Explain to …

Time required:  Short

Grading:  Optional

Disciplines: All

Why:  When students explain difficult concepts to someone unfamiliar with the material, they are forced to understand the concept and their learning is reinforced. Setting a word limit will require students to home in on what is important.  The activity can also serve as an informal assessment.


  • Select a concept important to your course content
  • Direct students to explain the concept to someone unfamiliar with the topic.  Little brothers, mothers, and classmates in other majors are good options.
  • Set a word limit in the range of 50-100 words.   


  • Explain to your parent why water stays in a pail when swung in a vertical circle around your head (Bean, 2011 p. 152). 
  • Your brother writes you a frustrated email about his two year old son’s seemingly endless tantrums and strong-willed nature. Write back explaining why this behavior is to be expected according to Erikson’s psychosocial theory. Give him tips on how to help his son during this stage. 
  • Explain the nervous system to a 10 year old. 
  • Explain to your grandparent how playing peek-a-boo with an infant is actually helping build their brain. 

This activity has several deployment options:

  • It can be an assignment required for submission which will allow you to assess understanding and possible mistaken ideas.  You can offer feedback or not.
  • Discussion boards with different concepts and smaller groups is another possibility.  Students can respond to each other’s posts.  You can monitor to correct any misinformation.
  • You can choose concepts and groups on a rotating basis.
  • You can choose to allow drawings, diagrams, or formulas.

Adapted from Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean