To Learn, Students Need to DO Something

March 24, 2022


First, let me say that authentic, project-based learning is probably the best way to have students experience meaningful learning. But many schools and classrooms aren’t quite there yet: They deliver instruction in a more traditional way. That model can still result in solid learning, if it’s implemented correctly. And that’s where I’m seeing a problem. I think we’re skipping over one of the most important steps in our lesson plans.

Let’s consider the classic lesson plan format:

  1. Anticipatory set: This is where we get students interested in the lesson and set objectives for the day.
  2. Direct instruction: Facts, concepts, and skills are delivered via lecture, video, reading—some way of getting the information into students’ heads.
  3. Guided practice and application: With the support of the teacher, students apply what they have just been taught.
  4. Independent practice and application: Students apply the learning on their own.
  5. Assessment: The teacher measures how well students have met the objectives.

I think what’s happening is that we’re skipping over the third step. We’re going right to independent practice (often at the lowest levels—basic regurgitation), but students aren’t being given any kind of task to actually process or apply the material in a meaningful way. We go straight from direct instruction to independent practice to assessment.

In some cases, we may even be skipping both steps 3 and 4. Not too long ago I had to help another of my kids study for a social studies test. All we had to work with were notes copied from a PowerPoint. I didn’t understand the meaning of half of them, because they were just bulleted phrases, so it was nearly impossible to review the material. When I pointed at individual items and asked my kid to tell me what they meant, that turned out to be too difficult. The teacher had just told them to write down that bullet point, but my kid left class that day not really knowing what it meant.

Because I was a teacher myself, I know there’s got to be more to the story. I remember how students could misrepresent or oversimplify the things we did in class. I would bet that this teacher took time to explain these concepts before having students copy down bullet points. But it wasn’t enough. My kid was in class, paying attention, writing down the notes, but still didn’t learn a whole lot.

Apart from the poor quality learning, this gap in our teaching is a problem for two more reasons.

For one, it doesn’t align with the standards. Look at any social studies standards for middle school, in pretty much any state. Do any of them say that kids need to be able to identify names of significant people in historical periods, or be able to regurgitate facts about certain cultures or regions?

No. They want students to be able to understand the relationships between social movements and changes and other influences. They want students to be able to explain and analyze things. I just randomly pulled up Wisconsin’s standards for grade 7 social studies. Here’s an example of what these students should be doing when they learn history (from page 10):

  1. Use historical evidence for determining cause and effect.
  2. Analyze, recognize, and evaluate patterns of continuity and change over time and contextualization of historical events.
  3. Connect past events, people, and ideas to the present, use different perspectives to draw conclusions, and suggest current implications.
  4. Evaluate a variety of primary and secondary sources to interpret the historical context, intended audience, purpose, and/or author’s point of view.

These standards are GORGEOUS. If students are actually doing these things in Wisconsin middle schools, that would be amazing. But if Wisconsin is like a lot of other places, my guess is that students are sitting through PowerPoint lectures, copying notes from the PowerPoints, and transferring that information to worksheets and tests.

I know it seems like I’m picking on social studies here, but that’s just because social studies is such an information-driven subject area. The same could be said for science, health, and other content-heavy classes. Even in English language arts, which really should be driven more by practicing reading and writing, there are some teachers who manage to run mostly lecture-worksheet-test-based classes.

The other problem with this kind of teaching is that it makes kids hate school. I already dealt with this extensively in this post about excessive use of worksheets, but it’s worth repeating: When we do little more than have students copy down information or fill out worksheets, we are making school an awful place to be.

In a 2014 article, instructional coach Alexis Wiggins reported on her findings after shadowing two high school students through a typical school day. She was horrified by the amount of sitting and passive learning these students were subjected to. Friends of mine who work as instructional consultants and coaches, who visit hundreds of classrooms every year, say they see more low-level seatwork than anything else.

My own kids hate school more and more the older they get. And they rarely bring home anything lower than an A. The other parents I talk to—who live all around the country—report a similar pattern more often than not. This is not an isolated issue.


