• Whole Class Conversation Mixer Activity: Good for Students’ Skills, Brains and More

Cover mixer shot

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)*

Develop techniques, bond with classmates, improve cognitive performance all in one activity!

The first time I used this type of activity, I was a relatively new ESL Conversation teacher and just wanted something to get my students talking.  Over the years, I’ve developed it more to involve additional conversational techniques.  And from cognitive psychology, I discovered why students are so energized by it.

You may be familiar with a simple version of this activity called “Find someone who” in which students are given a list of items and directed to talk to their classmates and find someone who has that item or has done that activity.  For example, find someone who has a pet or has lived in Europe or has gone backpacking.  However, that simple version has limited value.

A much improved version of this type of activity with great benefits (and handout)

How this version is better

With different types of items on their lists and with a requirement to ask follow-up questions, they become more involved in each interaction.  For example:

Simple version item: Find someone who has an older sister.

Improved version: Ask a classmate, “Do you have a big family?” Then ask a follow-up question.

In the “simple version,” students merely circulate around the room asking, “Do you like winter?” until they find someone.  Then they move on to the next item, e.g., “Do you own a car?” There is little incentive to extend the conversation.

In the “improved version,” they will have an extended conversation with whomever they approach.  Besides practicing follow-up questions, they will have chances to really get to know each other.

The benefit of this “mixing” activity

Good for the brain.  Most of us are aware that moving around rather than sitting is better for our physical health.  Interestingly, researchers found that it’s actually also better for our mental performance.  They explain it this way.  Standing takes more mental effort (balancing your body weight, controlling slight muscle contractions) than sitting, and therefore, it might require more mental attention.  Anytime we have to put our attention on something, it can cause some degree of stress. And experiments have shown that when people are feeling stress, their cognitive performance improves.

Researchers gave the Stroop test to 50 volunteers, half of whom were standing and half sitting.  (On the Stroop test, participants are shown names of colors and are told to say the name of the color as fast as they can.  If the name of the color is in the same ink color (for example, Blue in blue ink, Red in red ink, etc), people can say the name very quickly.  But if the names are in different colors (Blue in red ink, Red in green ink, etc.), it takes people longer to say the name of the color.

The results from this study showed that those participants who were standing when they took the test did significantly better than those who were sitting.  In other words, those who were standing were able to say the name of the colors when they were in a different color ink faster than those who were sitting.  In sum, the mental stress was not overwhelming, but it was enough to sharpen the standing participants’ attention.

Other benefits of this “improved version” of the activity

Encourages likeability among classmates. Research has found that people who ask more questions in social situations are more likeable than those who ask few.  (See Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 3: People Will Like You More If You Ask Follow-up Questions).  In the attached activity (improved version) below, students are asking each other extra questions, which tends to makes the classmates feel positive about each other.

Increase pleasure in students’ brains.  Studies have shown that people’s brain reward circuits light up when they are talking about themselves.  In fact, doing this can trigger the same sensations of pleasure in the brain as food, money or sex.   With the improved version of this activity, students get many chances to talk about themselves, and this may be one of the main reasons why there tends to be a lot of smiling and laughing when they are engaged in it.  For more about this, see Conversation Technique for Lighting Up the Pleasure Centers in Your Students’ Brains

The handout activity (Handout link)  Whole class mixer activity handout Whole class mixer activity handout

The handout activity has been successfully used by many low-intermediate level students.  In order to get the maximum benefits from it, it’s best if, beforehand, students have practiced using rejoinders (e.g. “I see”/ “Really!”) and follow-up questions(See Pro Lingua Learning–Basic Conversation Strategies for practice with these techniques at the low-intermediate level and for more activities like this one.)

I recommend that you do not make this a competiion to see who can finish first.  Usually, the most serious students tend to take advantage of this activity by extending the convesation with each classmate they talk to and asking several follow up questions.  Thus, they will go throught the items more slowly then those who just want to finish it.  (For more about “competition,” see One of the Worst Mistakes Conversation Teachers Make)

You can also find a posting about Follow-up Questions here ( Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2)  ) and about Rejoinders here ( Conversation magic: Two most important conversation techniques (Part 1)  ) with a handout activity.

David Kehe

*About the free-download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.

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