Active Learning Activities

I started collecting active learning activities from online resources for a train-the-trainer curriculum, which is part of a state-level grant in PA. The students will be youth and adults. I am using the Designing Courses for Significant Learning (Fink, 2013) as a development framework. I have chosen Accelerated Learning as the instruction strategy, but I have modified it somewhat. I prefer active learning activities, but I don’t plan to be rigid in the preference. The curriculum will be in draft form, and I expect to receive extensive feedback from potential students. With Accelerated Learning, I need these types of learning activities:

  • Low-or-no stakes checks for current knowledge or understanding (from Accelerated Learning: don’t worry about mistakes)
  • Meaning-making activities (application-oriented)
  • Trigger-the-memory activities (connect it to things you already know)
  • Show what you know activities (another formative check for understanding)
  • Reflection activities

These are the activities I have selected thus far:

From U Waterloo Center for Teaching Excellence, which also has small group activity ideas here:

  • Cumulative brainstorming (low-or-no stakes check)
  • Crowd-sourcing (low-or-no-stakes check)
  • Think-pair-share (meaning-making)
  • One minute reflection (reflection)
  • Sticky note clustering (meaning-making or trigger-the-memory)
  • Jigsaw (low-or-no-stakes check)

And activities I sometimes use in my own classroom (but cannot attribute to an online source):

  • No-stakes quiz (low-or-no-stakes check)
  • Group knowledge-production and sharing (meaning-making)
  • Case study scenarios (meaning-making)
  • Role play and reflection (meaning-making, trigger-the-memory, reflection)

I’m still building my activity arsenal. The resources from Vanderbilt, University of MN, and DePaul look interesting, so I’ll continue my search for unique learning activities.







Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons.
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Tech Comm Challenges with Argumentation

In this post, I want to document two challenges that may be lessened with the usage of an argumentation graphic organizer (such as the one in the link) in setting up a common culminating assignment in the tech comm classroom: the technical presentation.

The first challenge

I am still struggling to get students fully on board through the semester-long portfolio assignment. The portfolio is a virtual location in which to document and store pre-writing assignments–both stand-alone personal discovery assignments and scaffolded assignments that culminate in the technical presentation. I believe issues with the layout and setup of the portfolio could be contributing to the less-than-seamless feel of the portfolio, but perhaps the usage of graphic organizers (such as the one in the link above) and other structured exercises stored in the portfolio could help students see it more as a virtual workspace.

The second challenge

This challenge is specific to technical communication pedagogy: students often struggle to understand technical and scientific writing as inherently persuasive (or humanist–Miller, 1979). When defining audience and purpose for the technical presentation, I sometimes give in and relax the all-rhetoric-all-the-time conversation to allow students to choose between “to persuade” and “to inform” as the purpose for their technical presentation. Then I try to nudge them in the direction of discovering informing as a means of persuading. My ultimate goal, however, is for students to understand the rhetorical nature of all communication.

Writing embedded in writing

I follow some of the pedagogy in The Writing Revolution, which advocates embedding writing into the content part of a curriculum. It may be a bit odd to embed writing into, well, writing–especially since the learning outcomes of a tech comm course often specify some version of “use writing as a tool to do work”. In other words, students are expected to use the skills they learned in K-12 schooling and Composition 101 to solve real-world problems. However, writing is a skill best practiced continually; as such, writing practice is an inherent part of tech comm pedagogy. Embedding writing practice into tech comm pedagogy supports what I have long felt is necessary in teaching this subject–no throw-away assignments. In other words, all the assignments in the course should (ideally) either benefit the student directly through the development of meta-cognition (writing is thinking) or apply to a scaffold that culminates in a final product (an analogous embedding strategy can also be seen in the Critical Thinking Initiative, which I highly recommend).

Is it age-appropriate?

Is a graphic organizer age appropriate for adult students? Indeed, the example in the link above is presented at the ninth grade level, and graphic organizers are often associated with younger students. On the other hand, it is important to note that much of the note-taking research done with graphic organizers and adult students does suggest significant improvement in recall outcomes associated with their usage (cognitive load theory and other neuro-related theories are often cited as possible explanations). Since I have taught primarily online, I have not used graphic organizers. I believe that a graphic organizer need not be pedantic nor ninth-gradeish, so it might be helpful for development of argumentative writing.

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Digital Tools for Students

Hi all,

I will be presenting with Dr. Joan Kester at the DCDT Conference in Cedar Rapids, IA about digital tools for students. Below, please find links to some digital tools that we find interesting and promising for students with disabilities of transition age.

Interesting Perspectives

Managing Productivity

This is a new and promising area of digital tool management.

  • Freedom to (website blocker)
  • Self control app (I don’t like the name because it implies that one would choose the app if they lacked self-control…nonetheless, it may be a promising tool for students)
  • Cold turkey
  • Track Time (the latest Mac and iPhone update offers a new app for tracking your time on various tasks and websites…looks promising, especially because my teens told me about it)


These apps may be helpful for students who struggle with frustration management because many teens have their phone with them at all times. They can use these apps without anyone knowing because it looks like they are simply checking their phone.

  • Headspace (this is one I actively use–I should use it more…it costs $, but the first 10 meditations are free)
  • SmilingMind (guided meditations designed with teens in mind)
  • Simple Being (guided information for basic meditation, variable times)
  • At Ease (guided meditation with breathing focused on helping with anxiety
  • Relax from Andrew Johnson (more like guided imagery/self-hypnosis—you’re getting sleeeeeeepy…very sleeeeeepy)
  • Relax Lite (includes some guided breathing exercises where you vary the length of the inhale and exhale, extending the exhale longer than the inhale. The slower, longer exhale is generally considered to help strengthen the function of the Parasympathetic nervous system, promoting the relaxation response)
  • Brainwave (based on the concept of binaural beats. You can select various patterns, background, and length of time)
  • BioBreathing (a simple visual and auditory guide for slow calm breathing)
  • GPS for the Soul (by Heartmath–they do good stuff with biofeedback based on heart rhythm. Highly recommended by a friend)



  • Life Sherpa (potentially interesting app)
  • Unus Tactis (easy mobile phone usage)
  • Difficult Social Situations (for rehearsing social situations–there is a deck of paper cards and an app)
  • Make sure to research public transportation apps in your area
  • Better than Budgeting (there are many apps for budgeting–many are free, but they might be mindful of how they use your personal information (as always))





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Seale, Draffan, & Wald, 2010

Digital agility and digital decision-making: conceptualising digital inclusion in the context of disabled learners in higher education

Seale, J., Draffan, E. A., & Wald, M. (2010). Digital agility and digital decision‐making: conceptualising digital inclusion in the context of disabled learners in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 35(4), 445-461.

The purpose of this study was to explore digital agility and digital decision-making for students with disabilities in the context of a specific project—LEXDIS. Participants were 31 students in higher education in a school in the United Kingdom. The students were younger than 20 years old. The study included 17 female and 14 male students. This was a participatory framework where individuals with disabilities were involved as consultants or designers (or they chose to disseminate the final work).

The research design consisted of three phases — online survey, interview, and focus group. The intervention was learning about, using, and participating in the design of LEXDIS. Outcomes were coded and mapped against a framework of digital inclusion: resources and digital decisions, which were categorized as technology, personal, and context (social). The framework was designed to capture digital inclusion beyond accessibility and knowing how to do things with digital tools. In other words, it was designed to capture the complex, multi-layered nature of digital inclusion.

Technological = physical and material resources
Personal = human or mental resources
Contextual = temporal, social, or cultural resources

It was revealed that all students customised their computer digital devices (icons, colors, etc.), Most students owned a phone and laptop. Most students used instant messaging, discussion forums, social networking sites, and uploaded videos or photographs onto the Internet. All students Google or other search engine to access information and had used online learning materials. They also used word processing programs (google docs), spreadsheets, and email.

Students described many strategies in using digital tools. They expressed a high level of confidence in their usage.

Factors that influenced student usage of technologies: technological factors (affordances), personal factors (feeling stigmatized when using assistive technologies in public). Some students reported that they did not use social networking because it takes them “twice as long as everyone else to do it” (speaks to perceived value)

Digital agility of students was identified in the study. Researchers encourage educators to avoid seeing students with disabilities as victims of exclusion. They support an empowerment model.



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Smith, Schmidt, Edelen-Smith, & Cook, 2013

Pasteur’s Quadrant as the Bridge Linking Rigor with Relevance

Pasteur’s quadrant refers to a section of the Quadrant Model of Scientific Research introduced by Donald E. Stokes (1997). The model features the work and work-habits of 3 inventor/researchers: Bohr, Pasteur, and Edison.

Just to give you some background information, we are all aware of a tension between teachers and researchers. Even if you do not notice it in your own work, you might see it in other classrooms or with other researchers.

In this paper, the researchers explore the tension between teachers and researchers through the lens of discourse theory. Discourse theory is studied widely in communication because it recognizes the fact that “language alone cannot account for meaning” in communication. Discourse theory takes into account the discourse community, which describes a group of folks who use similar language to communicate. The researchers describe a discourse community as an “annointed guardian of the truth,” and thus, the language they use to describe and discuss knowledge and knowledge production–words, emphases, syntax, etc.–define them as a part of that discourse community. We use discourse communities to understand how people belong together. We are trying to understand who to include; however, when we include many people, we also exclude others.

Among the discourse communities of teachers and researchers, there is a sense that teacher knowledge/wisdom is a separate and lesser category of knowledge. This can create an indignation against researchers for excluding teachers from their discourse community. It may even give rise to a “resistance culture” wherein knowledge production is limited or even halted by the actions of members of both discourse communities. In these situations, it is important to recognize–it’s not that teachers don’t like research or evidence-based practices (EBPs), they simply value a different approach. Teachers tend to value practice-based evidence (PBE), which is relevant and externally valid while researchers value EBPs, which are rigorous and internally valid. Because discourse communities are closely linked to identity and trust, it is unlikely that logical appeals for everyone to “just get along” will be enough to integrate EBP and PBE.

