Pedagogical Tools: In Class Activities


1)    You’re stuck in a rut and bored – you can’t think of any other way to present the material besides lecturing from your notes or a PowerPoint.

2)    Your students are getting into the mid-semester slump (often evident in their body language – present but sitting back, slightly distracted).

3)    The same students are talking in class.

4)    You’re worried that students aren’t interested and/or are not digesting the material successfully.


Any or a combination of the problems above necessitates that you rethink the format of your class. You should think about changing up the style of your presentation and ways students can engage with the material. Below is a list of activities to consider and try out in your class.

velkr0, "Classroom." April 24, 2009 via Flickr.

Activities: Discussion-oriented

·      Think-Pair-Share

o   Pose a question to your class. Explain that you will give them 1-2 min. to think about the answer silently, then a few minutes to discuss it with 1-2 partners, and finally to share their thoughts out loud with the class. You can go around the room asking each group to share out (1 spokesperson/group). Or you can allow students to voluntarily share out. Or you can call on specific students to share (consider calling on quiet students).

o   Why and how is this method effective? This technique often elicits more thoughtful responses to questions, because you have given students “wait time” to think about it. (In general, think about waiting 10 seconds or more after you ask a question to give students time to think about it.) This technique also allows more people to share what they’re thinking – in a large class, this is nice because it can be frustrating if you’re not getting called on and you think you have a great idea. When presenting, students can share their responses or share those of others. It can be very gratifying for students to hear that someone else thinks they had a good idea.

o   Potential Pitfalls: Sometimes students can stray off topic. Don’t give them too much time to discuss. Monitor their conversations (i.e. listen in on their conversations) and pull the class back when most (not necessarily all) conversations have wrapped up. Walk around the room during discussions.

·      Homogeneous grouping

o   Divide your class into small discussion groups (2-5 people is ideal but could be bigger, if necessary). Give each group the same question(s) or different ones to discuss and present to the rest of class (orally, or using the chalkboard or poster paper). “Homogeneous” in this case indicates that there’s some sort of similarity within the group or across groups (compare with “Heterogeneous grouping”). For example, students are grouped by similar interest, age level, learning ability/level, learning style (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic), viewpoint on a debate, chapter/article they read for homework, etc.

o   Note: This technique can be followed up with “Heterogeneous grouping”. For example, if you gave each homogeneous group a different question to discuss then each person of that group becomes a “representative” of that question when they create another group with one person from each of the other homogeneous groups – to create a “heterogeneous group”.

o   Why and how is this method effective? Small groups allow more students to voice their opinion. For some, it is also an environment that is less intimidating than a whole class, particularly a large lecture hall. They get an opportunity to “try out” their opinion to see if others agree before they share it with a larger group.

o   Potential Pitfalls: Some students may not participate because it doesn’t “count” (i.e. the teacher is not listening). Remind students that you will be listening in to their conversations (or if it’s a sensitive topic, tell them you won’t); also, walk around the room to listen in on their conversation. If the group has too many students in it, then quieter students still often don’t participate. Likewise, one talkative student can dominate the small group. To remedy either of these situations, require that everyone shares their opinion. Again, walk around and specifically go over to groups with quiet students and intervene if you see that they’re not sharing their opinion.

·      Heterogeneous grouping (aka Jigsaw Puzzle groups)

o   “Heterogeneous” in this case indicates that there’s some sort of difference within the group (compare with “Homogeneous grouping”). For example, students are grouped by different interests, age level, learning ability/level, learning style (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic), viewpoint on a debate, chapter/article they read for homework, etc.

o   Divide your class into small discussion groups (2-5 people is ideal but could be bigger, if necessary), but be sure that each student is a “representative” of a particular dimension of difference that you’re targeting (this can be made explicit to students or kept to yourself and seem “random” to students).

§  Example 1: After a few weeks, you have determined who among your students is more “adept” at grasping the material (or those who have had a harder time grasping the material). You make sure to put them in separate groups.

