Hands-on learning: What, Why, and How

If you're an educator who is worried about their students’ level of classroom engagement, you're not alone. Recent research shows that 80%1 of US teachers are concerned about the level of engagement they see in their classrooms. What’s more, 50%1 of US students say that they do not feel engaged by most of what they are being taught in schools. While educators cannot solve every negative influence on student engagement, there are several measures they can take to make the classroom experience more appealing to disengaged students. In a 2023 poll conducted by Gradient Learning, teachers ranked connecting learning to real world skills, leveraging students’ personal interest in learning, and incorporating hands-on learning experiences as three of the top four most effective solutions for combating low engagement.

Hands-on learning has also proved itself a positive force for engagement with 87%2 of teachers reporting that they see a boost in student engagement when they incorporate purposeful play into their classrooms and 89%2 of students saying that hands-on activities help them learn new things.

In this blog, we'll explore the concept of hands-on learning, how to apply it in the classroom, and how it can be transformative for all learners. Let’s get started!

1 Data from a survey conducted by Gradient Learning from October to December 2022, with a panel of 400 educators and school-aged children (grades 4 – 12)
2 Data from a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of LEGO Education from May 2 to May 6, 2022, with a panel of 1,000 parents of school-age children and 1,000 teachers (K-12)

What is hands-on learning?

Hands-on learning is an educational approach that emphasizes active engagement and direct experience with the subject matter – learning by doing. Students might build physical models, gather and use data, perform experiments, or engage in simulated real-world tasks to gain a deeper understanding of concepts that they might not otherwise have gleaned from more traditional learning approaches.

When students interact with the content, they develop a better understanding and retention of concepts. Hands-on learning is based on embodied cognition, which argues that cognitive processes are linked to physical interactions. When students manipulate objects or move in ways related to the material they're studying, they're more likely to appreciate and remember what they're learning.

Benefits of hands-on learning

Hands-on learning profoundly impacts learning outcomes in schools and prepares students for life beyond the classroom. It directly influences outcomes by bridging the gap between theoretical understanding and practical application. Each lesson becomes a journey that leads students from 'what’s this?' to 'aha, that's how it works!'

In the workplace, employers value problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. By engaging in iterative hands-on experiences, students can develop and internalize these skills along with a lifelong love for learning – something that will make them more likely to approach new challenges with confidence and be better prepared for their future careers.

Now let’s explore the tangible benefits that make hands-on learning so beneficial in the classroom.

  • Active engagement

Tactile learning strategies transform students from passive to active participants. When they’re physically engaged, their attention and focus become supercharged.

It's easy to disengage from an activity when your only role is as a passive listener. It's a different story when you have ownership of the direction and outcome of that activity. Hands-on learning presents students with challenges to overcome and puts decision-making power in their hands, providing a greater degree of stimulation than many traditional teaching mediums can provide. The trial-and-error aspect of tactile activities is also a powerful contributor to engagement. Discovering they can reason out a solution to a problem rather than being told what to do builds confidence in their learning abilities - something that can foster improved engagement outside of just hands-on learning. Other aspects of typical hands-on activities such as group work also help to encourage more active participation by facilitating peer-to-peer communication and collaboration.

  • Engages multiple senses

Research shows that multisensory stimulation makes information easier to grasp versus single sense stimulation alone. Whereas traditional learning relies more on single inputs such as textbooks or lectures, hands-on activities require students to engage with multiple senses - interacting with physical materials, observing phenomena firsthand, and listening to instructions or feedback from teachers and peers. For example, when students conduct experiments in science labs or create artwork in studio classes, they not only see and hear what's happening, but also touch, manipulate, and experience the subject matter in a holistic way.

  • Encourages experimentation

Hands-on learning allows students to try out different methods and learn from their mistakes, which is essential for deep learning. By embracing experimentation, students develop a growth mindset, where failure is seen as a stepping stone to success rather than a defeat. They learn to adapt, iterate, and refine their approaches based on feedback and reflection, fostering resilience and perseverance in the face of challenges.

  • Develops problem-solving skills

Hands-on learning is instrumental in honing problem-solving skills. When immersed in activities, students encounter challenges that require them to analyze, strategize, and implement solutions in real-time. Problem-solving doesn’t just help students reach a single solution; it helps them better understand the underlying issues and see multiple solutions to a problem. This understanding is further deepened when working in group settings. Through communication and collaboration, students are forced to consider ways of thinking outside of their own, further broadening their own problem-solving capabilities.

  • Boosts creativity

When students learn through a hands-on approach, they are more likely to explore new ideas and think outside the box. One way to do this is by having open-ended projects that allow for solution diversity. For example, in the Redesigning to Make New Objects lesson for LEGO® Education SPIKE Essential, students are prompted to think of a familiar kitchen tool, recreate a working version of it using a provided selection of SPIKE components, and then reuse the same parts to create a different tool. Here we foster creativity in two ways - by confronting students with the challenge of envisioning and building a working tool without instructions, and by helping them see that two different objects can be built using the same materials. In most careers, the ability to approach problems with a creative mindset leads to more efficient workflows, groundbreaking innovations, and overall success in diverse industries.

  • Encourages collaboration

Hands-on learning fosters collaboration by creating an environment where students work together towards a common goal. Whether it's building a model, conducting experiments, or solving problems, hands-on activities naturally lend themselves to teamwork and cooperation. Students learn to communicate effectively, leverage each other's strengths, and pool their resources to achieve shared objectives. This kind of collaboration helps students develop essential interpersonal skills such as leadership, compromise, and conflict resolution.

Examples of hands-on learning activities

Effective hands-on activities are enjoyable, align with learning objectives and offer opportunities for students to make meaningful connections between theory and practice. Let's explore a few hands-on activities that you can use to inspire meaningful learning experiences for students.