I think this epidemic of passive learning has come about for a couple of reasons:


We’re in an environment right now that is so driven by high-stakes testing and data that teachers have no choice but to only do things that produce data. Teachers say that they would like to be doing more engaging activities, but they end up in this cycle of information in, information out, assess, get a score, move to the next step again, repeat.


I’m hearing more and more from teachers who are required to document the crap out of their day—super detailed lesson plans, all the way down to having to indicate what font size they’re using on something. When you have to do that much documentation, it squeezes teachers’ time so much that they go to this default setting of get the content out there, cover it, test it, and move to the next thing.


A friend who consults with schools tells me she believes teachers do not have sufficient tools in their toolbox for teaching. They literally don’t know enough strategies for actively engaging students in the content, and that teacher prep programs may not be equipping teachers with enough strategies. Many teachers don’t necessarily know how to go beyond direct instruction, worksheets, and tests, so they just go with the default. With teacher turnover at such a high rate and the number of emergency certifications growing in some states, it may be that teacher prep programs may not even be involved: There may not be much preparation at all.

The first two reasons need to be addressed at an administrative, policy level. But the last one we can deal with right now.


Now comes the good news. This problem can be solved in so many ways, and the solutions don’t have to be complicated, time-consuming, or fancy. Simply add activities into your instruction that will help students build more pathways in their brains, see patterns, connect to previous knowledge, and experience some novelty so they remember the material better.

In between the direct instruction step and the assessment step of your planning, start adding in some of these activities:


Organize the material by similarities and differences, categorize it, label it, do something that requires students to activate schema and create connections. An inductive learning lesson would be great for this.


Doing short role-plays and simulations can really help students visualize relationships and processes. This can also be done by creating models with Play-Doh or cardboard, or doing some kind of a maker project that connects to your standard.


Even giving students a few minutes to discuss a topic—especially if they are taking some kind of a stance on the content and backing it up with evidence—can do so much to help them process and learn the content. But make sure all students are participating! Check out this big list of discussion strategies for tons of ideas.


Having students put the material into any kind of visual form will help them remember it better and understand how concepts are related. Graphic organizers and sketchnotes are two ways to accomplish this. Students can do these on their own or they can be constructed as a class with your support—for especially challenging concepts, this may be most effective.


When students process ideas in writing, they are forced to synthesize the information that has only entered their brains passively, so stopping instruction every now and then to have students write short summaries or give their opinions on the things they’re learning is a really effective, efficient way to cement their learning. This video from the Teaching Channel shows just how simple this can be to implement.


For learning to be active, it doesn’t have to be a super complicated, long-term project. Students can do mini-projects that take just a day or two. This poster project, where students have to rank leaders of early America, then back up their choices with evidence, is a perfect example of a project that could be done in a short period of time.


Anticipation guides are simple forms where students state their opinions on key statements before a learning activity. This primes them for the learning that is about to come. Once the direct instruction is done, they revisit the guides to see if their opinions have changed. This would be a really simple way to boost engagement and give students a bigger stake in a lesson.


Although students seem to be taking a lot of “notes” in class, it’s not clear that this is being done in a way that results in high-quality learning. If your classroom practices are aligned with the research on note-taking, this activity can be a powerful processing tool.


Asking students to recall information is a great way to help them learn it better, but I’m not exactly talking about the kind of recall they do on worksheets. Whether it’s stuff that just needs to be memorized or concepts that require more complex processing, building periods of retrieval practice into your instruction will boost learning.


Most of these activities would be enhanced by some kind of collaboration: Have students share their write-to-learn responses with a partner. Do sorting tasks with small groups. Any time they work together, they’re engaging with the content in a different way, which introduces more novelty and more opportunities to process it differently.

This is not an exact science, and no teacher designs instruction perfectly all the time. But if you’re not getting the results you want, try to do more of this: When planning your lessons, ask yourself if students are doing anything with the material, or if you’re just setting things up so it’s information in, information out. If it’s the latter, start adding in ways to have students engage with the stuff they’re learning. There are a lot of different ways to do it. Even though it adds a little bit more time, you’re going to see such big benefits. Not only are your students going to learn better, you will all—both your students and you—like coming to school a whole lot more. ♦