Thoughts of summer vacation are filling your students’ heads (and probably yours too). To maximize instructional minutes, you may be thinking about end-of-the-year engagement strategies. While the basic tenets of engagement hold, the spring offers unique opportunities to reflect on learning and stimulate new ideas. The engagement strategies in this blog review knowledge without adding much pressure on you and the students.
Many teachers use the last few weeks of school for a big project or reviewing for a final exam. Reviewing for a summative assessment helps find instructional gaps, explore conceptual misunderstandings, and apply information and skills creatively. However, the strain of these high-stakes assessments may inhibit students’ brains from processing the information on a deeper level. Plus, after the summative assessment, you will likely have a few days where everyone feels relaxed, and you will want to culminate their progress in a rewarding way.
Science backs up the idea that the inherent good mood before summer vacation enhances students’ abilities to create strong memories of information.
Cognitive Neuroscience Explains why a Relaxed Mood and Fun Activities Improve Learning
Cognitive neuroscience is the study of the brain’s physical and chemical make-up to understand emotions and thinking. It blends psychology and neuroscience, and the findings have important implications for educators. We use cognitive neuroscience to explain why the end of the school year is the perfect time to reinforce what students learned during the year.
Long-term memory, which is any memory lasting more than a few seconds, is critical for learning. Scientists categorize memories in a variety of ways, with three memory types being especially relevant to education. Episodic memories are of events, procedural memories are how to do something, and semantic memories are general knowledge. Learning a new skill, like the steps to long division, uses procedural memory. Learning new information uses semantic memory. Of course, memory types overlap, and the duration and strength of memories vary widely.
When a semantic memory corresponds with an episodic memory, it creates a stronger ability to recall the associated knowledge. For example, students who make an explosion in science class will remember the cause and effect of enzymes better than those who just read about it. Neurotransmitters are also crucial to retaining information. Cognitive neuroscientists theorize that the right balance of neurotransmitters influence the strength and duration of memories.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that travel among the neurons via synapses. Different neurotransmitters get released depending on emotions and other stimuli. Our brains release the neurotransmitters cortisol and adrenaline with stress. Too much cortisol and adrenaline inhibit learning. That is one reason why stress negatively impacts our ability to make and recall procedural and semantic memories.
Conversely, our brains release serotonin and dopamine when we feel relaxed and happy. Serotonin primes the brain for understanding new information and creating new memories, and dopamine helps the brain imprint information into long-term memory.
All this science confirms what teachers already know. Students learn best when they feel alert, happy, and not stressed. Students are likely to have the right neurotransmitter balance at the end of the year because they have less stress about grades and are happy anticipating long summer days. Additionally, the final days may give you more freedom for experiential lessons that enhance episodic memories related to the content. Therefore, cognitive neuroscience justifies using the last few days to improve learning outcomes with fun academic activities.
Fun Activities for Reviewing and Applying Previous Learning
This list of low-prep activities includes enjoyable ways to keep students academically engaged until the end. The ideas take advantage of the power of neurotransmitters and episodic memories to strengthen recall of everything students learned throughout the year. Some students may even create new episodic memories related to content. Use these ideas after completing final tests and projects or expand them into larger projects. The ideas are general enough to adapt to fit most subjects and levels.
- Each student or small group creates a cartoon drawing and caption representing a unit or concept. Then, assemble the pages to make a book covering the whole year and share the book with the class.
- Students prepare a lesson about anything related to this year’s content and teach it to the class. Allow for two or three questions per presentation. If you have the temperament for it, allow students to mimic your teaching style and dress like you when they teach their lesson. As you all laugh together, know that they are creating memories that will help them remember the content.
- Student groups create a performance related to any of the content. Performances could include skits, dances, music, monologues, or stand-up comedy routines.
- Students create questions for quiz games to try to stump their friends or even the teacher. Apps such as Kahoot and Quizlet make it easy to play remotely and in person.
- Take a virtual field trip. Many museums, zoos, and cultural centers have abundant resources.
- Students create an audio-visual presentation for future students with helpful hints about the content and the class.
- Students help you evaluate which lessons were best and worst and why. As they discuss their favorite lessons, they will recall the learning they experienced. As they discuss ones that confused them, you might be able to clear up misunderstandings. You can use their feedback for your professional growth.
- Inspire intellectual curiosity by asking students what lingering questions they have and what they want to learn about next.
- Write a book as a class patterned after a favorite children’s book, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Encourage students to use humor and keep the ideas factual.
- Do a “snowstorm” where everyone writes down one fact that they learned, crumples the paper into a “snowball” and throws it. Everyone picks up someone else’s snowball and reads it aloud. You can repeat this activity with multiple themes, such as questions, reflections, and what they want to learn next.
- Students imagine an invention that would solve a problem talked about in class. They then create an elevator pitch to sell their invention to their classroom. Auction the creations with monopoly money.
- Write open-ended reflective questions on a beach ball and have kids toss it around the room. Students answer the question their hand is touching when they catch the ball. Then, they throw it to the next person.
- Create an awards ceremony for the best and worst topics from the year. Students nominate and vote on which topics win titles such as, “Most Confusing,” “Easiest to Learn,” “Most Fun,” and “Most Boring.” Use the conversations about nominations to clear up misunderstandings and celebrate learning.
- Students make and share posters of their “Top Ten Favorite Class Moments.”
- Have students write letters to their future selves about what they learned this year. Put the letters in envelopes that students address to themselves and put a Forever stamp on them. Mail the letters to them in one year.
Concluding the Year
We hope these ideas help you keep students engaged in learning, help students remember what they learned in your class, and close the year on a positive note.
Remember that while cognitive growth is important, celebrating the journey and growth you made together is also essential. Provide time for students to say goodbye, sign yearbooks, and enjoy a treat. As you close out your school year, we hope you get the refreshing break you deserve.