Smith et. al say we don’t have to choose. They present the Stokes (1997) model, which introduces research as a synergystic model using a both/and approach rather than a either/or approach. In the model, we have Bohr (developed the modern model of the atom) as a quest for knowledge without consideration of usage. Edison (who invented lots of things) represents the view that deeper scientific knowledge is secondary to development and application of useful products. Pasteur brings these together with scientific efficacy and real-world effectiveness. In the model, practice and research are complimentary. This is a use-inspired basic research model.

So, how is this done? How can we implement this model? The researchers suggest we use Education Design Research (EDR) and implement it through Communities of Practice. This is not suggested as an actual methodology by the authors, but a “framework for a range of methodologies.”


External validity:  the validity of generalized (causal) inferences in scientific research, usually based on experiments as experimental validity. In other words, it is the extent to which the results of a study can be generalized to other situations and to other people.

Internal validity:  how well an experiment is done, especially whether it avoids confounding (more than one possible independent variable [cause] acting at the same time). The less chance for confounding in a study, the higher is its internal validity.

Education Design Research:  developed by Brown (1992) and Collins (1992). Suggests that “rigorous education research should take place in complex educational environments.”

Communities of Practice:  groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (Wenger-Traynor, n.d.).

EDR & Communities of Practice

Characteristics of EDR/CoP

  • Iterative
  • Does not ignore contextual variables, which are complex and unpredicatable (traditional research seeks to control these)
  • Flexible
  • Interaction occurs in a Community of Practice
  • Synergy through sharing
    • values
    • goals
    • practices
  • Common purpose for teachers and researchers
  • Internal motivation to solve problems
  • Participatory relationships

Stages of EDR

  • analysis/exploration
  • design/construction
  • evaluation/reflection



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Klingner, Boardman, & McMaster, 2013

What Does it Take to Scale Up and Sustain Evidence-based Practices?

Implement, validate, and scale up
Starting large research projects can be cumbersome. A more agile approach might be to become more sensitive and react to contextual factors.

Scaling up is a process by which interventions are implemented small-scale, validated, and then implemented on a larger scale. IES defined a need for understanding the organizational conditions needed to support an intervention and determine the effects of selected moderators of the intervention. Even schools that implement successfully struggle with sustainability due to competing priorities, changing demands, and teacher/staff turnover.

Dunlap (2009) + Coburn (2003) = emergence, demonstration of capacity, elaboration, system adoption and sustainability.

Persistence after funding is low, even when the results are good. Cultural changes are required and local contextual features of an educational system must be acknowledges and managed. Other struggles occurred when scaling up was the domain of education policymakers, not researchers/teachers/administrators (but of course, right?) Funding agencies have also been challenging because they did not account for local complexities. IES funding structures typically wanted a “standard” implementation. They did not want to implement in an ad-hoc manner. From my experience in software development and implementation, I’d completely agree with that approach. Ad-hoc implementations lose the power of economies of scale and become troublesome/expensive to maintain. In software, we required business units to adapt to us, while education is a completely different deal.

Implementation science may be the missing link between standardized practices and successful implementations. Implementation science addresses adoption decisions, capacity building, training, technical assistance, consumer participation and satisfaction.

*under what conditions and with whom does an ebp work
*why is it necessary to support teacher implementation of an ebp
*what is necessary to increase the capacity of districts under different ecological and population differences
*what is necessary to support deep, broad, sustainable implementation of the ebp

*Classwide Peer Tutoring (CWPT)
*Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS)
*School Wide Positive Behavior Supports (SWPBS)

Success factors
*Maximizing contextual fit betw ebp and educational environment
*Promoting ebp as a priority
*Ensure fidelity of implementation
*Increase efficiency by integrating ebp into daily school operations
*Use data to make ongoing decisions about the ebp


It is important to strike a balance between implementation fidelity and teacher flexibility
Factors that can support it: PD and district leadership

When we fail to scale-up interventions, the result is a gap between research and practice.
*Lack of trust
*Not valuing the input of all stakeholders equally
*Different beliefs and philosophies
*Tendency to dismiss evidence that does not support our pre-existing views
*sometimes a practice is overstated in effectiveness or generalizability

PD on scale-up is highly recommended


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Cook & Cook, 2013

Evidence Based Practices and Implementation Science in SPED

Evidence-Based Practices and Implementation Science in Special Education
The value of EBPs is limited by the quality, reach, and sustainability of implementation practices. The gap between research and practice in sped is persistent and confounding to all who care about children’s futures. Some combination of EBPs and Implementation Science may help bridge the gap at some point. The challenge to discover the “secret sauce” is ongoing.


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