Designing effective in-class activities for college classes

by Julie Dodd

In-class activities can be a great learning strategy for the college classroom, but the effectiveness of the activity is based on a number of decisions that you, as the instructor, need to make.

partner activity in classroom

Students work in pairs to practice a skill and get feedback from classmates.

I thought about what makes a classroom activity work well or not work as well as it could when I observed teaching assistants nominated for the Graduate Student Teacher Awards Committee.

In a previous blog post, I’ve written about tips for having successful in-class activities  — “10 strategies for active learning in college classrooms.”

Let me comment on a few of those strategies in terms of classes I’ve observed.

In Teaching English as a Second Language, the instructor included six different student activities that were spaced throughout the 50-minute class. For each activity, the instructor provided directions, had the students do the activity (i.e., individually memorize word lists and then recall, work with a partner on a task and then report to the class), and then debriefed from each activity. For the one work-with-a-partner activity, she told the students they would have three minutes to complete the task, and she timed the activity.

Tie activities to class objectives and make smooth transitions – The students moved from each activity back to listening to her presentation. The activities reinforced or introduced concepts she wanted the class to discuss. Everyone in the class was involved.

In a math course I observed, the instructor was helping the students prepare for the upcoming midterm exam. After reviewing formulas for solving a series of problems, she told the class that they would be completing problems in class to let them practice the formulas. She said she would ask students to write the solutions to the problems on the board.

With about 20 minutes left in 50-minute class, the review problems were distributed and students began work. Some worked in groups, some with a partner, and some solo. The instructor moved around the room to answer questions and identify students who had correctly completed a problem and had them write their solutions on the board.

The concept of this class review was good. However, the review activity could have been improved in several ways.

Make sure the students have the materials they need to complete the activity – The instructor told the class that she would post the presentation slides after class. But the students needed several of those slides to solve the review problems. A few times as the students worked on the review problems, the instructor changed the slide to one of the formulas, but she didn’t announce that the formula was projected, and most of the students were unaware. As the instructor was making her presentation, she could have alerted the students to which slides were going to be the formulas they needed for the review activity. The students would have known to copy the formulas or take a photo of those slides with their phones so they would  have the formulas to use for the review activity.

Debrief from the activity – Once the students started working, the instructor made no further comments to the class for the remaining 20 minutes. When the class time was over, students packed their laptops and materials and left. The instructor did not make any comment to the class about any of the problems. She continued working with individual students and groups, but she did not provide closure for the class or guidance, based on what she had seen from their work during the review, that would help them.

As you develop your own in-class activities, be sure to consider the factors that can make the activity even more effective for your students. The activity itself is the focus, but the directions you provide, the time you allocate, the way you debrief from the activity all impact the overall effectiveness of the activity.

6 thoughts on “Designing effective in-class activities for college classes

  1. This was a very helpful post for me. I am a recently new high school math teacher and reading about your observations about a math class and how to properly engage them in classroom activities are helpful. The students I work with are mostly all juniors and seniors who want to be in college and these tips are helpful. I agree with all of your tips that you gave especially making sure you have smooth transitions. It may not seem like a lot but making sure your transition time is only a minute vs five minutes can really make the difference in how far you get in your lesson that day. Sometimes with lower level students, the whole lesson can be lost if you don’t transition quickly enough between the activities and your presentation. One area that I think I struggle with times are having that closure to the lesson after an activity. Do you have an suggestions of way the teacher above in the lesson your observed could have closed this activity in the last five minutes that would have benefited those students?

    • I appreciate your feedback! Your comment about the importance of smooth transitions has encouraged me to write an upcoming post on that topic. In terms of how to work on closure…That’s a tough area for most teachers, as we are working with the content of that day’s lesson and often run out of time for closure. For the math class I observed, here’s what I would have suggested to the instructor. In giving the directions for the practice work, include: the last five minutes will be to review the answers to the problems; the team placing the answer on the board includes their names; someone from each team will have one minute (maximum) to explain their solution to the class. Be sure to check that the answers on the board are, in fact, correct. If not, call for another team to write their solution. Give a countdown with about five minutes left. Check with each team with an answer on the board to determine who is going to provide the explanation. With one minute to go, call for the spokespersons for the teams to come to the board. Give them directions about facing the class and projecting so everyone can hear. Then call time and have everyone focus on the answers to the problems. The spokesperson explains the solution. The teacher can provide a brief comment, tying in to the upcoming test, such as the need to memorize a particular formula or bring materials to class for reference. Anything else you’d suggest for wrapping up from group work on solving problems? – Julie

  2. Pingback: Effective transitions between classroom activities | Strategies for Successful Teaching

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