How to Design Unforgettable and Satisfying Learning Activities that Help Students Learn Better

One of the interesting topics that arise when I converse with students is how many of them struggle to remember what they did in modules from previous semesters.

Such discussions got me thinking about how to design learning activities that are unforgettable. There is a quote famously attributed to Albert Einstein who said that “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learnt in school”. And I want to ensure that my students remember what they have learned from me especially after all the hard work that they have put into my course.

I began experimenting by implementing techniques that I myself used as a student. I had a very unorthodox method that was very much inspired by the comedian and counsellor, Mark Gungor. He had said that if you take an event and attach a strong emotion to it, that event will be seared into you for good. I applied this principle to my learning by creating jokes for everything I wanted to remember. The funnier the joke, the stronger the emotion, and the better my memory of it.

Activities to Reinforce Learning

I thought it would be interesting to apply this approach to my own teaching, regardless of whether it was a quiz, a group project, or a tutorial activity. So every learning activity I created came packaged with its own scenario. The more fun the scenario was, or the more shocking the conclusion was, the better the students remembered the learning points and what they did to achieve it.

And you can tell how effective this approach has been, when students consult me for help. Instead of explaining the concept, I can just invoke the name of the relevant learning activity. For example, I could say: “Do you remember how you found the spy in the ‘Who’s the spy?’ activity?” Immediately, students light up as they suddenly recall the concept or what they did previously.

Engaging the Imagination

And this is not the only ingredient for making learning activities unforgettable. The other reason why I create fictitious scenarios and situate learning activities in them is that it provides fertile soil for the students’ imagination. This is very powerful especially when we invite them to role-play. There, students step out of their identities to be someone else – which enables them to have more fun learning.

This is especially useful for group projects and discussions, where students within the group may differ in abilities and competencies. Fast learners may not feel a need to help their slower counterparts, and slower learners may be too embarrassed to seek help. In the context of the role play, learners become united by a common mission to save the day by solving a problem for a group of people.

This common mission prompts learners to emotionally invest themselves into the topic and to collaborate with each other in order to solve the problem. And because they are given the chance to momentarily be someone else, they can put aside the stress that they tend to impose on themselves and have fun. As someone else, students are more inclined to engage in peer teaching and learning with each other. They can contribute their own insights on the matter and help one another out (whether technical or not) if they find themselves lost without additional promoting. This helps to further reinforce the culture of collaboration that we try to foster in the module.

Difficulty and Challenge

However, there is another issue. If we design activities meant for stronger students, the weaker students will feel lost and end up disengaging themselves from class. If we design for the weaker students, the stronger students will complete the task quickly on their own, get bored and disengage from the class.

To solve this conundrum, I found it effective to borrow two categories from game design: “difficulty” and “challenge”. A problem can have a low difficulty (be easy) but be challenging; or it can be difficult but not challenging at all.

A problem is difficult when it is hard to accomplish, and it depends very much on the learner’s ability to be able to succeed. A sharp learner, for example, may not struggle very much with a difficult problem, but a slow learner may feel very lost and be unable to solve the problem unless someone steps in.

On the other hand, a problem is challenging when it requires effort rather than ability to solve it. Hence, a challenging yet easy problem can be solved by both fast and slow learners, and they will both need to work hard to find the solution since the answer is not immediately obvious.

With these categories in mind, we can design learning activities that have low difficulty but are still challenging enough for stronger students. This is achieved by providing just enough scaffolding and guiding resources (such as a Q&A resource page) that weaker students can refer to for help. This mirrors the way computer games leave clues and hints lying around.

For formative activities, I will calibrate them to be easy yet challenging. In my course, this means that someone who has just learnt Microsoft Excel will be able to solve the problem even with minimal experience. But it is challenging in a sense that the most experienced Excel user will not find the answer immediately and will have to work for the answer too.

For summative assessments, I will calibrate them to be just as challenging but with a higher difficulty level. There will be fewer scaffolds and guiding resources available. I typically achieve this by picking out scenarios where there are no clear answers, and so students will have to discuss within their groups to convince themselves of the right solutions.

Ensuring Satisfaction

One thing to note is that the greater the challenge of the activity, the more we need to ensure that students find the activity satisfying, as a reward for completing the challenge. Some activities are already satisfying once the learner completes them. But sometimes the satisfaction may not be enough. To combat this, I usually test these activities with my Teaching Assistants (all undergraduates). I will observe their behaviour and note their feedback for improvement.

Role playing is useful in augmenting the level of satisfaction. Depending on their assigned scenario, accomplishing the task can leave students feeling as if they’ve just solved one of humanity’s greatest dilemmas, or that they have just made the world a better place with their solution.

Or sometimes, we can conclude the activity with a shocking revelation or a mind-blowing learning point that they least expect. For example, in one of my learning activities, students felt accomplished that they had allocated students to limited enrichment programme slots. At the end, we got them to reflect on the criteria used and how that could favour wealthier demographics.

Our learning activities may be somewhat theatrical. But they do help in generating strong emotions, which help to sear students’ learning deeply into their memories. The result: an unforgettable learning experience. I stay in touch with many of my former students from two years ago and they still fondly remember the various activities and learning points from my module. I believe this is an education that Einstein would be proud of.

This article is part of a series of articles on pedagogical methods and education.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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