4 Interactive Classroom Activities to Ignite Student Participation

By: Chris Merlo

How interactive are your classroom activities? Do you have less energy for class than you used to? Do you find student grades declining semester after semetster? Are the teaching strategies you’ve always relied on not working as well as they once did?

A few weeks ago, one of my worst nightmares came true while teaching a summer session introductory course, and it made me ask these questions of myself. I found myself talking, and talking, and talking, and nobody was engaged. Even the “good students” seemed to have had enough. No one was taking notes; no one even appeared to be thinking about the material. They had just had it. Now, it was a Monday, and it was early, and it was hot in the classroom, but this was unusual. And since it was a summer course, I had another three hours to fill.

After sending my students off for coffee, sugar, or fifteen minutes of fresh air, I found myself thinking of a couple of my senior colleagues, who always seem frustrated with their students’ classroom demeanor. I always assumed we just had different teaching strategies, but now I began to wonder if the real root of the cause may have to do with instructor’s failure to adapt to today’s students.

In my thirties, I could still find a lot of similarities with my twenty-something students. But now, in my forties? Not so much. What I’ve started to realize is that it isn’t just the little things, like whether they’ve seen Ghostbusters. (They haven’t.) It’s the big things, like how they learn. These students, for the most part, had vastly different high school experiences than I did. This is mostly due to advancements in technology, but also to evolving philosophies and paradigms that have emerged alongside technology.

My six-year-old son doesn’t find iPads amazing; to him, they’ve always just existed. Similarly, to a lot of students today, experiences like team exercises and flipped classrooms, while foreign to many instructors, are not new. If we care about reaching today’s students, who seem to have a different idea of student responsibilities than we had, perhaps we have to reach them on their terms.

Navigating the Digital Divide

But here’s the problem. Remember Wayne’s World? (Your students don’t). One of my favorite movie quotes ever is spoken by Dana Carvey’s character Garth: “We fear change.” These three little words explain a lot of the things that have frustrated me as an educator for the past fifteen years. What I realized this summer, however, is that these three words explain me as well! I don’t want to change how I teach because students are differently prepared today than in the past. I’m afraid of changing things that have been working for me. Simple as that.

It was that last thought that led to my recent epiphany. How well are things really working if exam grades go down every semester? How well are things working if I find that I’m more tired at the end of lecture than I used to be, or that I have less energy during it? How well are things working if the students aren’t paying any attention? Knowing when it’s time to shake things up is a significant challenge; but once you’re ready, here are four teaching strategies you can use.

At first I’d prepared these activities in case I needed to fill some time, but I’ve realized that planning to use interactive classroom activities intentionally can really transform the learning dynamic. Here are 4 to get you started:

1. Open-Ended Questions

This doesn’t take any planning. All it takes is a class with at least one student who isn’t too shy. I remember a class a few semesters ago that started with nine students. Due to a couple of medical conditions and a job opportunity, three of the students had to drop during the semester. The problem was that these three students were the ones I counted on to ask questions and keep the class lively! Once I was left with six introverted people, conversations during class seemed to stop.

By luck, I stumbled on something that got the students talking again. I said, “What has been the most difficult thing about [the project that was due soon]?” This opened the floodgates — students love to complain, especially about us and our demands. This one simple question led to twenty minutes of discussion, involving all six students. I wasn’t even sure what a couple of these students’ voices sounded like, but once I gave them an open-ended opportunity to complain about an assignment, they were off to the races.

2. What’s Wrong With This Example?

Students also love to find a professor’s mistakes– like me, I’m sure you’ve found this out the hard way. I teach Computer Science, so I will make up a program that, for instance, performs the wrong arithmetic, and have students find the bug. In a particularly quiet or disengaged class, you can incentivize students with 5 points on the next exam, or something similar. If you teach History, you might use flawed examples that change a key person’s name, such as “King Henry VIII (instead of King John) signed the Magna Carta in 1215,” or match a person to an incorrect event: “Gavrilo Princip is considered to have fired the first shot in the Spanish Civil War (instead of World War I).” Beam these examples on the whiteboard, and let the students’ competitiveness drive them to get the right answer before their classmates.

3. Let Students Critique Each Other

This can go badly if you don’t set some ground rules for civility, but done well, it can really open a class up. One of my colleagues devised a great exercise: First, give students about half of the class time to write instructions that an imaginary robot can understand to draw a recognizable picture, like a corporate logo, without telling students what will happen later. Then assign each student’s instructions to a randomly-chosen classmate, and have the classmate pretend to be the robot, attempting to follow the instructions and draw the same logo.

After a few minutes, call on a specific student to share their results with the class, then ask their partner to share the initial instructions. This method gives students a chance to communicate with each other — That’s not what I meant! — and laugh, and bond, while learning an important lesson. This exercise teaches Computer Science students the difficulty and importance of writing clear instructions. I have seen this exercise not only teach pairs of such students meaningful lessons, but encourage friendships that extended beyond my classroom.

4. Embrace Technology

I know how some of you will want to react to the idea of learning about new technology to use in the classroom. “Easy for you to say! You’re young, and you teach Computer Science!” You don’t have to say it; my colleagues already have. But technology is here, and it isn’t going away. Computers and the Internet are as natural to our students as a blackboard is to us. Using the tools they find in their world can help students to feel more comfortable in class, which can help them open up and interact.

I have heard colleagues of mine recommend the use of student engagement systems like Top Hat in their classes. Even Twitter can be used to improve student interaction. Since you and your students are probably already coming to class with laptops, tablets, and/or smartphones, digital tools like Twitter and Top Hat are easy to roll out and adopt. Some professors use EdTech like Top Hat to ask multiple-choice questions during class to gauge student understanding and harness students’ attention. Others use Top Hat or Twitter as a way for students to provide feedback during class without having to raise their hands or speak out loud.

Interactive Classroom Activities In Short

Making your classes more interactive should help your students want to come to class and take part in it. Giving them a more active role will give them a sense of ownership, and this can lead to students taking more pride in their work and responsibility for their grades. Also, many people tend to learn better by doing than by watching or listening.

A more interactive class can also make things easier for you–the more work students do in class, the less you have to do. I’m not telling you to be lazy; I’m telling you to use your time wisely. Even two minutes of not talking can re-energize you for the rest of the class.

These 4 methods outlined above don’t require any large-scale changes to your class prep. Set up a couple of activities in advance here and there, to support the stuff you’ve been doing, and plan which portion of your class will feature them. This small investment of your time should result in making everyone happier to be in the classroom.

How can you make your class more fun to take part in? Share your experiences in the comments.

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to create a more engaged and active learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click here.

Originally published at blog.tophat.com on July 22, 2015.