Active Learning Strategies

Overview:  Using active teaching techniques can lead to more effective, gratifying, and memorable learning outcomes.   Student attention often begins to decline after 10 to 15 minutes of lecture (Stuart, John, & Rutherford, 1978); retention also drops considerably after the first 10 minutes (Hartley & Davies, 1978).  This can be problematic when your class lasts for an hour and fifteen minutes!  Utilizing active learning strategies can help.  Most people learn better from actively engaging with material than they do from passively listening to a speaker or reading from a textbook.  Active learning strategies have students “doing” things—analyzing, creating, role playing, experiencing, reflecting, etc.

What is active learning?  Neal (2010) defines active learning as “educational methods in which students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation). The term therefore primarily reflects what is going on in a student’s mind, whether or not the body (or the mouth) is physically active.”

What are the basic elements of active learning?  According to the Center for Teaching & Learning at the University of Minnesota, the four Basic Active Learning Activities are the same elements you are probably already using in your class:

  1. Talking and listening — Students actively process information when they ask or answer questions, comment, present, and explain. When students go beyond passive listening to relate, analyze, and use what they are hearing, they are engaged in active learning.  Discussions and Interactive Lectures are useful strategies.
  2. Writing – Students can actively process information by putting it in their own words; this can help students organize their thoughts and reflections and prepare them for discussion. Check out these suggestions for Informal Writing Activities from the University of Minnesota.
  3. Reading –Instructors often expect students to learn through reading. It’s easy for students to read passively in order “to get it done.”  Providing questions, summary exercises, opportunities for posts or reflection, etc., can transform it into an active process.  Students can often benefit from instruction on active reading. Active Reading.
  4. Reflecting – Class periods are often packed with information. Students sometimes need time to process the material and connect it to what they’ve already learned.  Reflecting on the applications and implications of new knowledge can help develop higher-order thinking skills and Metacognition.

Preconditions for Active Student Involvement:  Neal (2010) suggests that active learning take some planning:

  1. Preparation
    1. Change student expectations on the first day and in the syllabus
    2. Learn about your students
    3. Use out-of-class assignments to prepare for active learning in-class
    4. Prepare written instructions, worksheets, slides, etc., for the exercises
  2. Motivation
    1. Explain the educational purpose of the exercise to students
    2. Create challenging exercises
    3. Have students summarize what they’ve learned at the conclusion of the exercise
  3. Absence of Fear
    1. Provide a climate where risk-taking is rewarded
    2. Allow students to get to know each other
    3. Reward students for their participation with positive feedback
    4. Practice “instructional immediacy” (smile, make eye contact, use student names, move around the classroom, etc.)

Examples of Active Learning Strategies (adapted from California State University’s “Active Learning for the College Classroom,” by Paulson & Faust):

Individual Activities:

  • The “One Minute Paper” – This is a highly effective technique for checking student progress, both in understanding the material and in reacting to course material. Ask students to take out a blank sheet of paper, pose a question (either specific or open-ended), and give them one (or perhaps two – but not many more) minute(s) to respond. Some sample questions include: “How does John Hospers define ‘free will’?” “What is ‘scientific realism’?” “What is the activation energy for a chemical reaction?” “What is the difference between replication and transcription?” and so on. Another good use of the minute paper is to ask questions like “What was the main point of today’s class material?” This tells you whether or not the students are viewing the material in the way you envisioned.
  • Muddiest (or Clearest) Point – This is a variation on the one-minute paper, though you may wish to give students a slightly longer time period to answer the question. Here you ask (at the end of a class period, or at a natural break in the presentation), “What was the “muddiest point” in today’s lecture?” or, perhaps you might be more specific, asking, “What (if anything) do you find unclear about the concept of ‘personal identity’ (‘inertia’, ‘natural selection’, etc.)?”
  • Affective Response – Again, this is similar to the above exercises, but here you are asking students to report their reactions to some facet of the course material – i.e., to provide an emotional or value based response to the material. Obviously, this approach is limited to those subject areas in which such questions are appropriate (one should not, for instance, inquire into students’ affective responses to vertebrate taxonomy). However, it can be quite a useful starting point for courses such as applied ethics, particularly as a precursor to theoretical analysis. For example, you might ask students what they think of Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s activities, before presenting what various moral theorists would make of them. By having several views “on the table” before theory is presented, you can help students to see the material in context and to explore their own beliefs. It is also a good way to begin a discussion of evolutionary theory or any other scientific area where the general public often has views contrary to current scientific thinking, such as paper vs. plastic packaging or nuclear power generation.
  • Daily Journal – This combines the advantages of the above three techniques, and allows for more in-depth discussion of or reaction to course material. You may set aside class time for students to complete their journal entries, or assign this as homework. The only disadvantage to this approach is that the feedback will not be as “instant” as with the one-minute paper (and other assignments which you collect the day of the relevant lecture). But with this approach (particularly if entries are assigned for homework), you may ask more complex questions, such as, “Do you think that determinism is correct, or that humans have free will? Explain your answer” or “Do you think that Dr. Kevorkian’s actions are morally right? What would John Stuart Mill say?” and so on. Or you might have students find and discuss reports of scientific studies in popular media on topics relevant to course material, such as global warming, the ozone layer, and so forth.
  • Reading Quiz – Clearly, this is one way to coerce students to read assigned material! Active learning depends upon students coming to class prepared. The reading quiz can also be used as an effective measure of student comprehension of the readings (so that you may gauge their level of sophistication as readers). Further, by asking the same sorts of questions on several reading quizzes, you will give students guidance as to what to look for when reading assigned text. If you ask questions like “What color were Esmerelda’s eyes?” (as my high school literature teacher liked to do), you are telling the student that it is the details that count, whereas questions like “What reason did Esmerelda give for murdering Sebastian?” highlight issues of justification. If your goal is to instruct (and not merely to coerce), carefully choose questions that will identify both who has read the material (for your sake) and what is important in the reading (for their sake).
  • Clarification Pauses – This is a simple technique aimed at fostering “active listening.” Throughout a lecture, particularly after stating an important point or defining a key concept, stop, let it sink in, and then (after waiting a bit!) ask if anyone needs to have it clarified. You can also circulate around the room during these pauses to look at student notes, answer questions, etc. Students who would never ask a question in front of the whole class may ask questions during a clarification pause as you move about the room.
  • Response to a Demonstration or other Teacher-Centered Activity – The students are asked to write a paragraph that begins with “I was surprised that…,” “I learned that…,” or “I wonder about…” This allows the students to reflect on what they actually got out of the teacher’s presentation. It also helps students realize that the activity was designed for more than just entertainment.