§  Example 2: For homework, different groups of students were given a different article or chapter to read. In class, students are broken into small groups within which each person has read a different article or chapter. Each student within the group is then responsible for sharing a summary or analysis of that reading to the rest of their group members.

o   Why and how this method is effective? This method makes students depend on one another. No one can “hide” (i.e. not speak). Likewise, it makes all students responsible for the reading, because if they don’t do it then they also let their fellow students down (thus, it creates a little healthy peer pressure).

o   Potential Pitfalls: In these groups, sometimes group members will “tune out” when it’s not their turn to present. To avoid this, have some sort of accountability measure. For example, give them a graphic organizer (like a table or chart) that they have to fill out with information given from other group members. Or, ask the group to create a presentation of the key points of their discussion. This can be delivered by 1 or more people. Tell students that the quality of their presentations are graded or part of a class participation grade.

·      Debate

o   Ask a question and determine (via hand raise or written/digitally-assisted poll) who is on one side and who is on the other. Divide the class into “homogeneous” (i.e. views are the same) or “heterogeneous” (i.e. views are different) groups. Groups should be given time to put together a list of arguments. Then the class should regroup and have a moderated (by teacher or student) debate.

·      Fishbowl

o   Divide the class into two homogeneous or heterogeneous groups. Have students in Group A arrange their chairs/desks into a small circle in the middle of the group. Have students in Group B arrange their chairs/desks into a circle around the inner small circle. First, have Group A students discuss the topic or issue at hand. Students in Group B should only listen. Second, have Group B students sit in the inner circle and discuss the same or different topic or issue. In between the two groups or after both groups have gone, ask students to “debrief” – What was the experience like? What did they think about other group’s discussions?   

Activities: Reading Assignment Discussion-oriented

·      Homogeneous groups

o   See “Homogeneous grouping” (described above). When all students have read the same article, they get together in a small group to create a summary or answer a particular question and share out to the class. Presentation can be oral (with or without notes) or visual (e.g. written on the chalkboard or poster paper).

·      Jigsaw/Heterogeneous groups

o   See “Heterogeneous grouping” (described above). When different groups of students in the class have read different articles. Students share a summary of their article in small groups with other students who have read a different article. (See also “Bloom’s taxonomy” (to be posted at a later date) of how to scaffold this technique for students during the semester)

·      Prepared paper for presentation

o   At the beginning of the semester, divide the class into 2 or 3 large groups.

§  Version 1: Each week, students of Group A (or B) are responsible for writing a summative/analytical paper about the reading. In class, 1+ (can be all) student(s) read aloud their paper.  Paper can be as short as a paragraph or as long as 5 pages, which takes 15 min. to read).

§  Version 2: Each week, 1 or more students of Group A (or B) are responsible for writing a summative/analytical paper about the reading. In class, 1 or more students are selected to read aloud their paper. Paper can be as short as a paragraph or as long as 5 pages, which takes 15 min. to read).

·      Prepared oral presentation or class discussion leaders

o   Version 1: Individually or in groups, students are in charge of giving an oral summary or analysis of the reading. This can be done with or without notes in front of them (this may be a skill you want to help students develop – see “Bloom’s taxonomy”). Students should sign up for a particular date at the beginning of the semester.

o   Version 2: Individually or in groups, students can lead class discussion for the whole length of class or a portion of it. Students should sign up for a particular date at the beginning of the semester.

