Getting started with active learning techniques

Whether you are thinking about trying active learning for the first time or have used it before and want to try something new, these are proven strategies for engaging students and focusing on key concepts in your class. Start with one and consider adding more as you become more comfortable. Breaking up your lecture every 15-20 minutes will help keep students’ attention and interest as they apply what they are learning.

Tips to keep in mind as you try new techniques.

  • Use problems or questions that will challenge and interest your students
  • Explain the purpose of the activity and be clear about what you want your students to do
  • Allocate enough time for the activity; some in-class activities take only 2-3 minutes, but others may take longer
  • Break longer activities into stages or steps so students who finish early are not left waiting and students who need more help receive the feedback they need
  • Leave time to debrief and identify the take-aways at the end of the activity to ensure that students receive feedback from you and/or their peers

Though many people think of active learning as something that happens in the classroom, it is often paired with collaborative work outside of class. Below, we provide examples of both.

In-class activities | Collaborative tools for use outside the classroom

In-class activities

Think-Pair-Share/Write-Pair-Share

Present students with a question, problem, or item for reflection. Have students reflect or write on their own for 1-2 minutes then discuss with a peer for another 2 minutes. Call on several pairs to share their thoughts. Gauge student progress and provide further guidance if needed.

This technique can also be used with polling software.

Minute paper

At a natural breaking point or the end of class, ask students to reflect on and write down 2 or 3 key points made in class. Another option is to ask them what they still do not understand (often called the “muddiest point”) or if they have questions.

Collect papers and review (in large classes, review a sample). Discuss student misconceptions or questions at the beginning of the next class. As an alternative, ask students to talk with their classmate(s) for feedback.

Student responses can also be collected electronically, for example with a Google form or PollEverywhere

Catch up

Pause your lecture at a natural breaking point and give students a chance to catch up on their note taking. Ask them to talk with a classmate about any points that are still unclear. Make time for 2 or 3 questions after students discuss.

Brainstorming

Ask students to talk in pairs or groups to develop a list of ideas in response to a question. Groups can volunteer their ideas as you compile a list to discuss.

Problem solving/Case study

Present your students with a problem to solve or case study reflecting a current issue in your field. Students work in groups or pairs to solve using paper, a worksheet, a shared whiteboard (in-person or online), or collaborative documents such as Google docs. Many disciplines have case studies ready for teaching, which you can find online.

This type of activity generally requires a longer time frame (e.g., 10+ minutes).

Making predictions

Before giving a demonstration or presenting the results of research, ask your students to predict the outcome. Have them discuss as in a "think-pair-share," then run your demonstration or present the finding and follow up with the whys and hows.

Concept mapping

Ask your students to draw a concept map showing how the ideas you have been discussing relate to one another. Allow students time to think on their own (or even prepare their maps prior to class) before asking them to discuss with others and modify. Students may need coaching on concept mapping before they begin.

Shared online whiteboards such as Jamboard or Miro work well for this kind of activity. Post-it notes also allow students to organize concepts.

Expect to spend 10+ minutes on a mapping activity.

Drawing/Diagramming

Idea 1

Ask your students to draw and label from memory something they have been studying (e.g., an object, process etc.). Then ask them to work in pairs or groups to compare their drawings and discuss details they may have missed. Debrief by presenting and discussing an accurate representation. Give students time to add elements they have missed.

Idea 2

Ask your students to draw a simplified design, plan, or process, then explain the reasoning behind their choices to a peer. Students discuss and give feedback. To debrief, present your own or a student-created version and explain the critical elements. Allow time for questions.

Depending on the complexity of the task, this activity may take more than 3 minutes. Idea 2 in particular may take 7-10+ minutes.

Worksheet

Design a worksheet with clear instructions and provide a copy to each student. Students work in groups or pairs to complete.  Worksheets might involve mathematical or technical problem solving, case studies, or real-world scenarios with challenges for which students propose solutions or approaches. They can also be used for close reading of texts (See “Close reading & visual analysis” below). Explain and discuss with class after activity.

This type of activity generally requires a wider time frame (e.g., 10+ minutes).

