Learning Activities that Matter

It is time to move away from just movement…to learning activities that matter.

We have all been there, done that…a well-intentioned trainer has you up playing musical chairs for apparently no other reason than to create movement. They mean well, really – but it can be frustrating to participate in activities that have no connection to the learning at hand. Sure, we want people to stay awake and remain focused. We want people to remain engaged in the program. Here is where it is time for a little reality check. If a trainer is having people participate in activities for the sole reason to keep them focused, engaged and awake – they have bigger problems. Most notably in content design and facilitation skills.

Training activities should not only engage the body but the brain. Design activities to achieve a purpose. Moving around, for moving around sake is a waste of time and effort. The trick is to balance content with deep learning activities that benefit the end-user. It’s easy to plop in dance music for 5 minutes and have people move around…it’s harder to plan an activity to connect the learning content.

Why does this matter?

When we think about the psychological learning process, it is critical we promote knowledge rehearsal and encoding, past the working memory into the long-term memory. As we pretty much know by now, lecture and being the “sage on the stage” doesn’t cut it. We must incorporate activities that strengthen the brain – we do this through practice, feedback loops and assessing performance. Think of this as a dance we do with the brain. Facilitators talk a little, the participants do a little…talk a little, do a little, talk a little, do a little. Cha, cha, cha. With each step, we create stronger knowledge links within the brain.

Scaffolding in Learning

This leads to learning scaffolding. Not the construction type of scaffolds, but the learning type – although the definitions are broadly connected. A construction scaffold supports or lifts a person supporting them to the do the job required. Learning scaffolds help lift people in their knowledge, and supporting them throughout the learning process. The end game, being able to help move a person through the stages of learning. In general, there are three different types of learning scaffolds: Soft, hard, and reciprocal. Generally, both soft and hard scaffolding requires the facilitator to take the lead. Here, the facilitator is the expert, and they set the tone.

Reciprocal scaffolding helps the rubber meet the road when connecting learning to the brain. As is reflected in the this example, The Zone of Proximinal Development: “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p86)

It is this type of scaffolding where facilitators need to do extra work, and create environments for collaborative learning and peer feedback loops. To create higher levels of thinking and higher skill ability, we must make use of activities that encourage those higher levels of constructive thought. In essence, reciprocal scaffolding is about the participants. How are they using the knowledge and skills? How are they applying the information in teams and in collaborative settings? In order for that to occur, we must first set the stage and this goes beyond quizzes that reflect a Jeopardy™ game.

Activities that Matter

I gravitate to these four activities (they are in the “101 Ways to Make Training Active” book) that promote the use of reciprocal scaffolding and take “Promoting rehearsal and encoding into the long-term memory to the next level”.

“Stump the Team”

In short: The participants find their own questions and answers to lessons and try to “stump the other teams”.

Why this works: Teams are collaborating with each other to find challenging questions to stump the other team. They will have to formulate answers and be prepared to defend their conclusions if other teams challenge the result. This promotes higher-level critical thinking skills that go beyond your standard quiz show type games. In standard quiz games, the facilitator decides on the questions and answers, in this case we are putting the reasoning in the hands of the participants.

General direction:

  1. Groups of 3 – 5 develops a list of 5 – 7 questions and answers (not all will be used).
  2. One team at time presents their question to one other random team.
  3. That team has 5 seconds to answer the stated question.
  4. If they answer correctly, they get to ask a question to another team, if they answer incorrectly, the remaining teams have a chance to answer and gain points.
  5. If there is disagreement, have each team present their cases for a correct answer with the facilitator being the deciding vote.
  6. Facilitator drives the length (and timing) of the exercise.
  7. Debrief: Was there a question that encouraged you to think more deeply than others?

“Make Your Case”

In short: This activity allows for participants to debate course materials, concepts and ideas.

Why this works: This presents participants with the challenge to demonstrate higher levels of critical thinking and problem solving skills.

