Boosting learning and engagement through exercise

A classroom-based action research project improved student engagement in learning during lockdown ⎮ 3 min 30 sec read

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Physical activity and fitness have been found to be especially important for learning. Dr John Ratey explores the importance of physical fitness for learning in his book, Spark, providing case examples of schools where the implementation of comprehensive fitness programs has dramatically increased student grades and achievement scores.

We know that:

  • Exercise increases your level of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.
  • Exercise gives you a focused activity that can help you feel a sense of accomplishment. 
  • Exercise limits the effect of stress on your brain.
  • Exercise improves memory.

When students experience positive emotion, they are primed for greater learning through increased cognitive agility, social connections, engagement and achievement. Health and Physical Education (PE) specialist teachers understand the importance of creating opportunities for physical activity and encouraging students to be physically active. 

During the pandemic and through lockdown, we saw a remarkable response from PE teachers through their creative approaches to encourage health and fitness, and their monitoring of student engagement and wellbeing. PE teachers collaborated across the state, nation, and even internationally, on how best to engage students and provide them with purposeful physical activity during the pandemic. 

Exercise to boost engagement and learning

Initially engagement during online learning was high. It was a new way of doing things and it was exciting. However, as the pandemic set in and as the weeks rolled by, engagement levels dropped from 95% to 65% by week 4. Many colleagues observed similar trends, regardless of the year level, the subject or content being taught.

The question for my project was ‘How can I best use the research to improve learning outcomes for my students at Year 8?’  The strategy was to use dance and movement to promote positive mood and emotions during our ‘Learning at a Distance’ Program. This study had one key goal: to see the instant class effects of engaging in fun physical activity (mood, social interactions, and engagement levels). 

A series of six lessons were used to ascertain the impact of the proposed mood boosting intervention. Three lessons were used as baseline data, where no “fun” introductory activities were untaken. The virtual classroom started with the teacher stating the learning intentions and success criteria for the day’s lesson. Three ‘intervention’ lessons had mood boosting interventions applied, prior to engaging in the formal learning component of the class. These interventions all involved some form of physical activity and were hoped to provoke laughter (from scavenger hunts of random household items to early childhood dance routines). After each lesson, students completed a short survey where they rated the lesson for their personal enjoyment and learning.

Students responded more favourably to the main learning objectives when they had participated in a fun, active warm-up. Students reflected with comments such as: “The warm-up was fun. It made me laugh”, “It was so funny watching us all do this dance. I remember this from my kinder days” and “When my classmate came back from the scavenger hunt holding a toilet brush, I lost it.”

Whilst it was no surprise that the results differed for the two approaches to these lessons, it was surprising how significantly different the results were. When the mood boosting intervention was applied, students were more open to learning and engaged (results ranged from 95-100% as opposed to 55-65%). Students asked more questions regarding the task at hand, and despite using the first 1-15 minutes on a mood boosting activity, the students completed the daily set tasks more efficiently. Students recorded greater levels of enjoyment (from 60% to 100%) and expressed their learning gains as more significant (70% to 90%).

The pandemic is a period of time that will stay with us forever. From our study undertaken with the year 8 students, it was observed that fun, physical activity increased positive emotions that led to better student engagement when learning from home. It is a long-held understanding that physical activity benefits us in many ways, but never has it been so important to our coping skills. More than ever before, we needed to stop and make time to have fun. It would be naive to think that we could always make learning fun, but even more naïve to think we shouldn’t try.

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