Make activities produce learning

an ordinary sized pumpkin
This pumpkin is under 400 pounds.

I read a newspaper article last week about an elementary school class in my area that had raised a 400-pound pumpkin, which will be displayed at the Hard Rock Cafe in Manhattan. It was a cute story, with a photo of cute kids with their pumpkin. I’m sure the kids enjoyed the experience or at least enjoyed having their photo in the newspaper.

The story got me thinking about projects English teachers do to help students engage with course content.

The “Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy” has this warning about using activities as teaching tools:

When the focus is placed on activities, students may be more interested in performing the activity than in learning from the activity.*

Classroom activities have a funny way of becoming an end in themselves. Unless teachers deliberately plan ways to make sure students learn from activities, they often don’t.  I remember some activities from high school that I thought were pointless busywork; the passage of time hasn’t changed my opinion.

Your time is too valuable to waste on activities that students remember as pointless busy work.

If you’re planning some activities for your classes this year, be sure you plan how to make sure students learn from the activity.  Begin by telling students what they’re supposed to learn. Is it information? A skill? A procedure? Some combination of those?

As much as it may grieve you to admit it, the only way to get some students to learn is to build learning assessments into the project itself. That doesn’t mean you have to give a test at the end of the activity.  Sometimes learning happens only when you force students to reflect on what they did, how they felt doing it, what results they achieved.

Giving students informal writing prompts at appropriate reflection points during the activity is one way to build in active learning.

Giving a formal writing prompt at the end of the activity can challenge students to analyze what they did, evaluate what they learned, and give you written documentation you can use both as a “final test” on what they learned from the activity and writing practice.


*The boldface is on page 233 of the original text of A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, L. W. Anderson and D.R. Krathwohl, et al, eds. (complete edition) 2001. Longman.

Image by Frauke Feind from Pixabay

Actively teach active learning with online tutorial

 The University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning contains many resources that can be adapted by teachers of upper middle school and high school students. A great one is a tutorial on active learning strategies.
screen capture shows first slide in tutorial on 12 active learning strategies
Besides using the slides for your own professional development, you could use the slides to teach students to use active learning and to enable them to study your  content.

How to use the tutorial

I’d probably present one strategy to students every second or third week. For the presentation, I’d show one example of a strategy applied to English language arts.

For example, the first slide about reflecting on experience with PowerPoint and finding a positive and negative example could easily be adapted to hundreds of informal ELA writing prompts, such as:

Take a moment to reflect on your experience with poetry. Come up with an example of a positive experience and a negative experience.

Take a moment to reflect on your experience with advertising. Come up with an example of an ad that you think works well one you think does not work well.

Take a moment to reflect on your reading about using commas. Come up with an example of a comma rule you think you understand well and and an example of a rule you don’t understand.

Rather than ask for oral responses, I’d use informal writing, which gets all students involved. I could present the strategy and have students write on any one of those prompts all in 10 minutes.

The rest of the first week I would use the same type of reflect-on-knowledge exercise for some aspect of that day’s work. That might take 2-3 minutes for informal writing. In a week, students would be able to use the strategy on demand.

Of course, the goal is to get students to use a strategy without prompting. That typically means forcing students to practice the strategy on material they select from options you set.

I might have students bring an “admit slip” each day for a week explaining how they used the reflect-on-experience strategy to help them activate knowledge prior to coming to my class.

The third week I might require an admit slip explaining how they used the strategy to help them activate knowledge for some other class.

Teaching this way gets students to apply the strategy enough times that they understand its value and limitations.

They may even use it on their own without prompting.

Questions? Alternative ways of using this material? Share your ideas.


This material previously appeared in Writing Points for April, 2011, © 2011 Linda G. Aragoni