Word Cloud Activities: Engaging Learners in the Online Classroom

By Elizabeth Lemke

In the online classroom, word clouds can be a fun, simple, low-stakes way to collect and convey information among learners. Of course, there are those who push back on the use of word clouds, like software architect Jacob Harris who says, “word clouds support only the crudest sorts of textual analysis, much like figuring out a protein by getting a count only of its amino acids.” But, some of us also counter that and say things like if appropriately designed, framed for the right audience, and the purpose is clear and meaningful, word clouds can be effective, engaging activities for adult learners.

According to Knowles’ principles of andragogy, the art and science of helping adults learn, adult learners draw on their accumulated personal and professional experiences and are motivated by internal factors that influence how they want to learn. Adult learners like to learn cooperatively and collaboratively in a way that piques their interests and pays attention to their needs. Word clouds allow learners to share their experiences, recognize patterns among their peers, project their own personalities in the online classroom, and start to see each other as co-creators in the learning process.

Below are a few activity examples and descriptions designed to validate adult learners’ prior knowledge and life experiences, promote peer-to-peer interaction, and provide learners with alternate ways to engage with content.

Ice Breaker Introductions

Ice Breaker activities give the instructor an opportunity to identify overlap in interests or gaps in understanding that can help drive the course direction, as well as helping instructors better monitor and facilitate learner progress. Learners can share:

  • What they expect to learn from the course.
  • Their course goals or personal learning goals.
  • Their current level experience with the course content or online learning.
  • Interesting information about their personal lives.

Prior Knowledge Poll/Survey

Word cloud built around "failure," includes words like sadness, problem, stress, and business.Based on the subject matter, learning outcomes, and content of the course, you can design an activity like this one:

  • The instructor poses a question to learners using a word cloud generator, such as “What do you fear the most?”, to which a possible common answer could be “Failure.”
  • Instructors then create a discussion prompt based on what learners fear and why failure seems to be the most common fear.
    • What does failure look like?
    • Why do you fear failure most?
    • How do you recognize fear?  

This kind of activity can be be used to get learners thinking about what they already know about fear and failure and how that aligns or misaligns with what they should or want to learn about fear and failure.

Before and After Reflection

Assign students a pre- and post-course word cloud that demonstrates changes in understanding of a certain topic, like leadership:

  • Pre-course expectations and post-course reflection.
  • What they think will be most valuable and what they found most valuable.
  • What they think they know and what they to know now.

This is another example of an activity that would benefit from a discussion prompt asking students to reflect or comment how and why their understanding changed over time.  

Keep in mind, that the activity should drive the tool choice and usage. Word clouds are not a quick fix for courses that lack active learning. Although giving students different modes to engage with content is one reason to use a word cloud, when designing for adult learners, connecting the activity or assessment to the learner’s real-life experiences and providing clear, directions, guidelines, and purpose are essential to facilitate active, learner-centered learning.

Word Cloud Generators



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