5 Activities for Preparing Learners' Brains for Your New Content


Get learner buy in and prepare relevant mental models for new learning.

After or along with getting learner buy in, we need to help learners remember what they already know about a topic as a way to prepare their brains for new learning. To do this, we need activities that will elicit topic-related mental models, pulling them out of long-term memory and into working memory.

Think of this curriculum design and delivery step as priming brains for the new learning to come. Since knowledge exists as complex networks of connections in the brain, elicit mental models activities help learners find the right neural network with the relevant mental models to bring into their working memory for updates and additions.

Use metaphors if your topic is so novel that learners lack existing mental models.

If your topic is so new to your learners that they will not have a detailed mental model for it, you will have to find another way to help them prime their brains for what you are about to teach. One strategy that is well supported in the learning literature is the use of metaphors. Select something your group is familiar with and have them draw that mental model out of working memory as a metaphor to which they will attach the new knowledge they will soon build. It is important to select a metaphor that is culturally relevant for your audience and has good one-to-one correspondence with the content you will teach.

Combine buy in activities with elicit mental models activities or use them separately.

Elicit mental models activities can be combined with buy-in activities or they can be used as follow ups to buy-in activities. I’ve designed and facilitated these activities both ways.

Combine gain buy-in activities with elicit mental models activities.

Example 1:

One activity I’ve written about previously that is an example of combining these two brain-based learning steps is the road trip metaphor to introduce the complex set of skills needed to parent effectively from prison.

The road trip metaphor activity builds buy-in and warms up a familiar mental model – taking a road trip – by dragging it out of long term memory, dusting it off, and bringing into working memory as a familiar framework to which learners can attach new parenting skills. This happens through a series of prompts in which learners relate parenting goals to a road trip destination, children as cars traveling toward these goals, parents as the station attendants who provide the fuel for the journey, and the signs and guardrails along the route that provide structure for successfully arriving at the desired destination. You can read the detailed steps of this activity here.

Example 2:

A second activity that combines gaining buy-in with eliciting mental models is the money sticker activity. In this activity, learners build buy-in and warm up relevant mental models by selecting a representation of their financial values and habits from a large selection of stickers. They use the sticker to share their philosophy about money as they introduce themselves to their colleagues. You can read more about this activity here.

Use elicit mental models activities as a follow up to buy-in activities.

Sometimes though, a better design decision is to keep these activities separate. Once I’ve stimulated focus and motivation with an engaging, personalized and provocative buy in activity, I use an elicit mental models activity to find out what learners already know. Here are five of my favorites. All you need to do is fill in your content.

#1 - 4 Corners

In this activity I pose a topic-related question and then post four different responses in the four corners of the room. I invite learners to stand in the corner at the response that most closely matches their opinion. Next I have those standing together discuss with each other why they selected that answer. Then I ask them to synthesize their answers and prepare to share that synthesis in the large group. Frequently I invite learners to change their position if they hear something from another group that is compelling.

I have used 4 Corners to highlight and distinguish subtle differences in opinions, approaches, philosophies or best practices and I’ve used this same activity to highlight and flesh out wildly divergent opinions, beliefs and approaches. Either way, the conversation is lively and we even see people move from one position to another as a result of the large group report out.

This activity gives learners a chance to review what they know as they think individually, discuss in a small group, defend what they know to the large group, and sometimes feel compelled to change to a different group as a result of that discussion. All of these activities support learner identification of relevant mental models as they pull them out of long-term memory into working memory. In this way they are effectively preparing their mental models for enrichment, adaptation, or correction in the upcoming new content portion of the learning event.

#2 - Lineup

In this activity I offer a statement about the degree of confidence or experience the learner feels s/he has in our topic. Then I invite learners to order themselves in a line from LOTS to LITTLE confidence and experience. I invite a few people to share out some reasons they are standing where they are standing, pointing out the value of all positions when learning together.

The value of lots of confidence and experience is obvious, but the value of less confidence and experience is in the tendency of those with less experience to ask really great questions of those with more experience. This helps reveal blind spots in those who feel they know something well and it forces those with more experience to think about how to defend and share what they know. This benefits them as much as it benefits those newer to the topic, resulting in engagement throughout the continuum of experience and confidence.

This activity helps everyone identify their relevant mental models and pull them into working memory for the upcoming new content portion of a learning event. It is in the new content activities that learners will add, adapt, build, modify or correct their mental models to develop a more nuanced and detailed understanding of our topic. But it is in the essential elicit mental models activity that learners locate and warm up the relevant neural networks for this task.

#3 - Pre-test

For topics with lots of technical details, policies, procedures or evolving best practices, I sometimes give a pre-test. Learners can re-take the test at the end to see for themselves how much they have enriched and updated their topic-related mental models. I provide a worksheet with the pre-test questions and lots of space for note taking afterwards, during the session. 

One way I make the pre-test more interesting is to show images on the screen and ask participants to identify which one represents the preferred, safest or best practice or procedure or to identify what is missing or in excess of the best practice or procedure. Learners record their responses on their pre-test worksheet. Two examples of topics for which I've used the pre-test images are safe sleep for babies and early childhood classroom safety. 

I don’t reveal the answers during or immediately following the activity, but instead learners use the same worksheet for taking notes during the learning event. Learners receive a new post-test at the end of the session to test their enhanced understanding. Then we debrief the answers in the large group and I ask learners to compare their pre and post answers and share out details about the ones they changed and why.

# 4 - Stand up if...

Before class I prepare a list of topic-related belief or experience statements and then during the activity ask learners to stand up if they believe or have experienced each one as I read them aloud. Participants stand or sit accordingly. This requires learners to think and commit, engaging relevant mental models to do so, and it gives me a quick read on their starting place. 

# 5 - Evidence or Myth?

Before class I prepare brief, topic-related sentences, one per strip of paper, some of which represent the latest topic-related research while others express popular myths about the topic. I tape one strip under each chair in the room before learners arrive. At the time of the activity I ask participants to reach under their chair and collect and read their statement to themselves. Then we work our way around the room. Each participant reads their statement out loud, gives their opinion if they choose to, and I ask others whether they identify that statement as evidence in support of our topic or a popular myth about our topic. We work through them without comment from me but I do share that the day’s session will address each one. I then distribute a worksheet with each statement and invite learners to use it for notes as we test the veracity of each one throughout the session. We review this at the end of the session for final clarification.

Together or separately, build buy in and elicit relevant mental models.

While buy-in activities stimulate focus and motivation for your topic, elicit mental models activities help learners find and pull into working memory the relevant mental models for adaptation, correction, or building more refined or nuanced understanding during the new content portion of your session. Both of these steps align with how brains learn and are important activities for your curriculum design.

What questions or activity ideas will you share?

How do you find out what your students already know?  Please share your great ideas in the discussion section below.