Learning the Big Picture with Small Activities

by: Michael Curry
English Instructor

Way back in the 80s and 90s when I was in school, life was easy.  The teacher taught a lesson, gave us homework, and then we had a test.  From my experiences in school, the ideas of differentiation and learning styles were alien concepts.  The teacher taught.  And I learned.  If I told my teacher that I was a tactile-kinesthetic learner, she probably would have laughed at me!    

Thankfully pedagogy and androgyny have evolved.  So when we as teachers consider the acquisition of content, we have to remember that we have learners who come from a vast array of learning backgrounds.  Seriously, I think Howard Gardner has something like 14 different types of intelligence at this point.  Case in point, we need to remember the all learners aren’t going to learn content the same way.  The difficult thing is figuring out how to facilitate a learning environment that will accommodate a variety of learning styles that will fit with curricular goals. 

To address this, I like to use a learning tool called Frayer Notecards to liven up the acquisition of key vocabulary and major course concepts.  Simply put, students take the term/concept and put it on one side of the card.  On the other, you have the students write out a variety of ways to help them remember that concept.  You can see from these two examples, the students were working with connotative and denotative meanings of the word “Irrational”.  I ask them to give the term in four forms:
1. Definition
2. Original sentence that shows the meaning of the word
3. Synonyms and examples
4. A visual representation of the word

This is the first way to engage your students in more than just rote memorization of a concept.  We all know that studying vocabulary or key concepts with no contextual application will have little or no long-term retention.   So this little activity, while laborious for the student to create the notecards, is great because it forces them to think about terms and concepts as more than just a definition to be memorized.  Now they can visualize it.  Look at how these two students visualized the concept of “Irrational” – a ghost and pi.  So interesting.  I asked the one student about pi, and she said, “Well Mr. Curry, pi is an irrational number, so I thought it would work for that word.”  Can’t beat that.  And the student who drew the ghost got into a lively debate on the rationality and irrationality of ghosts. These students understand these words on more than just a cursory level.

Next, I like to give my students a variety of ways to study their Frayer concept cards and notecards.  The easiest way to do this is to do a flashcard style employing the following activities:
1.  Flashcard style studying where one person reads the synonyms/examples or the sentence and the other person can guess the word.
2.  One person says the word or concept and the other gives the definition, synonyms/examples, a sentence or a picture.
These exercises are great because the students are getting exposure to the variety of styles of the concept or word.  Additionally, they need to evaluate their partners answers and decide whether or not they are correct.  They also get to read their partner’s notecards, so they get to see how another person has worked through the words.

Here, we did a round-robin style activity where each group got three minutes at each desk.  In that time they had to look through another student’s notecards and find new and interesting ways that people attempting to remember these terms and concepts.  When they found something new, they would record it in their notebook.  This way, if students are struggling with the concepts while they are at home, they can draw from this activity to reinforce what they might be struggling to understand. 

So as we offer those opportunities for formative assessments through classroom activities, remember that your students come to you with a variety of learning styles.  And Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience should encourage us to encourage our students to more than just read and hear when they study!

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