Using active teaching techniques can lead to more effective, gratifying, and memorable learning outcomes. We now know that student attention often begins to decline after 10 to 15 minutes of lecture, and retention also drops considerably after the first 10 minutes. 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 elements of active learning?
Brooks, et al., (2016) suggests that active learning focuses on four basic activities—probably the same one you’re already using in your class:
- 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.
- Writing—Students actively process information by putting it in their own words; this can help students organize their thoughts and reflections and prepare them for discussion.
- 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.
- 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:
- Change student expectations on the first day and in the syllabus
- Learn about your students
- Use out-of-class assignments to prepare for active learning in-class
- Prepare written instructions, worksheets, slides, etc., for the exercises
- Explain the educational purpose of the exercise to students
- Create challenging exercises
- Have students summarize what they’ve learned at the conclusion of the exercise
- Absence of Fear
- Provide a climate where risk-taking is rewarded
- Allow students to get to know each other
- Reward students for their participation with positive feedback
- Practice “instructional immediacy” (smile, make eye contact, use student names, move around the classroom, etc.)
Examples of Active Learning Strategies (adapted from “Active Learning in the College Classroom” by Faust & Paulson):
|Minute Paper||Pose a question (e.g., “What was the main point of today’s lecture?” or “What do you still not understand regarding this concept?”), and give students a minute or two to respond.|
|Journal||Journaling offers a write-to-learn opportunity for students to respond to an open-ended or specific prompt, providing in-depth discussion of or reaction to course material|
|Quiz||There isn’t anything inherently active about taking a quiz, but when students are held accountable for homework, they will come to class better prepared to take part in active learning|
|Presentation Response||Ask students to write a response that begins with “I was surprised that…,” “I learned that…,” or “I wonder about…” This allows them to reflect on what they actually got out of the presentation and helps them realize that the activity was designed for more than just entertainment.|
|Think-Pair-Share||Pose a question, and ask students to think it over for a moment and then turn to a peer and discuss the topic. This offers hesitant speakers time to reflect and plan a response. After a brief paired discussion, you can call on students or ask who would like to share their ideas.|
|Think-Write-Pair-Share||This adds a write-to-learn element to think-pair-share, offering even more opportunity for students to form new thoughts|
|Note Comparison||One way to model good note-taking is to have students occasionally compare notes: 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.|
|Peer Review||Ask students to review one another’s homework assignment or paper. Clarify that you’re looking for substantive comments, not editing or “correcting.” Consider offering peer reviewers a guide that asks them to complete review steps (e.g., find and discuss the thesis, identify a potential problem with the argument). Another approach is to ask reviewers to write the author a memo about their response and recommendations of the work, writing no comments on the paper.|
|Cooperative Groups in Class Share||Pose a question to be worked on in small groups and then circulate around the room answering questions, asking further questions, and keeping the groups on task. After an appropriate time for group discussion, ask students to share their discussion points with the rest of the class.|
|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||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.|
|Concept Mapping||Developing a concept map requires the students to identify and organize information and to establish meaningful relationships between the pieces of information.|
|Visual Lists||Ask students to make a list while 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.|
|Jigsaw Group Projects||Jigsaws occur in two ways: (1) Each member of a group is asked to complete some discrete part of an assignment; when every member has completed his or her assigned task, the pieces can be joined together to form a finished project. (2) Divide the class into groups at separate tables and assign each group one problem to discuss and solve, reaching consensus. Then rearrange the room so there’s one person from each original group at each table; have each student explain his or her group’s discussion and conclusion.|
|Role Playing||Ask students to act out a part. In doing so, they get a better idea of the concepts and theories being discussed.|
|Panel Discussions||Assign student groups a topic to research and ask them to prepare presentations. 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.|
|Debates||Formal debates provide an efficient structure for class presentations when the subject matter easily divides into opposing views. 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.|
|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, some concepts or theories are more easily illustrated than discussed and in these cases, a well-conceived game may convey the idea more readily.|
|Discussions||Ask questions aimed at ensuring that students understand material, make connections, and synthesize ideas in any discipline.|
|Concept Mapping||Ask students to brainstorm and write ideas about a topic on sticky notes, then place them on the board. Next, a k students to move the notes—without speaking or writing—into categories that seem to arise.|
How do we balance conveying content with active learning?
Active learning need not encompass all your class time, but it is a vital part of most effective courses. Try flipping the classroom—e.g., offering readings, recorded lectures, videos, and online quizzes and discussions via HuskyCT, leaving more class time for active engagement with the material.
- Baepler, Paul, et al. A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice. Stylus, 2016.
- Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. (2005). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. In E. F. Barkley, K. P. Cross, & C. H. Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass, 2005.
- Faust, Jennifer L. and Donald R. Paulson. Active Learning in the College Classroom, Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 9 (2), 3-24, 1998.
- McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Marilla Svinicki, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. 14th, Cengage Learning, 2013.
- Meyers, Chet, and Thomas B. Jones. Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 1993.
- Nilson, Linda B. Teaching at its Best. 4th Jossey-Bass, 2016.