Using Microactivities in Your Classes

September 11, 2019

By Dr. Lynn Bartels (Psychology)

Our last Midweek Mentor video focused on microactivities which are short activities you can use to break up class and get students engaged with the material.  Microactivities provide an opportunity to assess student learning.  The presenter, Wren Mills, makes the case that it’s important to break up the class material because attention spans are short (around 15 minutes) and students need multiple opportunities to interact with the material to learn it (Hattie and Yates, 2013).

There are lots of microactivities to choose from.  Here are four of my favorites.

     1.      Think-Pair-Share

With this technique, you ask students to think about a question for a few minutes on their own.  This quiet thinking time is especially important for introverted students who need a little time to process their ideas on their own before sharing with others.  Then, ask students to pair up and discuss their responses.  The discussion may help students feel like their answers are good and worth sharing during the whole class discussion.  I like this technique because it’s adaptable to a wide variety of contexts from mathematical problem-solving to journal article discussions.  If you’re having trouble getting the whole class to discuss a topic, try using think-pair-share.

     2.      Concept Maps

With this technique, you ask students to draw the relationships between concepts.  The concept map should display visually how concepts are related.  Constructing a concept map helps students learn the connections between concepts.  I’ve found that when I look at students’ concept maps I can easily gauge their level of understanding.  For example, students who are struggling often create less detailed concept maps and they often make mistakes in connecting concepts. You can use these during a review session or as homework.  Students can draw their concept maps out on paper, use software programs or use post-it notes to create a large concept map on the board or wall.   For more information about concept maps, see Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman (2010) Appendix B.

     3.      Quizzing

Quizzes provide an opportunity for retrieval practice.  The “testing effect” demonstrates that practicing remembering material is an effective learning strategy (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).  Quizzes show where knowledge gaps exist.  You could administer an online quiz over the reading material or an in-class quiz over the material assigned for class or to check for understanding at the end of the class.  You can use PollEverywhere or Kahoot to administer quizzes.

     4.      Muddiest Point

Angelo and Cross (1998) call the muddiest point “the simplest classroom assessment technique imaginable” (p. 154). It can be used in any class.  With this technique you simply ask students to write down what they found most confusing in the reading, lecture, or activity.  Their responses are typically short and you can read through them quickly.  This helps students reflect on their learning and you can use this information to see where what’s most difficult for your students.  This can be done at the end of class when you have extra time.

In the video, the presenter emphasizes that you can use microactivities in online classes too and it’s important to select a microactivity that fits with your course objectives.  I encourage you to try a microactivity or two in your class to avoid exceeding the 15-minute attention span limit.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco:  John Wiley & Sons.

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (2012). Classroom Assessment Techniques:  A Handbook for College Teachers. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass Wiley.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning. Harvard University Press.

Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. R. (2013). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. New York:  Routledge.

Mills, W. (n.d.). How Can I Use Microactivities to Engage Students and Improve Learning and Retention?  Magna 20 Minute Mentor collection which can be accessed through our On Demand Videos.

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