Activities: Lecture-oriented

·      PowerPoint notes / Lecture outline

o   This may not seem like an “activity”, but it is a technique that helps students to engage with the material in a different way. At the beginning of class, print out (or ask students to print out and bring to class) a handout with pictures of the PowerPoint slides that you are presenting (This can be accomplished through the “Print” screen of PowerPoint. Consult program’s help menu) or an outline of the lecture. These notes/outline should NOT be a complete replica of all that you are going to say. They should just be a few key words/phrases that structure what you’re going to say. Explain to students this case and encourage them to write notes directly on the handout.

o   Why and how is this method effective? This can be a good scaffolding method for students if you know (or you’re not sure) that they are overwhelmed by the amount of material or are confused. Writing notes can help students remain focused on the material at hand (this may be second-nature for some students but not others, depending on their high school training).  

o   Potential Pitfalls: If you put too much material on the handout, students will not have anything to take notes on and they can “tune out” while you present. Make sure to explain to them that the “notes” you are giving them are not complete. This method can often leave instructors feeling that they cannot diverge from the printed material. Know that it’s okay to stray from the “notes” BUT be sure to alert students that what you’re discussing is something you hadn’t thought about before and is not in their printed “notes”. This can also be helped if you make sure to only put general topics, key terms, and/or phrases on the handout instead of your lecture in full.

·      Graphic organizers

o   Similar to the notes/outline described above, a graphic organizer is a way to help structure, scaffold, or organize the material that is being presented. It is considered more of a “visual” technique, because you often use more pictures or can present the material in a non-linear/chronological fashion. Before class, prepare a handout (usually 1-sided) that visually lays out an “outline” of the topic to be discussed. Layouts can take the form of bubble charts, Venn diagrams, etc. For inspiration, click the “SmartArt” tab at the top of your Microsoft Word program. It is also a good idea to use small icons, symbols, or small photos on the page (e.g. dollar signs, picture of a person, country flag etc.). Ask students to fill in and write notes on the graphic organizer as you lecture.

o   Why and how is this method effective? Students can learn in a variety of manners – aurally, kinesthetically, and visually. This is method engages a different part of the brain/body (i.e. their eyes and visual receptors in their brain) than they otherwise would in a typical lecture-format (i.e. their ears). This method is also particularly effective for students with learning difficulties. It helps to “chunk” information down into important segments and organize it in a more digestible format. Know that even those students who you consider “advanced” in your class will appreciate this method.

o   Potential Pitfalls: This technique requires advanced preparation and time on the instructor’s part. You may not be able to “fit” everything on the page that you want or organize it in a way that makes sense. That’s okay. Sometimes just a clear linear outline (like the one described above) is better. Students may also not “get” what they’re being asked to do this activity. Explain to them that you think this method will help them organize the material more clearly.  

Activities: Evaluation-oriented

·      Gallery Walk

o   Around the room on tables or the classroom walls, position objects, artwork, or student work. Allow students to walk around silently the displayed work. Ask them to reflect on what’s in front of them, either in their mind or write a note on a post-it note and stick it next to the work. Then bring the students back together to discuss their impressions of the work.  

Activities: Creative-oriented

·      Poem

o   Poems can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be written individually or collectively, and from their perspective or from someone else’s perspective. One example: At the beginning of the semester, ask students to write a poem about the culture(s) from which they come. This is an excellent way for you to learn a bit about them and for peers to get to know each other (if you ask them to post it on a discussion board). These poems can simply be for a completion grade (not ranked – A, B, C – but just a certain number of points for everyone that completed the assignment) and then compiled into their participation or some other required category of grading.

·      Song

o   Songs can be slightly more difficult to write than poems, but equally fun. Students can make up a song (if they are that ambitious and/or talented) or they can change the words to a song.

·      Video

o   Videos can take a bit more time and know-how to produce but are often the most powerful. And students are certainly getting more exposure to and practice with digital media early in their lives. Students can work individually or collectively. Video can be a great option for students for final projects.

·      Dramatic play

o   You can ask students to write a script and/or put on a play illustrating their perspective on a certain issue.

Activities: Summary-oriented

·      Exit slips

o   Ask students to turn in a slip of paper at the end of class with their response to 1-3 questions. Give students about 5 min. at the end of class to fill them out (the more time you give them, the more reflective they can be). These can be the same questions at the end of every class or a different one.

Sample questions:

§  Describe a moment of “ah-ha”, insight, and/or breakthrough for you from class.

§  What lingering questions or puzzlements do you have after today’s class?

§  How did you contribute to today’s learning experience?

§  Are there any points that you wanted to make that you didn’t get a chance to?

§  What’s your perspective on X (a topic or issue that was raised in class)?

o   Why and how this method is effective? Exit slips are an excellent learning tool for you and your students. For students, it allows them to reflect on the class as a whole class, which can be critical for their retention of the material presented. For instructors, this allows you to get feedback from students on the most powerful and confusing moments of class (which can be used to modify the lesson in the future or follow-up on in the next class). They can also help you keep track of attendance (make exit slips a requirement) and remind you of who participated and the quality of their comment.  

Activities: Review/Assessment-oriented

·      Jeopardy

o   This is a game modeled off the TV game show. It is often used as a method for review before a test. Before class, prepare 5-7 categories of topics, dates, places etc. covered in class. Then prepare about 5 question-answers for each category. Assign a graduated point value to each question (typically, those question-answers that are harder are worth more). In class, divide students into groups. Have group A select a category and point value. You will then read the question-answer to students and student groups can confer and then “buzz in” with the answer. The group to answer first correctly gets the points added to their score, or if they make a mistake they can get those points taken away (or there could be no point deduction, your choice). There are different ways you can have students buzz in. They could raise their hands, be given small bells, or given mini dry-erase white boards where they have to write their answer and then raise it up (my favorite - you can buy these at Staples or a teacher supply store).

§  Example of Category: Authors in Anthropology

§  Example of Question-Answer: This person wrote "Coming of Age in Samoa."

§  Answer: Margaret Mead

o   Tip: The answer should not be more than 1-2 words because of the fast-paced nature of the game.

Other things to consider

How often do you do the activities presented above?

·      Some activities can be done each and every class. They will become part of the overall structure or format of your class. Other activities you can do on the “fly” or “have in your back pocket” in case the energy in the room is particularly flat that day. And still other activities you’ll only want to do once a semester or a few times because of the amount of preparation required, because the novelty of the activity would wear off if you did it too often, or because not all material is suited to be presented/engaged with in that manner.


o   Chalkboard - Students can be given the opportunity to use the chalkboard individually or in groups to present or share out an idea. Options: 1) draw a picture to depict their idea or summary 2) use only icons or symbols to depict their idea or summary 3) create an outline of their discussion or reading summary 4) write one word/phrase to depict their discussion or reading summary. 

o   Poster paper - Poster paper (Post-It brand or similar with an adhesive back is best) can be used for small group presentations. Either one person should write/draw (and another person to present) or ask that each person write/draw something on the paper (prevents students from withdrawing from group)

o   Mini dry erase white boards - These are dry erase boards that are the size of a piece of paper. Can be used individually (if you have that many) or in groups for presentations (where they draw one symbol or write one word) or for answers to jeopardy style questions.

o   Post-its - Students can use post-its to write their opinions about a picture or another student’s posted work and post it next to that object. See “gallery walk” (described above).

o   Markers/Crayons - It may seem juvenile, but markers and crayons provide color, which actually can enhance learning. Students love it.

Before the Activity: Considerations in Selecting an Activity

Before you make a decision about what kind of activity to try out, you need to consider a few things:

1)    Class Size - Some of the activities can be adapted to different class sizes, however others are not suited for particular sizes of class. Think about how you could modify the activity to adapt it appropriately.

2)    Your Personality - Some of the activities may require you to be very active and animated, whereas others require you to be a passive observer. Reflect on your natural disposition in class. Consider challenging yourself and try out an activity that might feel uncomfortable at first. Remember, you won’t be perfect at it the first time through, but evaluate afterwards if you can get better at it or if it ultimately doesn’t suit your personality. Know that sometimes switching up your style can unsettle students in positive and negative ways. On the positive side, it might wake them up and get them more engaged. On the negative side, they could be turned off by the activity and disengage further. Sometimes, different classes will react differently. Often times it’s trial and error. So sometimes it’s important just to try.

