Using Physical Movement to Increase Student Engagement and Learning

Research shows that movement improves concentration, relieves stress, and increases retention. Any opportunity for students to move during class, from a ten minute standing break to a kinesthetic learning activity can positively impact student learning.
by LSA Learning & Teaching Technology Consultants

Research shows that movement improves concentration, relieves stress, and increases retention. Though most of the research on the positive correlation between increased physical movement and learning gains has been within younger populations of learners, more recent studies show that increasing the physical activity of college-age students results in positive academic outcomes as well. Giving any opportunity for students to move during class, from a ten minute standing coffee break to a kinesthetic learning activity can positively impact student learning. 

Some low-lift activities you can start using today are movement breaks, also known as brain breaks. Many students, during emergency remote teaching, reported appreciation for instructors who adopted pre-planned instructional breaks to mitigate the exhaustive effects of Zoom fatigue. But the benefits of a mental and physical break are not exclusive to a virtual environment. Classes that have transitioned back to in person would similarly benefit from opportunities for physical activity, or movement breaks. Movement breaks increase students’ capacity to retain and learn information. They also boost students’ desire to learn, lessen boredom, and increase attentiveness and on task behavior. Movement breaks can range from giving students an extended amount of time to return to their seat after a group discussion or team activity to asking students to jog or jump in place for a minute. When planning for a movement break, first arrange your lesson in chunked segments, remembering that the average student has an attention span of 10-15 minutes before attention drops and needs to be renewed. If you have a longer instructional chunk or an extended group practice activity that might drain students, definitely schedule a movement break to follow.

Physical movement can also be used to help students process content. One example of a movement activity is four corners. You can set up this activity in a variety of ways.  For example, you can place papers describing four different scenarios in the four corners of the classroom. Then divide the class into four groups of students, requiring that each group move through all four corners. This activity requires students to actively engage with content in groups while physically moving around the room. Not only does the movement give students a mental reset that serves to refocus them on the content presented, standing allows students to easily collaborate with different students in their group. Another way to organize the same activity is to place questions in the four corners of the room. Students can self select the question they would most like to discuss and answer. Or, you can put answer choices in each corner of the room and pose the same question to the class at large. In this format, students must stand in the corner of the room containing the answer choice that best answers the question posed. Of course, this works best when the question asked is one that is open ended or laden with misconceptions in order to foster lively discussion and diverse explanations. Complex scenarios are great for this activity. There are many other movement activities that allow students to process content including student whiteboards, mingle, gallery walks, stand and be counted, and student scale.

Finally, a more advanced use of movement in the classroom is using one’s own body to process new concepts and skills, an approach known as embodied learning. One such activity, called statues, is used to assess students' understanding of new concepts. For example, after reading a poem, an instructor might ask students to assume a physical pose embodying the tone of the poem. To provide scaffolds for students hesitant to participate in such a physical way, the instructor can give options, like using a facial expression to show the tone of the poem. Poseable dolls could provide an option for students with physical disabilities or social anxiety to embody learning without using their own body. Other examples of embodied learning are acting out the use of a learned skill during a role play exercise and participating in a hands-on experiment, building project, or simulation. Many upper-level classes incorporate such things already, to good effect.

Though the majority of college-age students reported positive reactions to movement breaks, some students had a negative reaction, stating they failed to see the “point” of participating in physical activities during class. To get student buy-in, it helps to present an informed rationale for including movement in the classroom. It could even be presented as an experimental observation of the effects. Regardless of what level of movement you choose to incorporate into your class, if the following indicators are present, you can be confident that movement is serving learning.

  • Students actively engage in the strategies
  • Students’ energy levels appear to increase
  • Students can explain how the physical movement keeps their interest and helps them learn.

(Marzano, 2017) 

For a deeper understanding of the scientific evidence linking increased physical activity to optimum brain function, consider reading Brain Rules. If you would like assistance with incorporating physical movement into your course, please feel free to reach out to or request a consultation here.



Release Date: 12/02/2021
Category: Learning & Teaching Consulting; Teaching Tips
Tags: Technology Services
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