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An Anchor Activity in Every Presentation

An anchor activity is a learning activity designed to anchor new content in a learner's prior knowledge or experience. It's a way to help learners establish a connection to otherwise new or unfamiliar information.
anchor activities

“If we’re running short on time, I’ll typically cut the anchor activities and jump right into the content.”

I was leading a train-the-trainer workshop and some of the people who were using our curriculum were sharing tips and tricks for how to facilitate a session, especially when the curriculum was so packed and it was so easy to fall behind. The idea of cutting the anchor activity made me cringe.

We use a design model that incorporates the following steps:

  1. Anchor
  2. Content
  3. Application
  4. Future Use
anchor activity icon

What is an Anchor Activity?

Similar to an icebreaking activity, the anchor activity will be the first thing that participants experience for each new topic. Unlike ice-breaking activities, the anchor step we use is an intentional design decision based upon Malcolm Knowles work on adult learning (adults are most interested in topics that have immediate relevance to their own work or lives) and Gagne’s nine events of instruction (#3: stimulate recall of prior knowledge).

In short, an anchor activity is a learning activity designed to anchor new content in a learner’s prior knowledge or experience. It’s a way to help learners establish a connection to otherwise new or unfamiliar information.

Anchor Activity Examples

Anchor activities can be something as simple as: “I’d like everyone to think of a time when you were told you had to do something (whether or not you actually wanted to do it). Ok, now let’s talk about change management…”

Anchor activities can be lengthy and complex, too. “Good morning, we’re going to begin today’s session by playing a game similar to Trivial Pursuit, in which you’ll spend the next 45 minutes working your way around a game board and trying to answer questions about today’s content to find out how much you already know, and where you might have some gaps.”

The reason I cringed during that train the trainer workshop is that anchor activities cannot be viewed as nice-to-have or superfluous. When learners can’t connect to new or unfamiliar content, the likelihood that new concepts will bounce off the learners’ brains grows. Skipping ahead and jumping into your content without first helping your learners connect usually looks like this (from a learner’s perspective):

I also understand that trying to squeeze too many “activities” into a presentation can lead to activity fatigue. When you bounce from one activity to the next, the learners may begin to feel like they’re being cheated, that they came for content and information and all they’re doing is activity after activity.

How to Anchor Your Content

Here are a few ways to quickly anchor your content without overusing more traditional, get-up-out-of-your-seat activities:

  1. Have learners briefly think of their best experience with something related to your content (customer service experience, learning experience, being on the receiving end of a sales call, etc).
  2. Have learners briefly think of their worst experience.
  3. Share a quote, lyric, poem or proverb that connects to your content.
  4. Watch a short video or popular commercial that incorporates some of the same principles upon which your content will touch.
  5. Use a short, guided visualization to quickly transport your learners to a different time or place (“I’d like everyone to just think for a moment of a world in which ____ no longer existed. What would that look like? How would it feel? Well, today, we’re going to discuss how we could actually make that a reality…”)

Your audience doesn’t need to be physically active to anchor your content into their minds based upon their prior experiences, but they do need to be actively (mentally) engaged each time you introduce a new topic or concept.

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