3)    Individual Student Personalities and Collective Class Personality - Think about the personalities and energy level of your students. When selecting an activity, think about how individuals and the class as a whole will react. In selecting an activity, you’ll have to weigh the decision of whether to challenge individuals or the class as a whole to step out of their comfort zone, or whether ultimately the activity will fall flat and is not worth trying.

4)    Learning Differences, Styles and Engagement - Ultimately, you want students to engage with material to increase their knowledge base, as well as challenge them cognitively to think about and analyze material in a different way. Moreover, consider also the social dimension of learning. It is important for students to learn how to discuss the material with different kinds of people – different types of learner abilities and backgrounds, different types of audience (outside vs. inside of field/discipline), etc. Changing the style of presentation is an excellent way to develop all of these areas.  

After the activity: Reflection, Evaluation, and Feedback

Reflection is a crucial part of changing the style of presentation and engagement with material.

You need to think back on how successful the activity was from a variety of perspectives:

1)    Set-up and Preparation - For you as the instructor, how much time did it take to prepare for this type of activity? Consider whether the set-up would take as much time if you did it again. For example, graphic organizers can take a long time to set up the first time, but if you teach the class next year, you won’t have to start from scratch (you may need to make slight modifications).

2)    Time - Consider how much time it took to introduce and explain the activity to your students. Sometimes the amount of time it takes to explain the activity (and resulting student confusion) or setup the room in a particular way is not worth it. There may be other activities that you could do instead to present the material. Also, know that the first time you explain and set-up an activity can be time-consuming, but after that, students know how to engage and can do it in the half the time.

3)    Student engagement - How did the students engage with the material and activity? Physically, did their body language suggest curiosity, deep thinking, and/or excitement about the material/activity (fun is critical to learning too!)? Cognitively, did their response rate or depth increase? Were discussions different (in a good way) from what you’re used to hearing? Did students who are usually quiet participate?

4)    Proper fit - Think about the material itself and the way it was presented through the activity. Do you think it was the best method of delivery? Not all material can be engaged with through an activity – sometimes direct lecturing is best.  

Timing: You should try to reflect on the activity immediately after class. Jot down your initial reflections, even if they are generic (e.g. “The activity went well.” Or “It was a disaster.”) If you can immediately after, or at a later time, try to think about why the activity was a success or not.  

Student Feedback:

It’s important to ask students about what they thought of the activity. It’s important not only from the standpoint of the success of the activity, but it will also demonstrate to students that you care about their learning and are working hard to make class interesting for them. Make it clear to them that you want to improve. Some students will give you more candid feedback than others – this depends on the way in which you ask them, their comfort level with you, and your rapport with them. Ask a few different students to mitigate these differences and get a variety of perspectives. Eliciting feedback can be done in a variety of ways:

·      In class, orally – Ask students collectively how they liked that particular activity. Danger is that student reactions can be swayed by others. ·      In class, written – Ask students to write you a quick note at the end of class, reflecting on the experience. Did they like it? Why? What would they change?
·      Outside of class – Approach students after class in person or via email and ask them directly for their reactions.  

Modifications - What could you change to make the activity/student engagement more successful next time? In your reflection, you need to always think about how the activity could be improved (even if you have done this one several times). Here are questions to help that thought process:

·      Should you change the explanation of the activity? Do you think it is better suited for a different set of students (e.g. freshmen vs. seniors, undergraduate vs. graduate, quiet class vs. boisterous class, etc.)? Should you change any of the content of the materials that you used? Do you need to budget more or less time in class? Do you need to model or present an example in order to reduce student confusion at first?  

Please respond to this fieldsight with questions, comments about its usefulness, and suggestions you may have! You may also email me directly if you have any questions or requests for future teaching tool posts:

Louise Lamphere Beryl is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Previously she was trained and certified as a secondary school teacher and taught high school students in New York and New Jersey. She now incorporates the techniques she learned into her undergraduate teaching of anthropology.