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Two Dozen Ways to Deepen Student Learning

Critical and higher-level thinking. Student engagement. Brain-based teaching. These buzzwords are at the top of educators’ minds these days. But how are these goals actually achieved in practice? And what kinds of student activities offer the most bang for the buck in terms of enhancing learning?

A few key principles apply:

Encourage active participation (as opposed to simply passive observation). This requires that every student participates, not just the ones who readily volunteer. It also requires that students interact with each other, instead of simply speaking in succession.

Facilitate deep processing (as opposed to more shallow forms of learning, which involve regurgitating information exactly as it was presented). This requires that students not only hear or see, but also mentally manipulate the information—considering its implications and significance, comparing it to what they already know, synthesizing and digesting it, and sharing it with others.

Let students use multiple modalities (and if possible, their choice of modalities) to experience the content and express their learning.

A prerequisite for active participation, deep processing and multimodal expression of learning is breaking direct instruction time into smaller increments, between which kids have opportunities to get “hands-on” with the material. (Dr. Fred Jones calls this model “Say, See, Do” teaching. A flipped classroom model also opens up class time for hands-on learning.)

With that in mind, below are 24 ideas for in-class, deep-learning activities that involve the verbal and written modalities, among others. Educators might also use some of these activities as student assessments.

Verbal Modality

  • Ask seminar-style, open-ended questions that elicit more than one correct answer. This invites multiple perspectives and allows a wider range of student participation—which should include not only responses, but also synthesis of those responses (“Who can recap the main points of our discussion?” or “About what points did we agree/disagree?”).
  • Use one student’s participation to spark the engagement of others. Ask Student B to explain why s/he agrees or disagrees with student A, or if s/he can elaborate on what student A said. At the very least, ask student B to re-state student A’s comment, so that you can check understanding.
  • Have students turn to a partner and re-teach a concept/topic or share what they learned about it. (Read about the think-pair-share strategy and get more tips here.)
  • Ask kids to pair up for an interview activity. One partner acts as the interviewer and the other pretends to be a historical figure, animal, etc. See a sample lesson here.
  • Have students give an oral “pop quiz” to a classmate. This activity strengthens and tests both partners’ knowledge.
  • Ask students to give a verbal summary about the day’s lesson. Alternately, assign topics at the beginning of class, and have kids teach that part of the day’s lesson.

Tech-enabled ideas:

  • Invite students to record audio clips of themselves explaining a concept. For added fun, use Voki to make an animated, talking avatars. For a multi-character experience, try Plotagon.

Written Modality

  • Use exit slips to gauge whether students have fully grasped the day’s topic.
  • Ask kids to write an assessment (quiz, test) item pertaining to what they’ve just learned. Try to use as many student-written assessment items in your actual quizzes and tests.
  • Have students take notes on teacher instruction, with the goal of re-stating the content in simpler form. Hint: Encourage kids to think about how they would explain the topic to a student at a lower grade level.
  • Encourage kids to make “reflective” notes (notes indicating application of information, and not simply a verbatim recap of teacher instruction). For instance, ask students to:
    • Think of examples of a concept. (Who might be an example of an iconoclast?)
    • Think about how something is the same or different from something else. (How is photosynthesis like X or unlike Y?) Venn diagrams are a helpful tool.
    • Imagine being “face-to-face” with a concept. (What would you want to ask people who lived through the Civil War?)
    • Identify what they still wonder about a topic. KWL charts are great for this.
    • Make inferences from a passage or lecture (and cite evidence for that inference).
  • Try having kids split note-taking pages in half vertically and use each half for a specific purpose. For example, they might use the left side of the page to record information and the right side of the page to reflect upon that information. More specifically, they might use the left side of the page to summarize, predict, make inferences and pose questions, and use the right side of the page to note accuracy of predictions, list evidence for inferences, answer their questions, list sources for further investigation of the topic, and add personal knowledge or experiences relating to the topic.
  • Ask students to summarize a written passage or define vocabulary terms in their own words. Let kids practice paraphrasing without plagiarizing.

Tech-enabled ideas:

  • Let kids use the Evernote app to take notes that can easily be shared with classmates and the teacher.
  • Try Interactive Notebooks for helping students engage in active note-taking.
  • Ask students to create a PowerPoint slide summarizing a topic or concept.
  • Have young people contribute to a class wiki (collaborative writing product) on a given topic.

Multiple Modalities

  • Encourage students to share new knowledge with classmates via the jigsaw method (a combination of writing and verbal presentation).
  • Let kids write and draw (or represent graphically) what they learned.
  • Have students prepare and deliver an “elevator speech” concerning what they’ve learned that day. They should imagine themselves riding in an elevator with a stranger and having only 20 seconds to communicate the most essential points.
  • Ask students to write down comments in preparation for contributing verbally to class discussion. Have them set personal goals such as planning to speak a certain number of times during class, planning to either agree or disagree with someone, or planning to express their opinions in detail.
  • Have kids act out what they’ve learned (and/or do a dance routine), incorporating a verbal script or words written on poster board.

Tech-enabled ideas:

  • Develop and make an audio/video recording of a cheer, song or rap (see an example).
  • Make a movie or multimedia presentation (try Animoto).


Related resources

Grace Dearborn and Rick Smith’s “Conscious Teaching” Resources
Bryan Harris’ Strategies for “Battling Boredom”
Dr. Richard Curwin’s Blog
Dr. Judy Willis’ Brain-Based Teaching Strategies


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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