“Active learning involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.”—Charles Bonwell & James Eison1
When Bonwell and Eison coined the term “active learning,” it marked a definitive shift in pedagogy. Rather than think about what they are watching, hearing, or reading, students are first encouraged to be “doing” something in class, and then apply critical thought and reflection to their own classroom work and activity.
Active learning can encompass many different techniques, but here we will detail eight of the most popular—and easiest to implement, with how-tos and examples for each one. If you’re interested in learning more about professors’ own experiences implementing active learning in their classrooms and how technology made the transition smoother, sign up to our free course on how to implement active learning.
- What is active learning?
- What is an example of active learning?
- Minute papers
- Quick quizzes
- Muddiest point
- Case studies and problem solving
- Peer instruction
- Flipped classrooms
- Active learning and technology: In conclusion
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What is active learning?
The term “active learning” can encompass a broad array of tactics and activities. But the key is that practice matters.
The traditional lecture model is no longer the most efficient way for teachers to impart knowledge to students. With Wi-Fi, smartphones and laptops providing an endless supply of distractions, savvy educators must rely on new teaching methods like active learning for classroom engagement.
Active learning techniques can result in higher student engagement, improved grades and a lower dropout rate. Technological tools normally associated with distraction can be used to benefit the classroom, and enable techniques that many teachers can use in classes, regardless of the subject they teach.
What is an example of active learning?
Active learning techniques range from quick-and-simple interventions to semester-long redesigns of course structure and delivery. These teaching strategies can include group work, cooperative learning. and peer instruction. This way, the learning process becomes more engaging, enhancing teaching and learning in your class.
The techniques below can be used in your class to improve student engagement and learning outcomes. While some of these ideas work better in specific disciplines, each one can be adapted for use in any context. Active learning strategies can also encompass assignment-setting and evaluation (at least at the stage of formative assessment.)
With active learning, knowledge can take hold in students’ own minds, and classroom time gives students the opportunity to actively work with concepts—not just sitting and listening passively. Here are eight practical examples of active learning techniques for students.
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The most well-known active learning method is think-pair-share. Here, you briefly pause your lecture and ask students to pair up and discuss the material that was just presented, and then tell them to prepare to ask questions or share observations with the entire class.
University of Queensland’s Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation suggests breaking this down into the three constituent parts and not pairing students straightaway—as well as telling your students before the lecture begins that it’s happening.2
First, ask a question you feel will challenge your students, then get them to think for two to three minutes by themselves. Then, pair them in twos or threes to discuss their conclusions for no more than five minutes. After that, you can call on groups to share those conclusions, or ask for volunteers.
An active learning technique like this is particularly effective after the first few lectures, if you feel that your class’s attention span for your course material is beginning to dip. This technique can also help to recapture enthusiasm, and remind students that their learning is not taking place in isolation.
During a brief pause for reflection, students alone or in pairs are asked to answer a question in writing about the day’s teaching. The submitted responses from this active learning construct can be used to gauge student learning and student comprehension of the material.
Educator James Lang (above), author of Small Changes: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, is a proponent of active learning, particularly the minute paper.
The minute paper active learning technique comes in many variations, but the simplest involves wrapping up the formal class period a few minutes early and posing two questions to your students:
- What was the most important thing you learned today?
- What question still remains in your mind?
The first question requires students to remember something from class and articulate it in their own words, as well as making sure they do some quick thinking. Students have to reflect on their learning experience, and decide on the main point of that day’s class.3
The second question encourages them to consider what they haven’t truly understood. Most of us are infected by what learning theorists sometimes call “illusions of fluency,” which means that we believe we have obtained mastery over something when we truly have not. To answer the second question, students have to decide where confusion or weaknesses remain in their own comprehension.
One final idea: if your class is structured in a way to make this possible (for example, if you don’t rely on open-ended lab work), you can make the minute paper a ‘ticket out’—namely, all students must complete it before leaving the lecture.
This active learning technique can be administered at the start of class or during a pause. It should count as formative assessment: not for a grade, but to assess comprehension.
One way to make this a meaningful exercise, and to scale it across a large classroom, is to use technology to ask a multiple-choice question. You can do this at the beginning of class to challenge or to check an assumption before a lecture begins, and then ask the same question at the end. You can then compare and pair the results of the two questions and get instant feedback about the effectiveness of your lesson. Did people understand, or do they need more clarification? One benefit of active learning is that the instructor learns about their students in real time.4
In one version of the ‘muddiest point’ active learning exercise, students are given index cards or a field on an app and asked to write down which part of the course material is least understood by them. You can keep this anonymous in order to encourage honest responses.
Armed with this information, you can target and schedule extra instruction time towards those subjects, and get a very good sense of what extra instruction your class needs.
An alternate way to use this active learning technique is in a student review session, where you can find out your class’s muddiest point by process of elimination. Ask your students to send you topics they feel most in need of clarification, and then consolidate them into a list.
Then, you can direct each student to choose a term from the list and explain it to the rest of the class, helping them along as needed. Strike the concept from the list, and go to the next student.
