ACT On It! How to Keep Students Moving While Learning During COVID-19

Student jumps over challenges drawn on chalkboard

I once started a speech performing the motions for Itsy Bitsy Spider, and one-by-one, the business men and women joined in, first with the motions and then with the words. These individuals came from all walks and stages of life, but the motions brought the words of this popular nursery rhyme to mind for all, but one.  The one person who did not know it was new to the United States. So, I did the motions for the song YMCA. She knew it right away!

The connection between learning and movement is well known, even for college students (Ferrer & Laughlin, 2017).  It is something that I have spent much of my teaching career honing.  In fact, my doctoral dissertation was about the value of learning while moving (Lyding, Zambo, & Hansen, 2014). Now, I include movement in my college classes all the time. However, COVID-19 has me rethinking things. I knew I needed to ACT.

In a typical college classroom, I would provide information and have students actively do something with the content. Sometimes the application involved creating gestures (Hostetter & Alibali, 2008) so they could off load information from their working memories.  Gestures can still be used in a COVID-19 classroom or even remotely over Zoom.  I also had students elaborate (Brown, Roediger,& McDaniel, 2014) using Chat Stations or Connect Foractivities (Lyding, 2020). These can also be recreated in the online environment, however, now movement must be intentionally added to Chat Stations and Connect For…activities. While I identified ways to maintain active learning cognitively, I was struggling to figure out how to physically move students. That’s when I thought of ACT: Activate, Cogitate, Try it out.

Many strategies exist for us, as instructors, to Activate knowledge. We may provide short, in-person or online lectures, have the students read an article or book chapter, watch a video, dig into research, or listen to a podcast.  Once the knowledge is activated, they need to Cogitate.

Cogitate, according to Lexico, comes from the “Latin cogitat- ‘considered,’ from the verb cogitare, from co- ‘together’ + agitare ‘turn over, consider.’” How does movement relate to Cogitation? Movement helps you Cogitate. How many times have you been on a walk and you suddenly have the answer to a problem that has been haunting you?  If our students are sitting or even standing most of the day completing their work online, they are missing this beautiful, effective opportunity. You can ask your students to find something in their home and connect it to what they learned.  For example, “A pencil sharpener reminds me of The Great Depression because even though life was hard, it sharpened people and created The Greatest Generation.” By requiring students to take a walk or move in the middle of a lesson, we are not only improving their health, we are also freeing up their brains (Mualem, et al., 2018) to work the way they are designed to work. After movement, students are ready to Try it out!

In a synchronous setting online or in person with social distancing, students can Try it out in small groups via technology by completing an active learning activity that achieves the objective.  For example, they can use a shared Google Doc to implement Chat Stations, organize their thinking with a concept map on Padlet, or have a silent debate (Pavitch, 2020) via email.  These can happen in class or remotely.

To conduct an email debate:

Begin with a vote using Poll Everywhere.

  1.  Assign students to a group of four and give them an order of progression.
    • For example, let’s call the students A, B, C, and D.  Every time A sends to B, B sends to C, C sends to D, and D sends to A.
  2. Set time limits for each writing period.
  3. Three Minutes – Each student writes their pros for their chosen side of the debate.
    • At the end of the three minutes, students forward their emails to the next person on the list.
    • At the same time, they should be receiving an email from the person on the list prior to them.
    • So, when A sends to B, A should also receive an email from D.   
  4. Four Minutes – The students read what the person before them wrote and they write a rebuttal.
    • At the end of the four minutes, they send it to the next person.
    • At the same time, they receive an email from the person before them.
    • Now the debate has one side supported and a rebuttal to that side.
  5. Five Minutes – The students read the two statements and write one new pro statement for each side. 
    • Then they forward it.
  6. Six Minutes – This is the fourth person to have this email.  This person’s job is to read what the other three people have written and decide which side they think has the most support and write an opinion as to why.
    • Then they forward it.
  7. Seven Minutes – Finally, the email is back to the first person.  The original writer has seven minutes to read what everyone has written, summarize the pros for their side, and rebut any objections.
  8. Wrap up the activity by asking students to vote again for the most convincing argument at Poll Everywhere to see if anyone changed their mind.

For asynchronous situations, you can have students discuss in chat stations or debate on discussion boards with threaded replies. Encourage students to be open to learning new things and to feel free to change sides.  They could end with a “Now I think” reflection (Harvard Project Zero).

A plethora of ideas for active learning are available on the internet.  Find the ones that you like and align them to meet your objectives.  Then, ACT on them.  Activate the students’  knowledge of the content. Require them to Cogitate while moving around. And finally, Try it out!

ACT on it!

Dr. Linnea Lyding spent over 18 years teaching elementary and junior high students in both special and general education classrooms. In addition to being a reading specialist, Dr. Lyding holds degrees in Early Childhood, Elementary, and Special Education, as well as a doctorate in Leadership and Innovation in Teaching. She understands the challenge of reaching all students, which is why she completed her doctoral work exploring how brain research shows the connection between movement and learning. Now, as an associate professor and assistant dean at Arizona Christian University, she enjoys sharing her experience and passions with the pre-service teachers in her program and in workshops for classroom teachers, preschool teachers, and college faculty.


Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

Ferrer, Michelle E., and David D. Laughlin. “Increasing College Students’ Engagement and Physical Activity with Classroom Brain Breaks.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 88, no. 3 (2017): 53–56.

Hostetter, A. B., and M. W. Alibali. “Visible Embodiment: Gestures as Simulated Action.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 15, no. 3 (2008): 495–514.

Jill Pavich, NBCT. “The Silent Debate: Getting Quiet as a Strategy for Speaking Up.” edPioneer, July 1, 2020.

Lyding, Linnea. “Captivated Learners.” Linnea lyding. Accessed July 24, 2020.

Lyding, Linnea, Zambo, Debby, & Hansen, Cory Cooper. “Move it or Lose it!” ASCD,72, no. 2 (2014)!.aspx

Mualem, Raed, Gerry Leisman, Yusra Zbedat, Sherif Ganem, Ola Mualem, Monjed Amaria, Aiman Kozle, Safa Khayat-Moughrabi, and Alon Ornai. “The Effect of Movement on Cognitive Performance.” Frontiers in Public Health 6 (2018).

“Project Zero’s Thinking Routine Toolbox.” PZ’s Thinking Routines Toolbox | Project Zero. Accessed July 25, 2020.