Micro-activities and improved student learning
By Nancy Gordon
Searching through Magna Commons library led to the discovery of a 20-Minute Mentor titled “How can I use microactivities to engage students and improve learning and retention?” by Dr. Wren Mills at Western Kentucky University. This video can be accessed from Magna Subscription in the Academic Community and will be the featured Monday Morning Mentor on April 4th.
An earlier discussion on active learning prompted this search when a faculty member asked, “What does active learning look like? Isn’t all learning active?” This is a great question! It seems as educators we like to create labels and sort things into boxes!
All learning is essentially active, however, Chickering and Gamson (1987) suggested that students must do more than listen, that they should be actively engaged with the content. To achieve a deeper understanding of the content they must read, write, discuss, practice tasks, and engage in problem solving activities. The core of active learning are instructional activities that involve students in doing and thinking about what they are doing.
Micro-activities (back to the labels!), are short learning activities, usually 5 to 10 minutes, that allow students to actively engage with the content and are an effective way for the instructor to check for understanding. These types of activities can be used at the beginning of class to create a sense of inquiry, as a reading check, or to reinforce the last session. Micro-activities can also be used to break up lectures every 15 to 20 minutes and at the end of class as a review or to create interest in the next class session. Lang’s (2016) book “Small Teaching” outlines nine approaches to this type of structure that supports knowledge, understanding, and inspiration.
Dr. Mills suggests the following reasons to use of micro-activities to engage students and improve learning:
- Most people have a 15-minute attention span.
- Learning new information is easier when it is presented as a series of shorter and spaced sessions rather than one long session.
- Learners must touch information multiple times and in multiple ways to move from short-term to long-term memory.
- Learners need frequent and supportive feedback/review.
Marin (2011) compiled a list of 50 Micro-Activities for energizing the College Classroom. Examples of micro-activities that can be used at the beginning, middle, or end of class are:
- Bookends: at the beginning of class students spend one-minute to write what they already know about the topic and then spend one-minute at the end of the class to write what they learned that was new about the topic. Ask students to turn in their bookend paper before leaving class.
- Test Prep: at the end of the lesson have students write a test question over what was just discussed. Take 2 minutes where students can share with a classmate to answer and critique.
- Rose and Thorn: students share what they enjoyed most about the class session and what is unclear or confusing. These can be addressed on Blackboard before the next class or at the beginning of the next class.
Advice for integrating micro-activities:
- Keep it simple. Don’t use too many micro-activities in a single class period.
- Clickers, polling software, and other apps can be used for engaging micro-activities; but be sure to try out in advance and be prepared with any materials or supplies that may be needed.
- Let students know what the activity is and why you are doing it.
- Many of these activities can become back-pocket activities that can be used on the spot as deemed appropriate.
- Be sure the activity aligns with the learning goal for the day or with a course objective.
Contact the FCTL@missouristate.edu for more information on micro-activities or access Dr. Mills video from the Magna Commons Library found in the Academic Community on Blackboard. If you’d like more information or assistance with activating your Magna Commons subscription, contact the FCTL.
Chickering, A. and Gamson, Z. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. American Association for Higher Education.
Hattie, J., and Yates, G. (2014). How learning is acquired. In Visible learning and the science of how we learn. Routledge.
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. Jossey-Bass.
Marin, A. (2011). Using active learning to energize the psychology classroom: Fifty exercises that take five minutes or less. Presented at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology.
Mills, W. (2019). Magna 20-Minute Mentor: How can I use microactivities to engage students and improve learning and retention? Magna Publications.