Brainstorm Doc and Marshmallow Toss

Written by David Christianson

Active learning isn’t about fun. It’s about engagement. It’s about doing something with information beyond intake and producing output. It’s about producing output right now, in the moment, and not waiting for a paper due in two weeks or a test on Thursday. Students are great at active learning, but they need instructors to provide the opportunity and a direction for it. Here are two activities to produce active learning in your class.


Name: Brainstorm Doc

Who: Whole Class

Time: 4-5 minutes

Process: Before your class period, create a Google Doc that is editable by anyone with the link. (Quick tutorial here.) Have students brainstorm and add everything they already know about your topic for today’s lesson on this document. Give them about 5 minutes, and encourage them that spelling, punctuation, and grammar do not count for this exercise.

Purpose: Doing this activity before your day’s lesson serves at least two functions. First, students orient their minds to thinking about the topic recalling information, and transitioning into a learning state. Second, it gives you chance for formative assessment. This window into students’ prior knowledge will let you emphasize what they do know and address any misperceptions that come up.

Adapted from Jensen, 2003.


Name: Marshmallow Toss

Who: Whole Class

Time: 3 seconds

Process: This is done regularly at a nonprofit’s board meetings that my wife is on, and I think it works well for the classroom as well. In the meetings, everyone has a bag of marshmallows. Whenever a board member thinks someone else has expressed a good idea, they toss a marshmallow at him or her. In a classroom, an instructor, TA, or student designee would be the one with the marshmallows, tossing a fluffy reward at those who participate well in class discussions or other classroom-positive behaviors.

Purpose: Discussion with the whole class can sometimes be painstaking. Marshmallow Toss makes the landing a little softer, more fun, and lightens the mood a little. Positive acknowledgement from instructors or peers like this can  help stimulate an environment where expression is encouraged.