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To Learn, Students Need to Do Something

Author: Dawn Mitchell


Hello everyone!

Our students spend so much of their time inside our school buildings each day that they excitedly talk about what they are going to get to DO on their weekend or after school.  Recently when I was observing a class during lunch, I overheard some students say they wanted to be able to play outside with their friends while others were excited about going to an activity or an event with their family and friends.

I want to ask a hard question of you here.  When was the last time our students became truly excited and engaged about what we were asking them to DO in our classrooms?

At the beginning of the year, planning WHAT we were going to teach was all consuming - the gathering of materials, the figuring out standards, the putting together charts and handouts, etc.  Many times once we become comfortable with WHAT we are teaching, we no longer concern ourselves with HOW our students learn.

In her blog post, To Learn, Students Need To Do Something, Jennifer Gonzalez writes, “This is not good. If we want our students to actually learn the facts and concepts and ideas we’re trying to teach them, they have to experience those things in some way that rises above abstract words on paper. They have to process them. Manipulate them.  To really learn in a way that will stick, they have to DO something.”

Last week I shared with you an article focusing on ways to spark student engagement.  This week I would like to continue sharing with you strategies that help foster students’ active involvement in their own learning and stress the importance of making sure that they are truly engaged.  This not only increases retention of the material and achievement over the learning objective, but also reduces behavior issues and results in creating a classroom environment that is no longer focused on compliance but on creating and critical thinking.

In her blog, Gonzalez shares the following 10 strategies for us to consider for helping students DO something in our classroom lessons:


Organize the material by similarities and differences, categorize it, label it, do something that requires students to activate schema and create connections. An inductive learning lesson would be great for this.


Doing short role-plays and simulations can really help students visualize relationships and processes. This can also be done by creating models with Play-Doh or cardboard, or doing some kind of a maker project that connects to your standard.


Even giving students a few minutes to discuss a topic—especially if they are taking some kind of a stance on the content and backing it up with evidence—can do so much to help them process and learn the content. But make sure all students are participating! Check out this big list of discussion strategies for tons of ideas.


Having students put the material into any kind of visual form will help them remember it better and understand how concepts are related. Graphic organizers and sketchnotes are two ways to accomplish this. Students can do these on their own or they can be constructed as a class with your support—for especially challenging concepts, this may be most effective.


When students process ideas in writing, they are forced to synthesize the information that has only entered their brains passively, so stopping instruction every now and then to have students write short summaries or give their opinions on the things they’re learning is a really effective, efficient way to cement their learning. This video from the Teaching Channel shows just how simple this can be to implement.


For learning to be active, it doesn’t have to be a super complicated, long-term project. Students can do mini-projects that take just a day or two. This poster project, where students have to rank leaders of early America, then back up their choices with evidence, is a perfect example of a project that could be done in a short period of time.


Anticipation guides are simple forms where students state their opinions on key statements before a learning activity. This primes them for the learning that is about to come. Once the direct instruction is done, they revisit the guides to see if their opinions have changed. This would be a really simple way to boost engagement and give students a bigger stake in a lesson.


Although students seem to be taking a lot of “notes” in class, it’s not clear that this is being done in a way that results in high-quality learning. If your classroom practices are aligned with the research on note-taking, this activity can be a powerful processing tool.


Asking students to recall information is a great way to help them learn it better, but I’m not exactly talking about the kind of recall they do on worksheets. Whether it’s stuff that just needs to be memorized or concepts that require more complex processing, building periods of retrieval practice into your instruction will boost learning.


Most of these activities would be enhanced by some kind of collaboration: Have students share their write-to-learn responses with a partner. Do sorting tasks with small groups. Any time they work together, they’re engaging with the content in a different way, which introduces more novelty and more opportunities to process it differently.

I want to challenge you this week to take a look at your lesson plans.  Are they set up in a traditional format where you are doing 80 percent of the teaching, talking, reading, writing, thinking and students have about 20 percent to comply with your directions in ways that show they complied with your directions such as taking notes, answering fact/recall questions, completing a handout?  Or are they set up where students have to generate questions and think critically about answers, where they have to produce information learned rather than just consume what you give them?  Many of you have your lesson plan format down - let’s do more than just lecture - let’s help students learn by doing!



Dawn Mitchell

South Carolina ASCD President



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