Effective transitions between classroom activities

by Julie Dodd

As instructors, we’re often so focused on the content of the lesson that we don’t think about the importance of structuring effective transitions between different segments of the class.

students editing in computer lab

Having students work in pairs or small groups promotes active learning. But it’s important to plan your transition between activities to make good use of class time.

A reader of my blog who is a math teacher noted that lack of smooth transitions can lead to losing class time or even losing students’ attention for the rest of the class.

That comment motivated me to share some tips about structuring transitions between classroom activities.

Tip #1 – Have an objective for the activity — and make sure the students understand what the objective is.

That may seem obvious, but I’ve been in a few classes where it seems to the students that the activity is to provide a break for the instructor. After starting a YouTube video or putting students in discussion groups, the instructor sips coffee. Then after the activity, the instructor moves to the next part of class but without helping students understand the purpose of the video or discussion.

You can state the reason for the activity when making the assignment or explain the objective after the activity. You also can ask the students to tell you what they consider to be the benefit of the activity. (If they can’t provide a reason for the activity, you know the value of your activity may not have been perceived by them and requires explanation.)

Seeing activities as useful to their learning helps the students be more purposeful in participating in activities. Having classmates present part of the lesson or having small group discussions should help them better learn the material and not be seen as you trying to get out of teaching — which is what students sometimes think is happening any time you aren’t lecturing.

Tip #2 – Provide clear directions for the classroom activity.

If you are going to show a video clip, give students directions for what they should be looking for or listening for. Otherwise, students often watch the clip passively, more like entertainment.

When I observed a class on great cities of the world, one of the class activities was the students watching a short video clip. Here were the directions the instructor provided:

“You’re going to watch a five-minute video about a religious ceremony that draws thousands of pilgrims for the two-day event. Providing adequate water and transportation are major challenges for the city. As you watch the video, make a list of challenges for the city and suggestions for improving transportation and water distribution.”

With those directions, the students both knew what to pay attention to and how long the video was.  After viewing the video with those directions, the students were prepared for discussion.

Small group or partner discussions can be very effective learning activities. Everyone gets the opportunity to participate in discussion. This approach also lets everyone “rehearse” talking about the issue at hand, which then means that when you return to the full class, you can expect everyone to be ready to contribute. I’ve found that a good way to help quieter students participate in the large class discussion, as I know they’re prepared and I can call on them.

So here could be your directions:

“Your assigned reading for today was the chapter on (fill in the blank). In just a moment, I’m going to divide you into small groups. Your group’s objective is to list three big ideas from the chapter and one question you have after reading the chapter. You’ll have five minutes for your discussion. One of you needs to be the notetaker who will hand in your group’s answers with all the group members’ names. Your group’s notes will count as today’s participation points. All of you need to be prepared to share your group’s findings in our full-class discussion.”

Everyone knows what is expected and how much time the group has to complete the task. You can modify the task to have everyone turn in something following the discussion. You may need to be prepared to provide paper if your students typically have their laptops or digital tablets but not paper, or you may have them submit their response digitally with the course management system.

Tip #3 – If the directions are lengthy or complicated, provide them in writing.

You may have several steps that the students are to follow, such as completing a lab experiment or analyzing different elements of a short story.

You can project the directions on screen, write them on the board, provide a handout, or have the directions for them to read in the course management system. In observing classes, I’ve seen instructors effectively use all four of these approaches.

Your great activity will lose some of its effectiveness if students can’t remember all that they are expected to do or if you keep interrupting the class to repeat the directions.

Tip #4 – Provide roles for group members.

When students work in groups, sometimes they can fall into patterns. The more outspoken students want to lead the discussion. Quieter students may not contribute. The same dependable person is made group notetaker.

As the instructor, you can assign students to different tasks over the term, making sure that everyone gets to be the group leader at some point and someone is responsible for being the group notetaker.

Tip #5 – Determine how the partners or groups will be created.

You can waste a lot of time having students moving around class trying to decide who to work with. Some students also can feel left out if no one asks to be their partner.

You have several strategies:

  • Ask students to talk with a classmate sitting near them — beside, in front or behind. You can then move around the room, making sure everyone has a partner or having some students work in groups of three.
  • You can have students number off and then divide them into groups. “Count off from one to six.” Then have all the ones raise their hands, etc. The students will move into their groups.
  • You announce: “I’m going to divide you into groups of four.” Then walk around the room and indicate which students will be working together.
  • Develop a list ahead of time of the student groups and then read the names for each group. If you use this approach, ask the members of each group to raise their hands so that they know who is in their group. If students will be moving to get together, you may want to indicate where each group should meet to save time.
  • Create work groups. You can establish groups that will be working together over a period of time — even the full length of the course. An advantage is that every time you have a small group activity, the students will be able to quickly move to their groups. Having work groups also can be a good way to have students work on in-class activities as they work toward completing a big project as a group.

Part of your decision about partners and groups depends on the objective for the activity.

  • Having random groups may be fine for a one-time small group discussion. You can assign random groups as a way to help students work with a variety of different classmates.
  • Having a strategically selected small group would be better for team building leading to a group project.

If students are moving seats to work with classmates, be sure to indicate if they will be returning to their original seats or if they are going to stay in the new location for the remainder of the class. That way they know whether to take all their stuff with them to the new seat.

Tip #6 – Determine the time required for the activity.

In making assignments, let students know how much time they will have.

I observed a Spanish class where the instructor wanted the students to see that they could use their smartphones to obtain information that they might need when visiting  another country. She gave partners a task and two minutes to complete their online search. That worked well, as the students enjoyed getting to use their phones in class but were on task because of the limited amount of search time.

As the students work, check to see how they are doing. Especially if this is the first time you have tried this activity, you may not have allocated the right amount of time required. Do they need more time, less time? You can adjust.

For example: “I see that this is taking more time than I had thought. Let’s give it another two minutes.”

Then give a countdown: “You have one minute to complete the activity.”

That’s better than just announcing “time’s up,” as some partners or groups may continue to talk to complete the activity.

You also can project a timer on screen to provide the countdown.

Tip #7 – At the end of the activity, get everyone back into the full class mode.

This is a critical step to the success of class activities. You must get the students back from their discussions and quiet for you to debrief from the activity.

Just raising your voice can work. Your timer from the Internet may have a great sound effect to announce time is up that will get the students’ attention. I’ve seen instructors turn off and on the lights.

In some of the auditorium classes I’ve taught, I’ve whistled — and even blown a conch shell.

Tip #8 – Debrief from the activity.

You want to quickly move into your followup discussion. Decide in advance how much time to allocate to the followup.

  • You can provide a brief summary yourself.
  • You can ask questions after the activity and have students raise their hands in response.
  • If you have groups that have listed key points from the assigned readings, you may ask each group to explain one key point, rather than having each group tell all points.
  • You may ask questions and have just two or three partners/groups respond.

Some activities need little feedback but other activities require several minutes or more to maximize the learning potential of the activity — tying the activity to the day’s lesson, the upcoming test, the guest speaker for next week, etc.

I’ve done partner and small group activities in small classes and with auditorium classes of more than 200 students. You may find that it will take a couple of times until everyone gets into it. So don’t give up if your first attempt doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d like.

Moving from one class activity to the next can be done smoothly — with the students finding the activities to be beneficial to their learning and enabling you to build more a sense of community in your class.

What other suggestions do you have for designing smooth transitions between classroom activities?

1 thought on “Effective transitions between classroom activities

  1. Pingback: 5 New Year’s resolutions for college instructors | Strategies for Successful Teaching

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