Designing an Effective Teaching Activity

The contents of this page arose from discussions of the characteristics that make a teaching activity excel, and of the features of an activity description that make it useful to other faculty. These discussions took place at SERC workshops focused, at least in part, on the development of teaching activities. The guiding questions below come from workshop participants' teaching experiences, from their experiences reviewing teaching activities designed by other faculty, and from discussions of the research literature on learning, particularly literature focusing on teaching critical thinking and problem solving and on curriculum design.

This list of guiding questions has been informed by many individuals and events. An original list of questions was developed in the Teaching Quantitative Skills workshop series on activity development and review. They were refined by participants in workshops creating and reviewing activities as part of the Pedagogies in Action Project (see teaching activity review criteria from Physics, Statistics, and Mathematics). Reflecting on these questions, Barb Tewksbury developed an associated rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 18kB Jul16 08); and the Using MARGINS Data in the Classroom project developed an observational protocol for evaluating the success of an activity as you use it. The version presented here also reflects discussion by the On the Cutting Edge project PIs.

Questions to Consider when Designing a Teaching Activity

  • What do I want the students to be able to DO after they successfully complete the activity?
  • Will the activity lead to the desired learning? (Do the students practice the skills I want them to master?)
  • Will I be able to tell?
  • Does the pedagogy promote learning?
    • Does the activity motivate and engage students?
    • Does it build on what they know and address their initial beliefs?
    • Is it appropriate for the variety of students expected in the class?
    • Are students engaged in independent thinking and problem solving?
    • Are there opportunities for students to iterate and improve their understanding incrementally?
    • Is there an appropriate balance of guidance vs. exploration (given the intended audience)? (Does it provide sufficient instruction for each of the tasks students will have to complete? Have I modeled the intellectual processes students will need to engage in?)
    • Does it include opportunities for reflection, discussion, and synthesis?
    • Does it provide opportunities for students to assess their learning and confirm they are on the right track?
  • Are the materials I provide for students complete and helpful?
  • Could someone else implement this from the information I provide?

This rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 18kB Jul16 08) developed by On the Cutting Edge can be used to structure your responses to these questions.

This observational protocol (Microsoft Word 69kB Apr17 09) developed by MARGINS can be used to test how well your activity is meeting your expectations during instruction.


Additional Resources

Key Research on Learning

Aspects of Activity Design

  • Teaching Methods: Modules describing a wide variety of teaching methods, from teaching with data to process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL). Each module addresses the what, why, and how of teaching with that method, and includes examples of teaching activities that use the pedagogy in question.
  • Scaffolding: A starting point for what we mean by scaffolding and how to use it. This is a dated site at this point; please don't hesitate to send recommendations for newer references.
  • Affective Domain: An overview of the role of the affective domain in learning, including student motivation and self efficacy.
  • Metacognition: An overview of metacognition, strategies for developing students metacognitive skills, and tactics for assessment.
  • Assessment: A review of assessment tools, including examples of their use in geoscience courses.

Posting Your Teaching Activity to the SERC Website

  • Copyright Pointers: Determining whether you are within the bounds of fair use.
  • Tips for Writing for the Web: Thoughts about writing for an audience that is looking, rather than reading; handling long pages and more.
  • Author Checklist: How to tell when you are done - a checklist drawn from experience with web page reviewers.
  • Editing Help: This site provides complete and detailed instructions for page authoring within the SERC website. When you are editing a page, there is also a link to help at the top of the green bar (upper right portion of the page) that contains a short help section that will get you through everything you are likely to need to know to create the web page describing your teaching activity.

Course Design