Has your classroom ever become unbearably quiet? What do you do when student engagement starts to dwindle?
Incorporating fun classroom activities into your lesson plan can be intimidating at best, but sometimes our students need more than just a lecture. When I was walking into the classroom to lead my very first tutorial, I started to imagine that teaching would be a lot like parallel parking in front of an audience… Logistically, I knew what I was supposed to do, but throw in a few onlookers and the margin of error suddenly seems to grow. In full disclosure, it was a lot like parallel parking in front of 20 people. I looked more like a classmate than a T.A , I dropped the eraser on my face whilst trying to write my name on the board. One of my students called me as “Mam”. But even worse—it was so quiet in the room that I could hear my own heart beating…
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; and from which I found comfort in knowing that they did want to learn. I also knew that I had to find a way to make tutorials more engaging.
I started scheduling in twenty minutes of group work wherever I could. I had students email me questions they wanted addressed in future tutorials, we did class close-readings, games, discussions and quizzes—and eventually that terrible quietness had moved on to some other place. Whether you are a seasoned professor or a first-time T.A, if you find your class has gone reticent—it may be time to bring some fun into the room.
Here are a few ways that you can activate student engagement with fun classroom activities:
1. Pass the “mic”
As an instructor, it’s amazing how much information you can gather from a student centered review session. Specifically, leaving the review in the hands of your students can give you an easy and thorough assessment of what is being absorbed in class and what is being left by the wayside. The more interactive the review session, the more you’ll see where your class is struggling and the more comfortable students will become with course material. Here’s how to incorporate some fun into your standard review:
- A week before the review, ask students to email you 2-5 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 and what your savvy professor-senses are telling you that your students need to work on.
- 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.
- Using a trinket of sorts (I highly recommend a plush ball) 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/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 areas in which your class is struggling. 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 fun into a review can help loosen things up during exam time, when students and teachers alike, are really starting to feel the pressure.
2. Use Youtube for Classroom Activities
Do you remember the pure and utter joy you felt upon hearing your professor wheel in the giant VHS machine into class? Technology has certainly changed—but the awesome powers of visual media have not. Last month, Jeremy Haynes wrote a piece on incorporating technology and humour into the classroom, in which he reminds us that teaching and learning is “something worth smiling about”. 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 of bringing fun into the classroom through meaningful learning is finding classroom activity that is relevant to daily life—and I can think of no technology more relevant to millennial 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.
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 will help to enhance their understanding of the material as a whole. And while this technique is often employed in the Humanities, it is a classroom activity that 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. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate what kind of texts we are asking our students to connect with.
3. Challenge Preconceptions with a Student Engagement Platform
Perhaps one of the most exciting things about learning is having your preconceptions blown out of the water. According to researchers participating in the University of Michigan’s On the Cutting Edge research program, “Students carry into class preconceptions based on stories they’ve heard, articles they’ve read and experiences they’ve had. One of the best opportunities to teach metacognition is at a ‘gotcha’ moment when they come to realize their preconception is amiss.”
Challenging and shedding assumptions can reignite the spark that often fades throughout the semester, but with large classes, asking each individual student what they think they know can be a undertaking and a half. Fortunately, student engagement platforms like Top Hat, make collecting large amounts of data in real time an easy task. No one is put on the spot because student engagement platforms are relatively anonymous and allow students to sit back and watch how their opinions and thoughts matchup or differ from the rest of the class.
Interactive technologies, when executed properly, can serve as excellent tools for making assessments on how well your students are absorbing information, without the stress of formal quizzes or exams. Weaving interactive tech into your day can capture your student’s attention and provide a break from lecture, all while making staying on course with the lesson plan frictionless.
The reality remains—sometimes, we do have to teach 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 room for a little bit of fun in your curriculum can go a long way in facilitating meaningful learning.
And let’s not forget, sometimes even we need a brief departure from the everyday-ordinary-sit-and-listen-to-me-lecture regiment.
Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to facilitate an active and engaged learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click the button below.