Paired Activities:

  • Discussion – Students are asked to pair off and to respond to a question either in turn or as a pair. This can easily be combined with other techniques such as those under “Questions and Answers” or “Critical Thinking Motivators” above. For example, after students have responded to statements, such as “Whatever a society holds to be morally right is in fact morally right” with ‘true’ or ‘false’, they can be asked to compare answers to a limited number of questions and to discuss the statements on which they differed. In science classes students can be asked to explain some experimental data that supports a theory just discussed by the lecturer. Generally, this works best when students are given explicit directions, such as “Tell each other why you chose the answer you did”.
  • Note Comparison/Sharing – One reason that some students perform poorly in classes is that they often do not have good note-taking skills. That is, while they might listen attentively, students do not always know what to write down, or they may have gaps in their notes which will leave them bewildered when they go back to the notes to study or to write a paper. One way to avoid some of these pitfalls and to have students model good note-taking is to have them occasionally compare notes. The instructor might stop lecturing immediately after covering a crucial concept and have students read each other’s notes, filling in the gaps in their own note-taking. This is especially useful in introductory courses or in courses designed for non-majors or special admissions students. Once students see the value of supplementing their own note-taking with others’, they are likely to continue the practice outside of class time.
  • Evaluation of Another Student’s Work – Students are asked to complete an individual homework assignment or short paper. On the day the assignment is due, students submit one copy to the instructor to be graded and one copy to their partner. These may be assigned that day, or students may be assigned partners to work with throughout the term. Each student then takes their partner’s work and depending on the nature of the assignment gives critical feedback, standardizes or assesses the arguments, corrects mistakes in problem-solving or grammar, and so forth. This is a particularly effective way to improve student writing.

Small-Group Activitiess: For more complex projects, where many heads are better than one or two, you may want to have students work in groups of three or more. Students working in groups will help each other to learn. Generally, it is better to form heterogeneous groups (with regard to gender, ethnicity, and academic performance), particularly when the groups will be working together over time or on complex projects; however, some of these techniques work well with spontaneously formed groups.