Students will have a tendency to pick the terms that they are most comfortable speaking about and those left untouched will give you a clear assessment of the subjects in which your class is struggling and where comprehension is lacking. You can then transfer this into a more instructor-led review session and fill in the blanks for the last remaining subjects on behalf of your class.
Having students defend different viewpoints for the class is a means of structuring class discussion and ensuring that even those in the back rows have the opportunity to speak.
Role-playing is one possible route, espoused by Tony Crider, a professor of Astronomy at Elon University, North Carolina.5
In his active learning-enabled classes, students are assigned roles of historical characters. One of his classes is called the “Pluto Debates,” wherein leading lights of the astronomy world argue over whether or not Pluto should be considered a planet.
Every student has a character sheet, with his or her secret victory conditions, i.e., “You’ll win if the vote turns out this way, or that way.” For Crider, the key was getting his students invested in how astronomers make sense of objects, how they classify them and how they make decisions together. In fact, the simulation aspect of this approach really draws students in, to the point where they’ll often prepare more for Crider’s class than others.
Case studies and problem solving
In this active learning technique, students work in groups, applying knowledge gained from lectures or reading materials to a given situation. This is more spontaneous than setting your students multi-week formal group projects.
Christopher Bone, assistant professor of Geographic Information Science at the University of Victoria, uses problem-solving projects as an integral part of his active learning approach. Active learning is an important part of his pedagogy because it encourages students to apply knowledge, rather than recite it back to the class.
“I used to tell students, ‘click here, click there, do this, do that’ so they became good at following instructions,” he says. “I think that’s an analogy of how we approach education. We’re producing students who are good at doing what they’re told to do, but they’re not good at solving problems on the fly, which is what they’ll be expected to do as soon as they enter the job market.”
Here, students prepare and present course material to the class—with the guidance of the teacher, of course. This encourages interaction and trust-building between students, which can be an underappreciated factor in student success.
A good time to do this active learning technique is at the very beginning. Thomas Hayden, a professor at Stanford University, teaches environmental journalism—an unusual class that mixes humanities and science students. This difference in backgrounds provides a great opportunity for mutual learning powered by the students themselves.7
He explains: “As an introductory assignment, I have the students teach each other about the things they know best. This class is half science students and half journalism students, so the science students teach Science 101 to the journalism students, and the journalists teach their craft to the scientists.”
Hayden adds a twist: he bans them from using PowerPoint slides. This forces them to think creatively about how they communicate what they know to an unfamiliar audience. The result is a class primed to learn outside of their field—with those important peer-to-peer relationships already seeded.
Students’ attention starts to diminish after about 15 minutes of a lecture, according to author and professor of bioengineering John Medina8. But in a flipped classroom, students watch pre-recorded lectures as homework, then arrive in class prepared to spend the time engaged in any number of the active learning activities described above.
However, flipped classrooms are evolving. An increasingly large number of professors are going building on this concept in their course design: either through shorter, more concise videos — often available on YouTube — or even podcasts, where students can easily learn and review concepts while commuting or in the gym.
This online content is becoming more interactive too, with elements of active learning outside the class: learners can collaborate in online discussions and tasks with peers or even subject matter experts. In class, they can actively apply those concepts through peer learning, group work and ‘teach the teacher’ presentations. They may even be required to make their own videos as part of the learning process.
The Flipped Learning Global Initiative — a global coalition of educators, researchers and technologists — has dubbed this the era of Flipped Learning 3.0.9
Active learning and technology: In conclusion
It’s clear that more and more faculty are prioritizing active learning in their class, and furthermore, harnessing technology to do so. All the above active learning techniques—from something as simple as a quiz, to a large overhaul such as a flipped classroom—can be put in place and enhanced with the judicious use of apps, videos and digital textbooks.
Learn more about how active learning and technology can become best friends in our free course on implementing active learning, and read practical, tried and tested examples of how these techniques work in class.
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- Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Think-Pair-Share (2016, October 27). Retrieved from http://www.uq.edu.au/teach/flipped-classroom/docs/FAB/FABThinkPairShareTipsheet.pdf
- Lang, J. (2016). Small Changes: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Resanovic, S. (2017, November 20). Writing Multiple Choice Questions: There’s More You Can Do. Retrieved from https://tophat.com/blog/writing-multiple-choice-questions/
- Preville, P. (2017, November 13). Innovative and Unexpected Ways to Teach Your College Class [PDF]. Retrieved from https://tophat.com/ebooks/innovative-unexpected-ways-teach-college-class/
- Preville, P. (2018, February 13). Top Tactics for Creating a More Engaged Classroom [PDF]. Retrieved from https://tophat.com/ebooks/guide-top-tactics/
- Preville, P. (2018, March 26). Textbook Heroes: How Digital Textbooks Make Learning More Impactful [PDF]. Retrieved from https://tophat.com/ebooks/guide-textbook-heroes/
- Medina, J. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Seattle, WA. Pear Press.
- Flipped Learning Global Initiative. (2018, September 4). Retrieved from http://flglobal.org/
Interactive classroom activities for college students
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