General Direction:

  1. Facilitator creates handouts with four controversial statements or questions based on the material or subject matter. (i.e. Statements about why a supervisor would give a promotion to one person over another.)
  2. Distribute the handout to all the participants, asking them to answer the statement with “agree/disagree” or “fair/unfair” or “acceptable/not acceptable”…etc.
  3. Have the participants group themselves as reflected by their answers for the first question or statement.
  4. Give the groups time to solidify their argument and do appropriate research.
  5. Have each group make their case in a debate style manner, using their research to help persuade others to understand their point of view.
  6. Allow for rebuttal.
  7. At the end of each debate, ask people to move to the side with which they agree.
  8. Facilitator controls the timing of the exercise.
  9. Debrief: Ask participants if there was any critical argument that stood out, why? Were there key learning moments.

A Day in 30

In short: Participants create a graphic design of key points learned in previous lessons or previous day.

Why this works: This allows groups to collaborate and determine the learning priority of lessons. Why did they feel the learning was relevant to them? This exercise gets the creative storytelling juices flowing. While creating their design, the group is reviewing materials and lesson notes, this helps further encode learning to long term memory.

General Direction: 

  1. Facilitator has flipchart paper and markers for each group.
  2. Break class into groups of 3 – 5
  3. Using any materials or notes, the group has 30 minutes to create a graphic representation of the lessons learned earlier in the day or the previous day.
  4. The groups will then rotate around to peer assess the creative work. Are they able to tell what the visual is saying to them?
  5. Debrief: Ask the groups if there were any lessons that other groups described that you had overlooked? This allows for deeper discussion on previous concepts.

Find it Online

In short: Have participants conduct group research on lessons or key ideas.

Why this works: Adult learners require buy-in to the learning process. Having them conduct their own research to apply to key ideas, theories or concepts will help scaffold initial lessons by using analysis and synthesis techniques. This also helps create buy-in for problem solving techniques.

General Directions: 

  1. Facilitator must first allow technology in the class. Don’t be THAT trainer! Trying to fight the cell phone won’t work, don’t fight it…use it!
  2. Assign a specific topic or problem statement.
  3. Instruct participants to use their laptops or mobile device to find solutions to the problems or conduct research that supports a topic. Encourage them to find videos, Slideshare, research documents etc.
  4. The group is to find the best solution (or supporting theory) that enhances understanding of the topic, or displays a solution to a problem.
  5. At the end of 20 minutes, have the groups roam around and compare notes and view results. Shared and collaborate on findings using google docs.
  6. Debrief: What solutions stood out, did anyone find something different?

There you have it. Four ideas to take learning activities to the next level. They do take time and planning on your part, but that’s your job, right? To lead the thought process? To encourage deeper questioning? Any one of these activities can be reconstructed to fit into any time frame. Remember, it’s not the PowerPoint and the talking that is important, it’s the connected learning. The scaffolding takes time, but that time is not wasted effort. People are more likely to learn from what they figure out themselves, not what you tell them to learn.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below…what are you doing to connect people to learning? What is your best advice for creating learning activities? 


New Book Giveaway!

With learning activities in mind, here is the February Book Giveaway! Enter to receive a chance to receive one of two copies of “101 Ways to Make Training Active” by Elaine Biech. You can enter by voting on which of the four activities above appeals to you. You can earn more entries by answering the question: Is there an activity you use that always gets results?

Make Training Active Book Giveaway


Shannon Tipton

Shannon Tipton

As Owner of Learning Rebels, Shannon Tipton is a skilled learning strategist, content developer and International speaker. Shannon has over 20 years of leadership experience developing successful learning strategies and infrastructures for training departments within organizations in North America, Europe and Korea.

Shannon works with people and organizations to develop learning solutions that brings actual business results. Recognized as bringing real-world expertise into the learning field, Shannon integrates technologies and social learning tools to strengthen workplace alignment, enhance collaboration and increase learning connectivity.

As author of “Disruptive Learning” Shannon frequently speaking at conferences across North America and Europe and ranks as one of the top 100 L&D influencers on Twitter (@stipton).

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