  • Use clay to create a topographical map

Shape students’ understanding of physical geography by using clay to mold mountains, dig valleys, and craft topographical maps that rise from the desk.

Students start by gathering materials such as modeling clay, a large flat surface like a piece of cardboard, and reference materials such as maps or images of different landscapes. They then mold the clay to represent the various elevations and contours of a chosen geographic area, using their reference materials to guide the accuracy of their representation.

As they sculpt the clay, students gain a tactile understanding of geographical features. Interpreting and translating two-dimensional maps into three-dimensional models fosters creativity and spatial reasoning skills, and the hands-on nature of the activity provides stimulation needed for strong engagement.

  • Build a hockey simulator to demonstrate energy transfer

Engage learners with a high-octane hockey game and show them the power of energy transfer with LEGO® Education SPIKE Essential.

The “High Stick Hockey” lesson is a prime example of hands-on learning in action. Students are immersed in a dynamic and engaging experience where they construct, program, and interact with a hockey simulator. As they build and program the simulator to perform various actions such as shooting or defending, they gain practical context for concepts related to engineering and coding in addition to skills such as teamwork and communication.

One of the most important outcomes from this lesson is the understanding of the abstract concept of energy transfer - something students can find hard to grasp without firsthand experience. Seeing how the amount of energy output is dependent on the amount of input helps make the kind of cognitive connections that traditional learning often cannot.

  • Use puppets to retell stories

Bring stories to life by asking students to use puppets to retell classic tales. Storytelling is an effective way to foster creativity and comprehension.

Students begin by using puppets or creating their own puppets using materials such as paper bags, socks, craft sticks, markers, fabric, and even LEGO® bricks. Once their puppets are ready, students select a story they wish to retell, whether it's a classic fairy tale or a narrative from literature. As they retell the story using their puppets, students actively engage in the narrative, bringing characters to life and reenacting key scenes.

Not only does this hands-on approach foster creativity as students reinterpret stories and develop their own unique interpretations, but the use of puppets also encourages language development as students practice storytelling, dialogue, and expression, enhancing their communication skills.

This activity is also aimed at the development of social-emotional skills. Inhabiting the roles of different characters helps to develop empathy and perspective taking – both of which are key skills needed for future success.

  • Build & test models that reduce the impact of earthquakes

Use SPIKE Essential to give elementary students the chance to build and test earthquake-resistant models. This lesson requires seismic proportions of creativity and critical thinking.

In the “Prepare for Natural Hazards” lesson students embark on a hands-on journey to engineer earthquake-resistant structures. By constructing buildings using LEGO bricks and integrating motors to simulate real seismic activity, students explore the principles of structural engineering and disaster mitigation.

After reviewing the science behind earthquakes and relevant vocabulary, students break out into groups where they brainstorm on design strategies and start constructing their own models. They then test their designs using a shaking machine to simulate an earthquake, analyze results, and refine their models accordingly. The lesson culminates in group presentations where students showcase their designs, share insights, and compare outcomes.

By integrating STEM concepts with tangible problem-solving experiences, this activity fosters critical thinking, teamwork, and practical application skills essential for future success in fields such as engineering and disaster management.

  • Explore conditional statements by programming a safe-deposit box

Help unlock students’ understanding of compound conditional programming concepts by building and encrypting a super-safe-deposit box with LEGO® Education SPIKE Prime.

In the "Keep It Safe" lesson, students engage in a hands-on exploration of coding and security by programming a safe deposit box. Their primary objective is to design and program a safe that can be locked or unlocked using conditional coding.

By assembling their safe using SPIKE Prime elements, students gain practical experience in engineering and design principles, focusing on mechanisms for locking and unlocking. As they explore programming, students apply conditional logic to create algorithms that respond to specific inputs, such as a secret code or sensor readings.

Testing their code with a physical object is the main way that this activity leverages hands-on learning principles. Rather than working solely in a virtual environment where the impact of different configurations is less obvious, seeing how conditions affect the safe's operation creates a deeper understanding of coding principles.

Evaluating hands-on learning

When assessing hands-on learning, educators might want to try the following methods:

  • Observe

Watch students engage in tactile learning to review practical skills and see how they approach tasks and adapt to challenges. This helps teachers evaluate their progress in terms of understanding, engagement, skill development, and applying learned concepts. Observation and feedback are key for iteration. By identifying areas of opportunity, teachers can build on what works best in future hands-on activities.

  • Set performance-based assessments

Set tasks that ask students to demonstrate their skills and understanding. When learning leaps off the page and into practice, educators have a direct line to student comprehension. During these assessments, teachers can evaluate students' performance based on predetermined criteria such as accuracy, creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration. With the results, instructors can provide feedback and support to help students reflect on their work and identify areas for improvement.

  • Encourage students to reflect

Ask open-ended questions to get students to reflect on their thinking and reinforce the lesson. By reflecting, students deepen their understanding of concepts, develop metacognitive skills, gain insight into their learning process, and most importantly consider how they can apply that knowledge in the future. For teachers, reflection is a powerful way to gain insight into how students grasp concepts and identify areas for development. Teachers can incorporate reflection into hands-on activities by prompting students to ask questions such as: What did I learn from this activity? What challenges did I encounter, and how did I overcome them? What strategies were most effective, and why? How does this activity connect to what I already know?

Bring hands-on learning to your school with LEGO® Education

Impact, engagement, and motivation for students has never been more important.

Whether it’s unlocking the wonders of physical science or exploring the world of coding and programming, LEGO® Education solutions and lessons offer versatile, holistic learning experiences that align with school standards, and complement curriculums effectively.