Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

LEARNING Activities

When I was teaching intercultural communication here in China, every year on end-of-semester feedback at least one student would say something like:

I really liked this class and learned a lot.  I just wish we hadn’t played so many games.

In order to give students a taste of communicating across cultures, we did play games in class.  I’m certain, though, that my students were referring to every activity we did in class, not just the games.  To many of my students, and some teachers, tasks[1] are play and not real learning. Below are four descriptions of an activity that might help clear up some misconceptions.


We’ve already talked about purpose with a “p” in our teaching, but how do we build on this at the task level?

  1. First, every activity we plan has a learning focus. The primary reason for using an activity in class is not getting students involved but for them to learn something. That’s why in my teaching methodology courses in China, I’ve started referring to tasks as learning activities (with lots of emphasis on the learning).
  2. The something that students learn through an activity is specific. Not “speaking” but “making and responding to requests,” not “culture” but “rules of politeness for making and responding to requests.”
  3. Then, the purpose can be expressed clearly in an objective on our lesson plan and either verbally or in writing for students. That very well may have been part of the problem with my students, leaving them in the dark as to the purpose of our “games.”


It may seem redundant to say that an activity is active, but it is exactly that. A task engages learners in two types of activity, brain (cognitive) and body (modality). If nothing much is going on inside the brain, then a task likely lacks purpose. An easy tool for thinking about different types of cognitive activity is Bloom’s Taxonomy. Then, while the brain is working in some manner, the body supports this cognitive processing with activity of its own.  The chart below illustrates how brain and body might work together in different tasks.

Task Cognitive Activity Modality
individual students fill in a chart while listening to a mini-lecture understanding ears, hands
rotating pairs perform role plays practicing requests applying whole body
pairs make a diagram based on a passage they read analyzing eyes, hands
in groups students share opinions about an assigned topic evaluating mouth, ears
groups design a poster that synthesizes ideas learned in a unit creating mouth, ears, eyes, hands


There are three ways that activities can be meaningful.

  1. They are not like a popcorn machine where one topic after another pops up during each activity and from one to another. Instead, one context links all the tasks in a lesson or unit and connects every item in each activity.
  2. They connect to students and their lives, asking them to use their brains and bodies in ways that relate to previous learning and real life experiences.
  3. When appropriate, they also connect to the moral dimension.

Supported by Materials

One thing I’ve learned from my students’ dislike of “games” in the classroom is that writing it down makes it real to them. That has challenged me to design or adapt materials to support classroom tasks, something they can hold in their hands, read, and/or write on. In addition, materials that learners can see and touch may keep them on task, appeal to different learning styles, and provide reinforcement for lower levels.

[1]In Communicative Language Teaching, task sometimes has a special meaning.  In this post, I’m using task and activity interchangeably to refer to anything that happens in a classroom that gets students involved in the process of learning.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

  • What could we learn from the Master Teacher about learning activities?
  • What makes activities real to your students and leads to real learning?

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

Photo Credit: Fatty Tuna via Compfight cc

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This entry was posted on November 5, 2014 by in building blocks of teaching, learning activities, Melissa K. Smith.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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