Four Low-Tech Learning Activities to Elevate Student Understanding
By Emily Agraz and Laura Austin, Learning Support Coordinator and High School Learning Support Teacher International School of Luxembourg
Don’t throw the baby out the bathwater…this idiom is playing on repeat in my brain these days, as the Ed Tech-related newsletters keep pinging into my Inbox with shiny new tools and apps. To balance out the tech in many classrooms, Laura and I find ourselves reaching into the ‘toolbox’ for impactful low-tech learning activities. The benefits of effective low-tech activities include:
- Stimulating multisensory input – improved engagement
- Creative multisensory output – extension for students ready to dig deeper
- Structure – continuity for students with identified learning challenges
- Formative data – differentiation to meet the needs of students
To support you in applying low-tech learning activities, we’ve picked some of the tools that provide the most flexibility for use in a range of disciplines, while at the same time being fairly low-prep.
This is more than just small group discussion time. For Think-Pair-Share to be highly successful, it is imperative to articulate a clear goal for the students to have in mind as they discuss. This goal is often a formative activity, such as having the students make a list of questions they still have about the topic or developing one new sentence which summarizes the topic so far.
Allocating a limited amount of time is helpful for keeping the discussion on-track. For example, after a brief lesson explaining what neutralization is, a middle school science teacher can use the Think-Pair-Share activity to get students to develop questions deepening their thought process in the topic with a given focus, such as around the house.
Soon, students are generating questions ranging from: what acids are in the refrigerator? to how can neutralization help in the garden? From there, the teacher knows which content needs further exploration and students are motivated to learn the answers to their queries.
With Think-Pair-Share, the time is well-spent for all types of learners, as they consolidate their understanding or take their analysis to the next level. And whether the focus is to develop a list of questions or to summarize understanding, Think-Pair-Share can be used as a formative assessment and feedback tool, so the teacher has a clearer idea of student understanding. It’s a win-win situation.
Connect Teaching and Learning with Learning Maps
A learning map is “a graphic organizer that highlights the knowledge, skills, and big ideas that students should get from a lesson, unit, or course.”
- They keep students and teachers focused on what is important
- They offer a zoomed-out view of the unit
- They show the relationship between components of a unit
- They function as review guides and study tools
The beauty of a T-Chart lies in its simplicity: pros / cons, imperative tense / conditional tense, opinion 1 / opinion 2. Given a few minutes, students are tasked with discriminating and categorizing information, and the end result is a tidy study tool.
A T-Chart is a brilliant activity for multiple groups of two or three or for one smaller group to tackle while another section of the class takes a different approach. As we well know, some students need to process the basics and others are stretching the boundaries. Again, an added benefit is the formative information the teacher gains about individual students’ learning, which informs instruction in the near future.
3. Skeleton Notes
The Skeleton activity can be an individual or collaborative task. There are two distinct ways to use Skeleton Notes in class, and it is vital for teachers to recognize how useful each can be.
A general template that incorporates course-specific themes is a great go-to activity to summarize a topic. For example, students in a World History class will delve into the various impacts of events over the course of each unit. They will need to note impacts of the French revolution, Industrial revolution, World War I, etc. A skeleton note template, such as the Societal, Political, Economic, Technological, and Religious impact of events (see template included below), provides them with a consistent structure across units, for example.
An alternate to the general template is a topic-specific Skeleton that includes specific keywords from the video or lesson. Here is an example from a high school Social Studies class learning about the Battle of the Somme. Each student should have their own copy, but a large group sheet on which the teacher is modelling the note-taking is also helpful. By scaffolding the note-taking with key terms and/or guiding questions about a given reading or video, the teacher supports students’ processing speed, which allows them to concentrate on the content.
4. Group Roles
Groups are one of our favorite learning activities for developing students’ fluency with the requisite skills of a given course.
For example, an IB Language and Literature course asks students to analyze text by identifying character traits and themes, recognizing the author’s use of literary devices, and then synthesizing. These requisite skills are the puzzle pieces that make up the course.
Many students will benefit from practicing those skills in isolation first, to prepare for a culminating project. Given a text, such as a poem, an extract from literature or a speech, students can be assigned a specific role to take as they read, such as looking for audience/purpose, content/theme, tone/mood, or stylistic devices. Ideally over the course of a unit, students have the opportunity to practice each role, thus enabling them to put all the puzzle pieces together when it is time for a summative assessment.
Using this activity, students who appreciate systems and consistency are supported, while learners who thrive on novelty and challenge are also well-served. Through their insights, the teacher assesses their grasp of the concepts and makes pace and instructional adjustments where needed.
My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.
As teachers develop their craft to reach a wider range of students, perhaps Lewis Carroll can remind us that students will benefit from taking different routes. Given a balance of compelling high and low-tech puzzle pieces, every student has an opportunity to dig deeper and nobody is left behind.
Emily Agraz is a Learning Support Coordinator at the International School of Luxembourg, currently teaching in middle school. With 22 years of experience as a special educator, both in US public schools and abroad, she is a passionate student advocate with an MA in Special Needs and has extensive experience cultivating inclusive learning situations. The problem-solving nature of special education has always been particularly motivating to Emily. Outside the classroom, Emily finds balance with her educator husband, Carlos, and their twin boys.
Laura Austin is a High School Learning Support Teacher at the International School of Luxembourg. She is currently working with high school students but has worked with students of all ages from infants to college. She is passionate about each student finding and developing their strengths and passions as well as helping teachers provide opportunities for all students to learn. Laura enjoys spending what time she can with her 3 grown children and developing her other passions of animals and the ocean.