In the framework of Backwards Design, learning activities include any type of activity that students undertake to work with the concepts and skills that lead to reaching the desired learning outcomes. The focus is on breaking through individual silos and providing opportunities for students to actively learn, share, and work with their fellow classmates and the instructor. This means that most assessments are also learning activities.
The concept of active learning encompasses a wide variety of learning activities in which students engage with the course content. The focus of active learning is to foster that engagement. When students sit and passively watch or listen to lectures, whether in-person or video, they are not actively engaging with the content. If you think about the difference between your engagement with the topic at hand when you are simply listening to someone report out on the topic at a committee meeting versus when you are actively debating the topic with colleagues, you can see the difference. If students are actively involved in working with the content, they will learn more, be more successful, and be pleased with the outcomes in your course.
In Seven Principles of Undergraduate Education, Chickering and Gamson note that students "must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves" (p. 4).
Dee Fink (2005), a leading author in active learning, suggests thinking about active learning as the intersection of three components doing or observing (what Fink calls a "rich learning experience"), information and ideas, and reflective dialogue.
A "rich learning experience" is an activity that aligns with both learning outcomes and assessments and provides opportunities for students to learn new concepts and skills or to practice the concepts and skills they have recently learned. Providing “hands-on” activities for students, either individually or in small groups, is an important way to both increase motivation and support learning. Situations where students actively participate and work with the content are more effective in encouraging students to think reflectively and push their understanding of the concepts further. Well-designed learning activities promote that kind of active learning.
Imagine, for example, a Spanish class in which students explore a local Hispanic market. They might observe the types of food and how they are organized, reflect on the differences and similarities to their own experiences in groceries stores, and connect their reflections to course concepts about culture and its influence on shopping, cooking, and eating. In an online class, the students could share pictures or videos of their exploration and their reflection with the class in a discussion forum where they can compare and contrast their experiences with those of their classmates.
For Fink, the Reflective Dialogue component of active learning includes having students reflect on the meaning of their learning experience individually or in collaboration with others. The reflection can take many different forms from a journal to a series of minute papers to a debrief conversation with a peer. The key is that they are prompted to answer questions such as:
This sort of regular, structured reflection provides opportunities for those "ah-ha" moments when connections between concepts are made, alternative perspectives are clarified, and metacognition is improved. Regular reflection also encourages students to notice how much of what they do involves and is grounded in tacit knowledge. Having them verbalize and share their understandings can turn up underlying misconceptions that can hinder their learning without them being consciously aware of the problem.
If the concept of actively inquiring and reflecting in a cycle sound familiar, it might be because they also serve as the basis for Dewey's Practical Inquiry Model, on which the cognitive presence aspect of the Community of Inquiry Framework is also built.
Below are 12 activities, approaches, and some digital applications that can help create a sense of community and interactivity in a classroom, even when students cannot sit close together for the traditional versions of small group work and collaboration.
Zoom and Collaborate Ultra both have a whiteboard feature that allows for a collaborative use. As a class, students can all contribute to a concept map, or brainstorm activity. The end product can be shared as a file in the end of the session, so everyone has that document to refer back to when studying.
Assign four students to a literary character or historical figure pertinent to the topic at hand. Each student represents one verb: Thinks, Does, Feels, and Says. Each of those students will brainstorm what the person would Think, Do, Feel, or Say by way of extending their comprehension of a reading or the person’s political or historical actions. Students can then bring their “verb” to create a complete analytical “map” of the character or figure, or complicate each other’s points of view.
Create clues relevant to the subject at hand or ask students to create the clues after studying the material themselves. You can share the game on screen in-person or on a video call. Students "buzz in" by raising a hand or by entering a character into the chat to simulate buzzing to answer the clue with the appropriate question.
Ask students to buy a pack of index cards or a small, inexpensive whiteboard for your class. As a way to see “real time” understanding or even lingering questions, students can raise a notecard or whiteboard with their answers to a specific prompt, allowing for only the instructor to see it. This function can be replicated online through the use of the polling features in Zoom or Collaborate Ultra. Results are tabulated as a percent of the class but remain anonymous when shared with the class.
Students can quickly share thoughts about a topic or project with fellow students, moving from one student to another in a simulation of speed dating. This can be done in the classroom space (6 feet apart), as well as on a video call through breakout rooms or chats. Instructors can purposely assign groups of students for this activity or have them automatically (randomly) placed in breakout rooms.
Kahoot is an interactive app that allows for anonymous responses. It can be used as a pre-formative assessment, to judge students’ knowledge of a specific topic, as well as a review activity. Instead of providing the students with a study guide or a review lecture, you may cover the same content in a game-like format. Students may use their phones or computer to access the Kahoot room with a code generated by the instructor. The host may share their screen allowing students to see the results.
Nearpod allows students to deliver and control an interactive presentation from their own device while the presentation is streamed to individual student devices. Presenters can add quizzes, polls, drawings, and so forth. Spectators can reply or ask questions anonymously throughout the presentation. Students can create a presentation in PowerPoint and upload it, or just create it right in Nearpod. The app generates a code that spectators can enter to access the presentation on the Nearpod website. The base account is free and no account is required for students to view the presentations.
Students are asked a question from the instructor. One of the students will volunteer to answer, and that student "becomes the teacher,” asking another question about the same topic to be answered by another student in the class, who keeps the pattern going. If a student does not know the answer they can “popcorn” it to a peer.
Students are given an idea or prompt to generate ideas, reactions, questions, etc. At the end of one minute, students are asked to pair off to share and discuss what they have come up with and to list at least three things that they can agree on. Once the first round is complete, groups will combine and discuss the topic into larger and larger groups. This continues until the whole class comes together to discuss their ideas. If the classroom is not large enough to keep spaced while discussing, ask students to use a digital technology to brainstorm together, either by texting each other if they are amenable or using a shared Google Docs page (which you can set up and share ahead of class), giving each round a labeled section.
The Socrative teacher app allows for quick, gamified assessment or review of student understanding and course materials. Instructors can launch a quiz or “space race” for students to play against each other. Instructors can also ask multiple choice, true/false, and short answer questions on the fly and see the responses in real time. A free student version of the app must be downloaded on students’ devices in order to access the “room” created by the instructor.
The instructor provides an ordered list of events, procedure steps, or facts in the wrong order as a PowerPoint presentation. Students, in break-out rooms or individually, will then reorganize the list in an attempt to find the correct order. The students’ answers can be posted inside the chat area. The next PowerPoint slide would present the students with the correct order.
Pair students up to answer a critical thinking prompt or discussion question. Ask them to use a digital technology to brainstorm together, either through texting each other if they are amenable or using a shared Google doc (which you can set up and share a link to ahead of class), giving each pair a labeled space on the doc. After a designated period, have the pairs report out, either by showing the Google doc on the screen and reading their work or by traditional sharing out loud.
Use UW-Superior’s LinkedIn Learning site license to access hundreds of video tutorials on various educational technologies, such as creating break-out rooms in Zoom, or how to set up and share a Google Docs document. You can login to LinkedIn Learning from our Campus Logins page.
Chickering, A. W., & Z. F. Gamson. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 3-7.
Fink, D. (2005). A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning.
Fink, D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.