Engaging Students through Interest-Based Anchor Activities

Part of our Cash in on Learning Series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

It’s that time of year again—that time between the end of spring break and the end of the school year. In many schools, it’s high testing season, so students and teachers alike are stressed. We want kids to continue learning, but feeling the pressures to get in all the required testing often takes away valuable time from the joys of real learning.

During this time, consider using anchor activities based on interests. Anchor activities are those activities that are “anchored” or connected to the general units of study, are interest based, and are easily picked up and put back down at a moment’s notice. Interest-based anchor activities should be ones in which students discover new information or gain a greater understanding beyond materials covered in the core content.

Steps to Offering Interest-Based Anchor Activities

Step 1: Ask students to find a topic not covered during the core content. Topics can include anything from famous individuals in the disciplines, new discoveries, unique inventions, controversial or conflicting ideas or theories, or subtopics within subject areas. Here’s a list of possible interest-based anchor activities:


  • Research famous or lesser known mathematicians
  • Study the history of mathematics around the world
  • Investigate different computing or calculating methods

Periodic_Table_Elements_Cupcakes_from Conrad Erb wikimedia commons


  • Investigate the controversies surrounding climate change (why are there opposing views?)
  • Study famous African-American, Native American, or Hispanic/Latino scientists
  • Review the history of the periodic table

Social Studies

  • Create a historical fiction story about an event in U.S. (or other nation’s) history
  • Study media piracy from the early years to now
  • Identify an emerging nation in Africa and study how it is evolving


  • Study an author not covered in class
  • Write a poem in the style of a poet you enjoy
  • Listen to an audio version of a novel and describe how the reader used different voices to relate character

Physical Education

  • Study the ancient Olympic events, comparing them to modern times
  • Research famous female athletes, what challenges did they have to overcome that men didn’t (or don’t) face
  • Investigate the kinesiology involved in the sport of golf

Family and Consumer Science

  • Study how the FDA investigates new products
  • Review various savings and checking accounts to find the best deals
  • Study how canning was used during the early years of U.S. expansion

Technical Education

  • Interview a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE)
  • Detail how to build a solar-energy panel or car
  • Investigate various careers in the field of engineering

Art/Music/Performing Arts

  • Study a famous artist, musician, or actor and define the characteristics he or she possesses
  • Investigate a unique period of art, music, or theater (such as Dadaism, Modernism, Commedia dell’arte)
  • Create a work based on a particular artistic, musical, or theatrical style

Step 2: Define times for students to work on their interest-based anchor activities, such as:

  • When finished with assigned work
  • During breaks in testing
  • During “choice time” or free moments in the day
  • When unable to go outside for recess
  • As an option or a replacement for an assignment during a unit of study

Step 3: Arrange space in your classroom for interest-based anchor activities to be stored when in progress.

  • With advances in technology, students can store their materials on a jump drive or on the school’s server (“in the cloud”)
  • For non-Internet based materials, clear an easily accessible space for students to store and retrieve materials in between work times

Step 4: Provide time for students to:

  • Work with others researching the same or similar topics
  • Work on the investigations to increase student drive and motivation

Step 5: Provide resources for students who may have a hard time getting started or who may lack the access to those resources. Resources can include:

  • Websites
  • Texts
  • Magazines
  • Artwork
  • Media

Present the projectStep 6: Offer students a chance to share their work with others. This can be done by:

  • Offering time during the school day for presentations
  • Setting up a location within the school for presentations, papers, or projects to be displayed, such as the media center or in showcases
  • Creating a web page where students can post their materials
  • Having students create a website based on their topic

I’ve found when students are invested in a topic of which they have a choice and a high level of interest, a great deal of learning happens. Beyond learning the basics of a subject, interest-based anchor activities offer students relevance and meaningfulness. For more ideas of topics for interest-based anchor activities, check out Differentiation for the Gifted Learners. In Chapter 4 of the book, my coauthor Diane Heacox and I have listed numerous enrichment, enhancement, and extension ideas (E3) for various subjects and units of study. These topic ideas should not be reserved just for your gifted or advanced learners. Use these ideas with all of your students and watch them bloom into voracious learners.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Advancing Differentiation

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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