Curiosity Box


I came across a great first-day activity that I’m going to try this year with my community college class.  Depending on its success, I might use it in my high school science classes as well.  It really could be used with any age and subject.

boxThe teacher I stole it from (aren’t all the best ideas stolen from other teachers, really?) didn’t name the activity, but I’m calling it the Curiosity Box.  The box will hold about 15 random items from my home.  As soon as class begins, I’ll begin taking items out of the box and laying them on the table in the front of the room.  I’ll announce the name and section of the class, but I’ll say little else and won’t comment on the items from the box.  Once all items are on the table, I’ll put them all back in the box, then close and set it aside.

I’ll ask students to take out a sheet of paper and list all the items they can remember from the box.  If some don’t have paper or pencil, they can borrow.  No doubt they’ll groan and complain at having a test so early in the course.  After students have had a few minutes to make their lists, we’ll discuss the exercise.  I’ll ask students what they thought about it.  What was hard about it?  If you knew you had to make this list coming into class tonight, what would you do differently?  That sort of thing.

I expect this first discussion to reveal several worthwhile points:

  • Be on time to class, or you might miss important information
  • Pay attention from the beginning of the class
  • Sit close enough to the front of the room to see and hear what’s going on
  • Come to class prepared, with the materials you’ll need

After the discussion, I’ll repeat the exercise, taking all items out of the box and returning them again without discussion.  Students will again make a list of all items they remember.  The second list should be longer than the first, and students can compare lists to see if they can determine as a class the number of items in the box.  The first and last items out of the box should be remembered best, which indicates that studying content in small chunks is more effective than trying to remember large chunks of material.

The exercise is done a third time, and each item is discussed as it is taken out of the box, illustrating that interacting with the objects helps students remember them better.  By now, students should be able to make a complete list.  They should also be able to verbalize some individual methods they used to remember the items, like mentally grouping by function or color, alphabetizing, or creating a narrative around items. This can give us an opportunity to discuss the importance of these and other tools for learning new material:

  • repetition
  • mnemonics
  • verbalization
  • discussing with peers
  • skimming; noting the range of material before study
  • visualization and association

Two female college students studying togetherThe professor who posted this activity asks students a couple more times during the semester to write this list and finds that most students can recall all items, even to the end of the course.  Since the class I’m teaching this fall includes units on study skills, I think this is a perfect opener.  I often have students who swear to me that they never get better grades when they study versus when they don’t.  I’m looking forward to demonstrating that they do indeed benefit from focused study.  Even more, I’m eager to know what lessons we’ll learn that I’m not predicting.  I’m all curiosity!

10 thoughts on “Curiosity Box

  1. I love this activity–so physical, and at the same time, it provides such a good metaphor for studying. I think it would be great in an adult literacy class, usually full of people with few study skills, and no confidence in their ability to learn.
    Do you mind if I steal it–that is, reblog it on my blog?

  2. Reblogged this on Working in Adult Literacy and commented:
    I’m following in that long tradition–stealing a good idea from another teacher.
    Here’s one from Janice Airhart, who says she stole it from someone else. A great idea for making it clear that focusing, paying attention, trying to remember, and spending a little time all pay off in improved memory!
    And a good idea for injecting a little something unusual into the first day of class.

  3. I love this activity. Do you have any ideas on how this would transfer to the online environment?

    Where I teach online, educators are encouraged to share bits and pieces of our personal lives so that students get to know us. I find it difficult. This activity would help me share parts of my life if I could include a dog toy, a mixing bowl since I like to bake, and/or a post card from my travels. To add a dimension, have students bring an object and combine all of them in a box. It would be a great ice breaker for the start of the semester.

    Thank you!

    • Thanks for your comment, Toni. I don’t know how this might work in an online environment, but I’m certain you could find a way. Maybe you post a picture of the items in your box for a limited time and have students try to remember what’s in the picture. Then, after you’ve discussed or explained what each item is and how it relates to you, you can ask them to name the items again. I suppose the key is in determining what you want students to take away from the exercise. Those lessons would be a little different in an online class than in a face-to-face one. Good luck with it!.

  4. Thank you for your response. I wish there was some sort of software that would make a photo magically disappear after it has been viewed for a minute or so. That would enable this activity to work in the online environment!

    • Could you possibly make a slideshow with 15 or so items, allowing them to view each for 2-3 seconds, and then give your students a one-time access to the presentation?

      • This sounds like a realistic way to do the exercise online. Again, part of the lesson is demonstrating that interacting with the objects via discussion aids in retention, so the more you and students discuss the objects the better. However, most of the other points could be made without lengthy discussion. The activity did work well in my class.

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