Close reading & visual analysis

Ask your students to read and explicate a passage of text, poetry, or music, or to closely examine an image. Then ask them to answer a question(s) based on the material. Have students discuss their thoughts with a peer(s) or discuss and debrief as a class.

This activity lends itself well to a worksheet, think-pair-share, polling, or minute paper and may take longer than 3 minutes depending on the complexity.

Writing prompts

Develop a prompt that asks your students to reflect on a topic or concept they have been studying in class. Prompts often ask students to apply their learning to their own interests, a current event, or a real-world situation. You might ask your students to put themselves in the position of an expert who is giving advice to a lay person on an issue or need (for example in their hometown). What advice would they give as the expert?

Give your students time to think and write, then ask them to turn in their writing. Review and check for understanding.

Depending on your prompt, this activity could take 3-10+ minutes of class time. It may be graded for participation or used as a way for you to check your students’ understanding.

Peer review

Have your students review each other’s work – either an activity they have worked on in class, an assignment, or an ongoing project. Peer review lends itself well to longer term projects that are broken into parts/phases. An initial peer review (with guidance on best practices) will help students identify areas that need work prior to meeting with you or their TA.

Peer review can also be used with write-pair-share, close reading & visual thinking, drawing/diagramming, and concept mapping. This activity will generally take more than 3 minutes.

Polling

Ask your students a question, allow them to think, then respond simultaneously. When responses indicate a split in class opinion, have students discuss then re-poll. Afterwards, explain both correct and incorrect answers.

Polling can be conducted with or without technology.

Without technology: ask your students to raise their hands or colored cards (see paper clickers video) or place a hand with a number of fingers flat against their chests to indicate their responses.

With technology: Cornell supports two software options for classroom polling: Poll Everywhere and iClickerPoll Everywhere supports multiple choice, text response, and clickable image type questions and requires that students use a mobile device. iClickers are separate devices for multiple choice-style questions that students purchase and use across classes. iClicker has a mobile app version which supports multiple choice, text response, and clickable image style questions.

Polling is often used with think-pair-shares, problem solving, making predictions, and worksheetsDepending on the complexity of the question and length of discussion, polling will generally take 1-3+ minutes.


Collaborative tools for use outside of class

Social annotation

Social annotation tools allow groups of students to read, reflect on, mark up, and share ideas about assigned texts (including websites), videos, and podcasts. This collaborative process helps students to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the material.

Cornell supports two social annotation tools: Perusall and Hypothesis. Perusall (for text, video, and podcasts) is incorporated into Canvas and can be used in conjunction with Canvas Groups. While Hypothesis (text only) is considered an outside tool, it is often preferable in small classes for analyses of text.

Discussions (online)

Discussions are a great way to help your students engage with course material and develop a sense of community. Instructors tend to use discussion boards in several ways: for developing their students’ critical thinking around course-related concepts, for quick feedback, and/or for course Q&A. 

To have your students to reflect on and discuss a concept related to your course, ask them an open-ended question that does not have an easy answer. Show them that you are involved by commenting on posts. Your presence in the conversation will model and encourage quality posts over quantity.  

You can also use the board more informally as a way of gauging student understanding of or questions about the day’s lecture, their feelings about a new activity you tried, the difficulty of the last homework assignment, or their thoughts on a current event.

When using a discussion board for Q&A, students will often respond to others’ posts. While this is a good thing, it is important that your (or your TAs) regularly review the accuracy of their responses. Your visible presence shows that you care and value the space.

Cornell supports Ed Discussion, which extends the basic functionality of Canvas Discussions.

See our comparison of Ed Discussion and Canvas Discussions.

Other collaboration tools

FeedbackFruits is an online tool that uses peer assessment and interactive content to engage students in a collaborative online environment. Students give and receive individual or group feedback on their (uploaded) work with the help of a built-in rubric. Instructors can add quizzes and discussion questions to video and audio content for students to annotate in threads.

FeedbackFruits can be added to your Canvas course through the course navigation tab.

FlipGrid allows students to organize, curate and share multimedia content of their own creation or from around the web. At Cornell, the video component is often used as a way for students to introduce themselves to their classmates, to capture and share class concepts in action in the world, or for projects in which they teach their peers about a specific topic or process.

FlipGrid can be added to your Canvas course through the course navigation tab.