that learning? What do they need to think about separately and together? What do they need to practice? For some ideas and examples, you can check out our Learning-Centered Activities resource.
In-class activities might be focused on one task or a series of tasks. Students might work individually first and then get together in small groups. When students work together, they can each contribute to a larger task, compare their ideas, solve a more complex problem, or try to come to a consensus about something. We want to make sure that the task they do as a group is meaningful and necessitates productive group interaction.
However you design the activity, it will be important to make the plans transparent for students. In other words, they need to know the purpose of the activity, what they’re supposed to do at each step, and what successful work (in this case, engagement in the activity) might look like. A thoughtful and transparent activity design goes a long way toward a good learning experience, and the way you facilitate the activity in class is also important. Here are a few tips we hope will help:
- Set Norms. As early in the semester as possible, create an expectation that students will be actively learning and interacting during class time. (Sometimes students expect that only the professor will be active and that they should be passive in class.)
- Give clear instructions. Provide clear activity instructions, prompts, examples, etc. both orally and in writing. You can put these on a powerpoint slide, write them on the white board, share them as a handout, or include them on Canvas. (It’s normal for students to forget the instructions or questions if we only share them orally.)
- Create comfort. You can help students get over the initial awkwardness of forming and working together in groups. First, you can form the groups yourself either randomly or according to a particular strategy. Then, you can ask students to introduce themselves as the first step in the activity instructions.
- Think about roles. For group work, you can give each student a role, or they can choose roles from options you provide. They can have a different role each time they work together, if you wish, so that everyone takes a turn. You can also think strategically about roles (e.g., making the most talkative student the time keeper).
- Think about time. Especially for a multi-step activity, you’ll need to estimate how much time each step will take. This will be a process of trial and error; activity facilitation gets better with each semester. Eventually, you’ll have a good idea of how long to allow for each step. Having a clock or a timer that you can check from any location in the room is also helpful. (Some groups might finish earlier than others. If so, it’s okay to let them quietly chat about something else until the next step. This is an opportunity for them to get to know each other and begin to form those relationships that we described earlier.)
- Think about transitions. How should students transition into the activity, from one step to another, and back out of the activity into the larger group? Some faculty use Powerpoint slides for each step. Others use the lights in the classroom to signal transitions. Some have a signal where they raise their hand and get quiet, and anyone who sees them also raises their hand and gets quiet. Soon, everyone has a hand up and is paying attention to what to do next.
- Bring it all together. After students do an activity alone, in pairs, or in small groups, it’s helpful to come back together to share out in some way, to have some whole-class discussion, and/or to make meaning of what they did. This can be an opportunity for you to check in on what they did, provide feedback, or expand on or clarify some topics. It can also be helpful to ask them to reflect on what they learned. They might do this by speaking, writing, answering a question, or taking a survey.
- Use technology. There are many ways to use technology to facilitate in-class activities. In very large classes, technology can make some activities possible that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. For more information on in-class polling and other strategies, you can explore this resource from CAT and this one from ODL.
If you’d like some help to design and facilitate activities, please contact us for a consultation. And if you have great strategies you’d like to share, please send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can include them in a future tip. We’re always learning from you.