An Active Start to the Academic Year

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Another school year is just around the corner. Teachers (me included) are bound to be planning for that first week where we set the mood of how learning will happen in and out of our classrooms. Last year, I wrote about ‘get-to-know activities’[1], but these are just some of the many introductory activities we could introduce. For example, it makes sense to plan for student-centred lessons right from the first day of classes by introducing active learning activities, which give students the opportunity to learn while doing –and which many students are not accustomed to[2]. This can help our students transition smoothly to learning by discovery and collaboration. Smart, right?  Below are two of my favourite active learning activities. (I hope you will share yours too!).

Jigsaw: This activity , which was first developed by Elliot Aronson in 1971 as a way to make classrooms more inclusive[3], teaches students to work in groups. In this model, I first assign students to a ‘home group’ of four to six students each (the activity works best with even numbers). Next –note that there are variations of what happens next –I give each student from each home group a question (numbered 1 to 4 or 1 to 6 depending on the group size) and ask students with the same number question to form a second group, which becomes the ‘expert group.’ These groups then work together to solve or answer their respective questions before returning to the ‘home’ group to teach or explain their topic. By the end of the activity, each group has shared and learned from each other (here you may want to include team roles to keep groups on task). As teachers, our task is to eavesdrop, give guidance, and clarify as students discuss. Once each group has covered all the topics, you could also include a whole class discussion, with each group restating one of the questions and going over the answer. On the first day of classes, this activity can be used to let students discuss classroom expectations. The number questions could be in the form of a ‘what if’ situation that requires students to base their answers on classroom expectations.

Think-Pair-Share:  This activity is a nice transition to working with groups because it begins as an individualized activity before students are asked to share their response with another person and then with a larger group. For beginners, the activity could be about jotting down vocabulary the students already know, comparing the list with another person, and then sharing the list with two others. For more advanced students, the activity could begin with students making a list of what they would like to learn and why, before sharing it with the person next to them, and then two others. The activity could be extended to include students writing their combined lists on flip chart paper, which they would then share with the entire class. Teachers could use these lists as part of their diagnostics. There are some questions the teacher should have in mind: Are all the words spelled correctly? What themes pop out that indicate topics students are familiar with? What are the most prominent gaps? What are the strengths?

Do you have a favourite active learning activity? How would you use it on the first days of classes?

[1] You may want to read my very first blog: ” Get to know Activities in the Language Classroom.”

[2]  The Learner-centred controversy was discussed in a previous blog.

[3]For more on the history of the jigsaw and fun ideas, please go to:

Hi, my name is Cecilia. I love taking part in good brain awakening discussions. Blogging, I find, lends itself for that. I also believe in sharing my skills through scholarly practice, which is why I write regularly and have presented at several conferences, including TESL Ontario, TESL Toronto, CALL, and at Seneca College. My M.A. in applied linguistics along with my skills and experience have led me to my current position at Centennial College, where I teach English and ESL in the School of Advancement. I'm truly passionate about what I do: teaching, writing, creative expression, and helping my students (both L1 and L2) gain agency and take control of their own learning. Thank you for your readership and I look forward to reading and answering your comments. You can find me on Twitter @capontedehanna


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