DIM your doubts about using activities in your classroom: Part 1 – Design

Theoretically, most instructors have at least a sense of how to use activities in their classroom. However, they may not be aware of the amount of out-of-class planning that goes into activity-based learning, or how carefully orchestrated the activity needs to be in the classroom if it is to be successfully implemented.

If you’ve been reluctant to try an activity with your students because you don’t know how to get started, or if you’ve had an activity go off the rails and not known why, please keep reading. You’re about to discover how to DIM your doubts about your ability to implement a successful activity in your classroom.

DIM stands for design, implement, and monitor, the steps you need to take before, during, and after getting your students involved in an activity. Paying attention to all three steps significantly increases the odds that an activity will be succesful. Missing out on even one just about guarantees that the activity won’t pan out the way you hoped it might.

I’ll present each phase of DIM in a different post. Today, let’s deal with the four main facets of designing an activity: aligning an activity with a learning outcome; choosing an activity type; planning an activity’s steps and timing; and considering how to deal with stumbling blocks that may occur.

How will your activity align with your lesson outcomes?

I’m using the term “outcome” rather than “objective” because it reminds us that the purpose of using an activity is to assist students to acquire or enhance a certain piece of knowledge, a skill, or an attitude. Students quickly sniff out and will disengage from activities that are only busy work and have no relationship to what they’re learning.

So, look closely at the verbs you’re using in your outcomes, and design activities that clearly relate to those verbs (if you’re unfamiliar with the Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs used to develop outcomes, here’s a handy reference chart.) For example, an activity that helps students to compare and contrast the characters’ motivations in several short stories they’ve read will look very different from an activity designed to help them create an original character for their own story.

What type of activity will best advance students towards achieving the outcome?

This step takes a bit of practice. It involves not only sensing what type of activity could work with your class as a whole, but also which could get them thinking in new ways. For example, activities that rely on talking or writing should be interspersed with non-verbal approaches such as visual or hands-on activities. Switch up having students work individually, in pairs, or in groups .

There are literally hundreds of activities you can consider and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by possibilities. Here’s a list of 15 to get you started (no, I’m not a representative of Nureva. I just really like this list, which includes how to implement the activities online.)

It’s tempting to overrely on a certain activity or grouping arrangement once you’ve discovered it works. But students quickly get bored of being asked to learn actively in the same way, day after day (a discovery made by a medical faculty I’m aware of whose students began to groan whenever they were asked to get out their iclickers to take an in-class poll.)

What are the specific steps of the activity, and how much time will they each take?

I have had activities go awry because I didn’t think enough about the specific steps I wanted students to engage in, and/or how much time these steps would take. So now, in my design phase, I write out the steps and attach a time estimate to each. Remember to build in student “think time,” as well as “action time.”

I still get surprised when things take more or less time than I thought they would, particularly when I’m trying out an activity for the first time. But at least I’ve done as much planning as I could in advance, which makes it easier to make adjustments on the fly in the classroom.

What parts of the activity might students misinterpret, struggle with, or be unwilling to engage in?

Again, student stumbling blocks or lack of participation can sometimes be difficult to predict, especially if you don’t know your students that well, or you’re trying out a new activity. Think about what type of background knowledge or skill is needed to engage in the activity, and if your students have those. Walk through the activity steps yourself to see if you’ve forgotten anything. And have a plan for those students who are reluctant to participate in activities, especially during group work. How will you encourage them to engage?

By carefully designing an activity, you’ve taken an important step in increasing its potential effectiveness with your students. In my next post, we’ll talk about how to implement your planning with your students.

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