First-Day Activity

Madeleine Gorges

This activity comes from one of my favorite teaching books, “Teaching What You Don’t Know,” by Therese Huston. The book is so empowering because it demonstrates that when teaching a new topic, you don’t have to learn it all and then transfer all that knowledge to the students; instead, you design activities that engage the students in the task of finding and applying the knowledge for themselves. She gives many examples of assignments and activities that can be tailored to a variety of topics.

The activity I use on the first day has to do with identifying different types of learners. I will explain how I do it in a face-to-face classroom, although I have also adapted it to Zoom. Here is my general script:

“Researchers on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning have identified four main types of students. I will explain the four different types and then I will ask you to get up and go stand in one of the four corners of the room depending on the type that best fits you:

  • Some students tend to talk a lot. These students aren’t afraid to jump in when the teacher asks a question and they like to break the ice in a conversation if no one else is speaking up.
  • Some students prefer to wait until they have something important to say before they speak up in class. These students are okay with speaking in front of the class, but they won’t always jump in right away.
  • The third group of students prefers to just listen. They may have classes where they never say anything in front of the class and they would much rather participate by just absorbing the information.
  • So we have our talks a lot, medium-level talkers, and our don’t-talkers. What else is there? The final category isn’t about how much you talk, it’s about what type of contribution you bring to the conversation. This group is the devil’s advocates. Does anyone want to explain that for us? [If no one says anything I give my definition.]

“I hope you were thinking as I went through that about where you fit so now please go ahead and go to the corners… [point out corners for each group…]

“Now, I’d like to ask a few people from each group to explain why that is your preferred style in the classroom. We will discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages for each of these approaches. I’ll start with the group who generally talks a lot…”

I never single out anyone to respond. If there is a pause of more than about 5 to 10 seconds, I say that I will give about 10 more seconds for anyone to jump in with their ideas, and then I share my thoughts or comments that I have heard from previous classes. For the group that doesn’t like to talk, I point out that for people whose first language is not English, sometimes they are translating in their head and trying to find the right word, and by the time they have found it, the moment has passed. I also point out that some people feel their role as a student is to absorb all the information, and they expect that the teacher is more knowledgeable about the topic.

To extend this and make it more social justice and diversity-focused, I plan to take this another step and ask the class to reflect on how dominant or non-dominant identities might influence this dynamic.

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First-Day Activity by Madeleine Gorges is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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