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Easy Ways to Enliven Any Classroom, Any Size

Easy Ways to Enliven Any Classroom, Any Size

It's 8 am. Half the class is asleep, the other is staring into a cell phone. How do you turn such a dispiriting lecture class into a site of engaged, active learning?  Well, you engage the students, for starters! 

Here are 33 ways that various faculty in the humanities and social sciences have found to break the mold of both the large lecture and the smaller seminar. These aren't just to give a jolt to that 8 am class or that frazzled time half way through the semester. These are basic, simple, and then some extraordinarily creative and useful ways to make learning "stick," make it more meaningful, relevant, and memorable (literally) beyond the final exam.

These were transcribed from a Think-Pair-Share I did with 33 faculty members in a session on creative teaching and learning at the University of California at Santa Cruz, led by Professor Jody Greene, Director, Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning (and with sponsorship by the Humanities Institute at UCSC).

I asked everyone to share their “best trick” for active learning.  They wrote for a mere 90 seconds, then paired and exchanged their ideas with another person who then told the whole group about the method they had just learned from a colleague. 

(NB: that Think-Pair-Share method is the single most reliable, easy, quick way I know to enliven any group and ensure active learning and I do some variation at every event, whether 33 people at a teaching center or 6000+ IB teachers in the Philadelphia 76ers auditorium, whether junior high students, graduate students, profs, or CEOs.  It just works.  Always. Every time.  In the words of the great Harvard educational philosopher Alfie Kohn, on Twitter today:  "What matters isn’t how well a teacher holds students’ attention so much as whether he or she knows enough to stop being the center of attention.")

In the words of the great Harvard educational philosopher Alfie Kohn, on Twitter today:  "What matters isn’t how well a teacher holds students’ attention so much as whether he or she knows enough to stop being the center of attention."

33 suggestions for an engaged classroom that anyone can adapt (with thanks to Prof Greene for taking these excellent notes):

1 Divided 70 people into seven groups of 10 and ask where they want it to go
2 Leave it to the class to decide what the final project will be.
3 Sending students into the field, community based, to create a documentary film.
4nGive out the final on the first day of class. Students can be using it all term.
5 Collaborative syllabus in a grad class that gave students the opportunity to choose the reading.
6 Gave an option for the final where there were mandatory questions and an option to generate their own question as well.
7 Designed a card game with writing students. Created a game she could play with the students next quarter, with a new group of students.
8 Not only diagnose problems, but come up with solutions and write a grant proposal to fund the solutions
9 Have students do a Bechdel test (film with women talking to each other)
10 Have students select a word that matters to them. Become the word by writing from the word’s perspective.
11 Divide course into groups and had them write their own family history.
12 Each class a group of students reports what was covered in the previous class and take students.
13 Had people from Ecuador and Peru Skyping in. Students translate, control media, and ask questions and lead discussion.
14 Bring a life story to the first day of class and ask the students what they need to know to understand the life story. The class was designed around what the student would need to know. Students found readings and pitched readings.
15 Students had to come up with a question about sustainability, ask questions all over campus, compress in to a two minute podcast.
16 Undergrad students Create a workshop for high school students to get the students interested in reading the play.
17 Assigned each student a hashtag, go for 90 minutes and take pictures that would go with the hashtag, and then generate metadata from the pictures.
18 Had students invent titles for specific scenes of the tempest. Generate discussion out of that. Then voted on the titles as a class.
19 To help students understand technology, had students replicate letter folding and encryption. Students had to decipher.
20 Podcast assignment.
21 History class. Going and having students talk to someone who is older and may have lived through the history they are discussing in class. In the last day everyone shares what they have learned from their interlocutors.
22 Create a website (the whole class) after reading a memoir.
23 Creative Writing, every student offered one word to make a poem by the whole class.
24 Ask students to inhabit a theorist and channel that person to debate on an issue or question.
25 Mini ethnography of a material object, and include non visual sense and non textual element as part of the object.
26 Teaching database research, assuming a level of instinctive or habitual search talent. Begin with a search.
27 Have students listen to volunteers in a clinic, and determine genre appropriate to the need.
28 Have students collectively determine the meaning of a difficult text by working in small groups (jigsaw method).
29 Copy one sentence from the reading—each student and the teacher. Have everyone read that sentence.
30 Text rendering—sentence, then a phrase, then a word. Go around and have each person say a word.
31 Everyone stand up in the middle of class. Or in the middle of an exam.
32 Next class—you come up with something interesting we could do in class.
33 Have them bring a crib sheet to the final examination.

BONUS:  34 Have fun.  Learning is social. Be creative.  Use inventory methods--such as Think Pair Share where everyone shares an idea.  Surprise, surprise: if you structure a situation where everyone participates equally (not one where three extroverts hog the show), everyone has something to contribute.  It works.


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