  • Cooperative Groups in Class – Pose a question to be worked on in each cooperative group and then circulate around the room answering questions, asking further questions, keeping the groups on task, and so forth. After an appropriate time for group discussion, students are asked to share their discussion points with the rest of the class. (The ensuing discussion can be guided according to the “Questions and Answers” techniques outlined above.)
  • Active Review Sessions – In the traditional class review session the students ask questions and the instructor answers them. Students spend their time copying down answers rather than thinking about the material. In an active review session the instructor poses questions and the students work on them in groups. Then students are asked to show their solutions to the whole group and discuss any differences among solutions proposed.
  • Work at the Blackboard – In many problem-solving courses (e.g., logic or critical thinking), instructors tend to review homework or teach problem-solving techniques by solving the problems themselves. Because students learn more by doing, rather than watching, this is probably not the optimal scenario. Rather than illustrating problem solving, have students work out the problems themselves by asking them to go to the blackboard in small groups to solve problems. If there is insufficient blackboard space, students can still work out problems as a group, using paper and pencil or computers if appropriate software is available.
  • Concept Mapping – A concept map is a way of illustrating the connections that exist between terms or concepts covered in course material; students construct concept maps by connecting individual terms by lines which indicate the relationship between each set of connected terms. Most of the terms in a concept map have multiple connections. Developing a concept map requires the students to identify and organize information and to establish meaningful relationships between the pieces of information.
  • Visual Lists – Here students are asked to make a list—on paper or on the blackboard; by working in groups, students typically can generate more comprehensive lists than they might if working alone. This method is particularly effective when students are asked to compare views or to list pros and cons of a position. One technique that works well with such comparisons is to have students draw a “T” and to label the left- and right-hand sides of the cross bar with the opposing positions (or ‘Pro’ and ‘Con’). They then list everything they can think of that supports these positions on the relevant side of the vertical line. Once they have generated as thorough a list as they can, ask them to analyze the lists with questions appropriate to the exercise. For example, when discussing Utilitarianism (a theory claiming that an action is morally right whenever it results in more benefits than harm) students can use the “T” method to list all of the (potential) benefits and harms of an action, and then discuss which side is more heavily “weighted.” Often having the list before them helps to determine the ultimate utility of the action, and the requirement to fill in the “T” generally results in a more thorough accounting of the consequences of the action in question. In science classes this would work well with such topics as massive vaccination programs, nuclear power, eliminating chlorofluorocarbons, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and so forth.
  • Jigsaw Group Projects – In jigsaw projects, each member of a group is asked to complete some discrete part of an assignment; when every member has completed his assigned task, the pieces can be joined together to form a finished project. For example, students in a course in African geography might be grouped and each assigned a country; individual students in the group could then be assigned to research the economy, political structure, ethnic makeup, terrain and climate, or folklore of the assigned country. When each student has completed his research, the group then reforms to complete a comprehensive report. In a chemistry course each student group could research a different form of power generation (nuclear, fossil fuel, hydroelectric, etc.). Then the groups are reformed so that each group has an expert in one form of power generation. They then tackle the difficult problem of how much emphasis should be placed on each method.
  • Role Playing – Here students are asked to “act out” a part. In doing so, they get a better idea of the concepts and theories being discussed. Role-playing exercises can range from the simple (e.g., “What would you do if a Nazi came to your door, and you were hiding a Jewish family in the attic?”) to the complex. Complex role playing might take the form of a play (depending on time and resources); for example, students studying ancient philosophy might be asked to recreate the trial of Socrates. Using various sources (e.g., Plato’s dialogues, Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, and Aristophanes’ The Clouds), student teams can prepare the prosecution and defense of Socrates on the charges of corruption of youth and treason; each team may present witnesses (limited to characters which appear in the Dialogues, for instance) to construct their case, and prepare questions for cross-examination.
  • Panel Discussions – Panel discussions are especially useful when students are asked to give class presentations or reports as a way of including the entire class in the presentation. Student groups are assigned a topic to research and asked to prepare presentations (note that this may readily be combined with the jigsaw method outlined above). Each panelist is then expected to make a very short presentation, before the floor is opened to questions from “the audience.” The key to success is to choose topics carefully and to give students sufficient direction to ensure that they are well-prepared for their presentations. You might also want to prepare the “audience,” by assigning them various roles. For example, if students are presenting the results of their research into several forms of energy, you might have some of the other students role play as concerned environmentalists, transportation officials, commuters, and so forth.
  • Debates – Formal debates provide an efficient structure for class presentations when the subject matter easily divides into opposing views or ‘Pro’/‘Con’ considerations. Students are assigned to debate teams, given a position to defend, and then asked to present arguments in support of their position on the presentation day. The opposing team should be given an opportunity to rebut the argument(s) and, time permitting, the original presenters asked to respond to the rebuttal. This format is particularly useful in developing argumentation skills (in addition to teaching content).
  • Games – Many will scoff at the idea that one would literally play games in a university setting, but occasionally there is no better instructional tool. In particular, there are some concepts or theories that are more easily illustrated than discussed and in these cases, a well-conceived game may convey the idea more readily. For example, when students are introduced to the concepts of “laws of nature” and “the scientific method,” it is hard to convey through lectures the nature of scientific work and the fallibility of inductive hypotheses. Instead, students play a couple rounds of the Induction Game, in which playing cards are turned up and either added to a running series or discarded according to the dealer’s pre-conceived “law of nature.” Students are asked to “discover” the natural law, by formulating and testing hypotheses as the game proceeds.

To learn more about these strategies, contact the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, or contact Suzanne Lafleur  to set up a consultation with one of our academic specialists.

Leave a Reply