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Surprise games: 6 ways to increase student engagement

I haven’t studied brain chemicals like an expert in neuroscience likely has, but I can almost guarantee there’s some positive brain chemical released when you’re surprised. Consider how your brain revs into overdrive in the face of the unexpected, heightening your senses and allowing you to make quick split-second decisions. Like the hero in the action movie, who just realized that he alone can save the world, you must figure out how to maintain your existence in an entirely new set of circumstances. Surprises are powerful.

Now, imagine if we applied the knowledge of that unnamed brain chemical (I’m thinking maybe surprismine) to the classroom. Imagine if we had the solid consistency of routine that any qualified teacher might have AND an element of surprise that keeps students guessing. The result? Increased student engagement and more effective classroom management.

Let’s be clear: This is NOT advocating for instructional laziness. It is NOT:

  • “Surprise! It’s a free day because I didn’t make a lesson plan.”
  • “Surprise! You can play on your phones today because I don’t feel good, and I’m out of sick days.”

Nope. This is advocating for engaging, instructional surprises that are intentional and well-thought-out ways to engage your students.

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Here are some ideas on how to purposefully bring in the element of surprise to your classroom to increase student engagement.

How to keep students engaged with surprise games

Children playing in classroom

1. The clue cards game

What: Each student is given an index card and chooses a person, place, event, object, date, etc. from the content being studied. They begin by writing the answer clearly at the bottom of the card (e.g., Alexander Hamilton). They then return to the top of their index card and write the question that fits their selection (Who/What/When/Where am I?). Students then write several descriptive sentences about the subject, beginning with broad information and working toward more specific clues. The last of these statements should repeat the question and note the initials of the word or phrase.

Example: Who am I?

  • I am an American
  • I am a politician and founding father
  • I am a Federalist
  • I am known as being the first Secretary of the Treasury
  • I believed in a strong central government
  • I am known for my economic policies in George Washington’s administration
  • I was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr
  • Who am I with the initials A. H.?

Answer: Alexander Hamilton

After all of the students complete their cards and hand them in, the teacher reads the cards aloud to the class. Students get one guess per card. Once they’ve guessed, they are done until the next card is drawn. (Announce the name of the student who wrote the card before reading it: they may not guess on the one they wrote.)

The first student to answer correctly gets to keep the corresponding card. If no one guesses correctly, the student who wrote the card gets it back, and the card counts toward their score. All students count their cards at the end of the game to see who won.

When: Teachers can use the Clue Cards Game as an engaging and cumulative assessment. Consider times when students have been learning about in-depth content or there is a large list of related vocabulary words/phrases. There are also lots of possible variations that you could add to this game, like incorporating team play.

Don’t worry: If the first round is a bit rough (e.g., repeated clues for the same word), students usually get better the more they play. With some practice, they’ll become pros.

2. Snowball fight

What: Instead of neatly passing papers into a flat box, students are allowed to wad up their papers into balls and toss them to the teacher or into a collection box. You could even allow them to throw the ‘snowballs’ at you while you yell, “Hit me with your best shot!” (Presuming you don’t have an All-American pitcher in the front row.)

When: Use snowball fights as a creative spin on turning in an assignment (in the midst of those dreary winter months or when it’s sunny and 75 outside). You could even use it to encourage collaboration among your students. For example, you could first instruct students to toss the snowballs around the room and then catch them off guard and tell them to pause. Students then pick up the closest snowball off the floor and must complete a specific task. You may tell your students, “Find one sentence you really like. Underline three vivid words that help that sentence come to life for you.” Or perhaps, “Find a question you have after reading the work on the snowball. Write it in the margin.” Once students have completed the collaborative task, they could crumple up the papers and snowball fight again and repeat with a different task until you decide to stop.

Don’t worry: The papers are still readable despite being a little worse for the wear. A little fun never hurt anyone!

3. Que the queries

What: As the instructor, you’re only allowed to ask questions for a period of time instead of making statements or requests. Run a timer, ideally one that can be seen by all.

When: This is best used when students are working collaboratively and the teacher has thoroughly and effectively communicated the content and expectations. This form of surprise encourages you as the teacher to work on your questioning (why might that be so?) and elicit deeper thinking from students.

Don’t worry: If you slip up during your allotted time and say a statement, you can add more time to your Que the Queries allotment as ‘punishment’ for your transgression. Or to make things really fun, you could reward individual students or a whole class if they’re able to trick you into making a statement.

4. Read it backwards

What: Instead of reading a piece of text in the manner in which it was designed, teachers work through the text with students backwards (by paragraph or section). Starting at the end means students may not have the context or vocabulary front loaded like they normally would: they must work in reverse to reach conclusions or comprehend the content.

When: This is especially effective when the text is informative and structured in cause-effect or sequential format. However, it could be used in a short narrative when looking for foreshadowing or other clues. Teachers could even display the last paragraph/section and slowly reveal more of the text. This would allow students to figure out what the text is about rather than starting with clear headings and subheadings that give away the big idea from the start.

Don’t worry: Working backwards will feel awkward to everyone at first, even to you. But that’s the point!

5. Mystery object

What: A mystery object could be a physical artifact, an unusual piece of text, or a photo of something peculiar. Consider these examples to help you get started:

  • A rusted piece of metal when studying the industrial revolution
  • A poem that isn’t by a famous author and hasn’t been studied in class
  • A natural object that has a strange shape
  • A photo of an object zoomed in at 100x magnification
  • An obscure map that doesn’t have a legend or labels

Students investigate the mystery object using only their knowledge — no internet! — and come up with a quick sales pitch selling their ideas on how the object is used and why it’s necessary.

When: Are things moving a bit slowly in your class? Use the mystery object surprise when you (or your students) need an injection of creativity in the classroom.

Don’t worry: If you don’t have a perfectly relevant object or text for your current unit of study, make one! A mystery object could very well be a random conglomeration of hieroglyphic text from a word processor. It’ll be up to your students to “make the meaning” for their sales pitch.

6. Grade conferences

What: In lieu of receiving a conventional instructor-assigned grade on a project or assignment, students convince you of the grade they think they deserve based on a rubric with descriptive grading criteria or other assessment features. This forces students to think introspectively and assess their own strengths and weaknesses as they relate to the assignment. As the teacher, you’ll have opportunities to counter the evidence presented, seek further justification, or ask questions during the grade conference.

When: This surprise could be used when teachers want to build the social-emotional skill of self-advocacy or when they want students to analyze their own work in closer detail. It’s an effective spin on traditional grading that forces students to hold themselves accountable for their own grades.

Don’t worry: Do your students have a learning curve with the concept of grade conferences? With some practice, and a few more surprise grade conferences, you may find that some students will begin preparing for their surprise conference as they complete their classroom tasks, even if you do not plan to have one. In other words, grade conferences push students to review assignment rubrics closely and know the expectations even if they will not have to verbally justify the choices they make in their assignments.

A little disruption toward a positive end

The more students go beyond their comfort zones, the better prepared they’ll be for the unpredictable nature of real life. Utilizing these surprise games to keep students on their toes will inject a little disruption into your normal classroom routine and engage students. Don’t forget the power of a little suprisamine to shake up the classroom doldrums. After all, good surprises are better than the alternative, right?

Photo credit: Megan Soule / Unsplash.com; Fh Photo / Shutterstock.com

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