Activity Type Descriptions

Modified Lectures

Since various studies have shown that people listening to a lecture start to become distracted after about 10-15 minutes, modified lecture activities are designed to create a "break" in the lecture. This break should be some activity that creates a change in the pace of the class and ideally shifts the energy to the students. This activity does not need to be long and can be as short as 2-3 minutes.

The lecture can resume right after the new activity is over. Students should also be fully alert at this time, and you should not begin to loose their attention for another 10-15 minutes.


There are three steps to a Think-Pair-Share activity. The first is the Think step, and requires students to think independently about a question or concept you have just posed. It is best if you have students actually write their "answers" down on paper, as this will provide support for those students who might be more introverted. You can give the students as short as 1-2 minutes for this step, depending on the question you have posed.

The second step is to get students paired up so that they can exchange their ideas. It is not strictly necessary that there be two students in each "pair" but the more that there are, the longer this step will take. You should instruct your "pairs" to discuss their individual answers and agree on 1 (or at most 2) answers that they think are best. You can give them as little as 1-2 minutes for this step.

The third step is to get some/all (depending on the number) to share their answers with the rest of the class. The number of "pairs" you call on depends on the complexity of the question and what you hope to achieve. If you keep getting the same or similar answers, either the question was too concrete or your students are all looking at the problem the same way. At this point, you can also ask if there are any different answers. The sharing phase can be as short as 2 minutes if you require your students to give very pointed answers (e.g. "Give me your answer in five words", " one sentence").

Think-Pair-Share can, therefore, take as short as 5 minutes or as long as you like. It can also be a bridge to the next part of the lecture if used as the "break" exercise in a modified lecture. It is a good structure because students get a chance to think for themselves, and then talk with another student before having to put himself or herself on the line by sharing with the entire class. By use of this exercise you can provide a structure where more of your students will talk.

Discussion Questions

Discussion questions are those without short and obviously correct answers. These are designed to encourage students to express and support an opinion. Discussion questions can start out as Think-Pair-Share questions and the sharing can be the start of the discussion.

There are a number of resources that are available to give you hints on leading good discussions. Check the bibliography on this archive for references.

A couple of quick hints. First, wait for answers - studies show that faculty usually wait only 1-2 seconds before giving the answer or offering an elaboration. If you wait at least 5-10 seconds, you will find more students answering and you will get better answers. Also, do not tell students that they are "wrong." Instead, ask them to elaborate on their answer, or tell you "why they think that." Give other students the chance to correct wrong answers by asking "so what you the rest of you think of that" instead of you having to always correct errors. You should also encourage your students to look at each other when replying instead of always looking at you. You can do this by looking at the student who's answer is being discussed instead of looking at the student talking -- the student talking will naturally look where you are and then automatically start talking to the other student since he or she will be also looking at the student talking.


After you ask a few students for answers to a question you have posed, you can poll the rest of the class for their opinions on the answers they have heard. "Raise you hand if you agree with Mary. If you agree with Joe. If you think both are wrong. If you're not sure of the answer. Those who think they are both wrong, why do you think so...."

This can be a great technique to start off a discussion.


Exercises from a course text are a good source of classroom activities. I use these as the basis for group activities in my classes. I will pick one or two that I think capture the material that is essential for my students to understand. I then have the students work in groups on these exercises. This gives the students direct practice with the material while I'm present to answer questions that it might generate.

Algorithm Tracing

In computer science, it is common for material presented in beginning classes includes algorithms or programs that the students need to understand. Instead of having the instructor put the algorithm on an transpariency and then describe what is happening to students, it involves the students more if they work in groups to trace the program themselves. You can also give them a blank traspariency to indicate the output they think the program will generate, and they can then share their answer quickly by putting it on the projector, instead of rewriting it on the board.

Drama/Role Playing

In dramas and role playing, students act out a scene that illustrates what is happening. The difference between a drama and role playing is the amount of direction that the students get.

For example, I have used a drama to indicate how objects within a program interact. I give the students scripts that allow them to be parts of the program, and the objects are paper bags that get passed around the room. The goal is for the students to understand the concept of an object and to understand what parts of a program can see the contents of the object/bag and which cannot.

A role playing example to illustrate improper job interviewing techniques for a business class might assign to two students the role of interviewer and interviewee. The only direction to the interviewer would be to try to subtly find out information that should have no influence in the hiring process. The only direction to the interviewee would be to try and keep as much of this information private while still answering questions. The ensuing class discussion could be about what inappropriate information was the interviewer trying to find out and how successful was he/she.

Demonstration/Simulation Software

There is a lot of software available that will illustrate concepts in almost every academic field. Bringing this into the classroom can illuminate course material in a way that a pure lecture cannot. Care must be taking in using this so that it is more than just another form of lecture.

To effectively use this, I would recommend that you pose a problem to your students that can also be answered through the demonstration or simulation software. Then let the students work or think through an answer on their own or in groups. Let them share the answers they developed and then show them the answer that the software gives. In this way, the students have been actively involved in thinking about the problem and answer before they see an answer.

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Last updated August 26, 1997 by Dr. Jeffrey J. McConnell