Using Micro-activities in Online Classes

Many college faculty lecture for much or all of a class period and then send students home with 1–3 hours of work to complete before the next meeting, or in online classes, they post long video lectures for their students to watch before doing an activity or two. However, the research on how our brains learn new material best show faculty should break up lectures with small activities to check in with what is and is not understood. These “thinking about thinking,” or metacognitive, activities are key to learning new ideas.

To continue reading, you must be a Teaching Professor Subscriber. Please log in or sign up for full access.

Related Articles

Love ’em or hate ’em, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are here to stay. Parts <a href="https://www.teachingprofessor.com/free-article/its-time-to-discuss-student-evaluations-bias-with-our-students-seriously/" target="_blank"...

Since January, I have led multiple faculty development sessions on generative AI for faculty at my university. Attitudes...
Does your class end with a bang or a whimper? Many of us spend a lot of time crafting...

Faculty have recently been bombarded with a dizzying array of apps, platforms, and other widgets that...

The rapid rise of livestream content development and consumption has been nothing short of remarkable. According to Ceci...

Feedback on performance has proven to be one of the most important influences on learning, but students consistently...

Many college faculty lecture for much or all of a class period and then send students home with 1–3 hours of work to complete before the next meeting, or in online classes, they post long video lectures for their students to watch before doing an activity or two. However, the research on how our brains learn new material best show faculty should break up lectures with small activities to check in with what is and is not understood. These “thinking about thinking,” or metacognitive, activities are key to learning new ideas. Hattie and Yates (2014) argue that to learn, we must “touch” new information several times, and doing this involves five elements: “time, goal orientation, supportive feedback, accumulated successful practice, and frequent review” (p. 113). Remember, too, that the average attention span is 15 minutes, and we learn best when we practice using new information somehow before learning the next block of information on a topic. James Lang (2016) built on this idea, saying that we need to not just take those breaks to touch the information in a new way but that we also need to tie the newly acquired information to prior knowledge or experiences and interweave information from previous lessons, as well, to better learn new ideas. Although it is relatively easy to think of ways to infuse in-person classes with metacognitive activities that promote this movement of information, this process, despite what some may believe, can be done in online classes, too. I recommend using “micro-activities,” a term I first encountered when reading about Amy Marin's (2011) “Mindful Moments” activities for her psychology classes. The point is to get students to stop just passively listening or reading and to actively do something with the information. For my in-person classes, I try to break every 10–20 minutes, and I structure my weekly online lessons with this in mind, sometimes using adaptive release to require the activities' completion. Start at the beginning. One way to get a unit started is to have a predictive activity or one that recalls information from a previous unit. Lang dedicates a chapter in his Small Teaching to the power of predictive activities, with studies showing their power in the science of learning. You might give a pre-class quiz, either using your learning management system (LMS) testing function or an online quiz tool like Kahoot, which offers a way for students to quiz themselves and records results for you. Another idea is to ask “What do you want to know?” on a “post first” style discussion board about the lesson's topic.  You can use adaptive release to force students to complete these activities before they can access the rest of the unit's readings, lectures, or activities. Quick breaks. Keeping in mind that many students drift after 15 minutes, chunking lectures (shorter 10- to 20-minute videos versus 60- to 90-minute lectures) or even just asking students to pause the video and answer a question or complete an activity before continuing resets their attention span and allows them to apply the information and you to see how well they are “getting it.”  A popular activity for in-person classes is to do a Think-Pair-Share: give students a question to answer that is not just a simple recall but one that has them apply the information. In an online environment, ask them to stop the video and go to the discussion board to answer a question before moving on. The “pairing and sharing” will happen later when they return to the discussion board and give feedback on the posted answers. This system also allows more immediate feedback than submitting their answers to you and waiting for their grades. Some instructors have students watch an online video from an outside source that demonstrates a concept and ask students to critique that video based on what they learned from a lecture or reading. Again, their answers can be shared via a discussion for quicker feedback from classmates or submitted as an assignment for you to give feedback on later. Case studies, or Marin's “Solve It!” activity, are also popular because they present students with a scenario that requires them to apply the lesson's learning and share their solutions via a discussion for feedback. Lang's idea of linking new ideas to prior knowledge is also helpful in developing these activities; structuring your prompts to allow students to incorporate personal or work experiences with a lesson's material can be helpful in achieving long-term learning. Closing the loop. If you begin with a predictive activity, have students repeat it later and then (this is important!) compare that with their original activity results to reflect on why they are (or are not) different. Reflecting is an important part of processing and again touching the information to help students move the new learning toward long-term memory. Many faculty also like some version of a Minute Paper to submit at the end of a unit—ask students to share what is still not clear to them (Muddiest Point) or what they found most interesting and most difficult (Rose and Thorn). At the end of a unit in an online class, you can do these activities as timed quizzes—give them one to three minutes to type in the answer. You can encourage student interaction on these activities as well by having students submit them as discussions and helping one another answer lingering questions. There responses can help you see what supplemental information might be needed on a topic for either select students or an entire class. Some instructors have students use a class hashtag to tweet the most important idea of the lesson or to ask questions (Padlet or Today's Meet can be used for those who don't tweet or who have privacy concerns and want to use something outside the LMS). Marin's Mindful Moments offers 50 micro-activities that allow you to check in with students and students to check themselves. It is important to choose activities that go beyond simple recall and provide quick feedback and that are integrated throughout the lesson. Some faculty grade these activities, some award a few points for participation, and some assign them simply as a chance to give feedback to students as they work through the new material. The act of doing them in earnest is what will benefit students and help them to retain what they are taking in. References Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. R. (2014). How learning is acquired. In Visible learning and the science of how we learn. New York, NY: Routledge. Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. (2016). New York, NY: 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.