Getting Started with Active Learning Techniques

Active learning is "anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing" (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2). Research suggests attention wanes after 15-20 minutes of a lecture. Active learning techniques can be used to re-energize and refocus a class. The following are just a few active learning techniques instructors can easily modify for use in their own classes.

Technique 1 – Think-Pair-Share/Write-Pair-Share

(10 minutes of class time)

  • Present a question to answer or a statement/quote for reflection.
  • Give students two to three minutes to think about or write their responses.
  • Have students then share their answers or responses with a neighbor.
  • After a few minutes, signal for students to stop.
  • Debrief by calling on a few pairs to share their thoughts or answers with the class.
  • Reflect on students’ answers to gauge student progress and relate their responses to the next part of your class.

Technique 2 – Minute Paper

(2-10 minutes of class time)

  • Think about the class learning outcomes. What should students in your class know or be able to do?
  • Design a prompt based on your learning outcomes. (For example, what are the most important points of today’s lecture? What are two ways you could you apply [concept] to a real-world situation?).
  • Check the effectiveness of your question and anticipate various responses.
  • Give students enough time to respond (2-10 minutes depending on the prompt).
  • Collect all responses for review or select a sample for larger class sizes.
  • If checking individual student comprehension/writing, ask students to write their names on the papers. If checking general comprehension of the class, make it anonymous.
  • Review the responses for themes or commonly made errors.
  • Provide feedback in the next class. Comment on papers directly or summarize main themes to the whole class.

Adapted from Angelo & Cross (1993).

Technique 3 – Stump Your Partner

(10 minutes of class time)

  • At a natural break in your lecture, pause and ask students to come up with one or two questions based on the lecture content up to that point. 
  • Tell students that they will try to stump their partner, so they have to come up with a challenging question. 
  • Have students turn to a partner and pose their questions.
  • Collect the questions (they might be used as possible exam questions or to check students’ comprehension).

Technique 4 – Catch-Up

(5-10 minutes of class time)

  • Introduce this activity at some logical breaking point in a class or lecture.
  • Ask students to turn to a neighbor to share notes and ask any clarifying questions for a few minutes.
  • Take two or three questions from a couple of pairs.
  • At this point, assess the situation—if there are only a few questions to address, you can quickly do so and move on. If there are many more, it might be worth slowing down or stepping back to review.

Technique 5 – Problem Solving or Case Study

(5-20 minutes or more of class time depending on depth of assignment)

  • Present a problem or case study for review on an overhead.
  • Students work in pairs or small groups to come up with an answer (or answers—depending on your prompts).
  • Give students a set time or allow students to work until the first group comes up with the solution(s).
  • Debrief the answer(s) as a class.
  • To motivate and energize, add a bit of healthy competition. The first group who comes up with the right solution(s) gets an extra point on the next test/exam.

Thinking About Incorporating Active Learning?

  • Set the tone early. Explain to students that they will be engaging with the material in various ways in class.
  • Use activities to draw attention to issues and content you feel are most critical.
  • Incorporate activities or change things up every 15-20 minutes (once or twice in a 50-minute class, or twice or thrice in a 75-minute class).
  • Variety is important. Having a handful of different activities can keep things less predictable.
  • Set aside time before and after each activity to introduce it and define the takeaway.
  • Articulate ground rules for participation and discussion.
  • If you are implementing a new technique or introducing a new theme, consider surveying students to determine its effectiveness.

Some additional thoughts:

  • Active learning techniques may not engage all students. Focus on engaging more students in more meaningful ways.
  • Explaining the learning benefits of the activity may counter possible resistance (see Felder & Brent (1996) for more strategies).
  • It may take time for both instructors and students to get used to new teaching techniques.

Active Learning & Technology

Classroom Polling (iClickers)

  • Create questions that students can answer individually and anonymously, or as a pair or small group.
  • Project the answers as they roll in using presentation technology.
  • Strike a balance between asking questions and other lecture activities—asking too many can be distracting.

Videos & Multimedia

  • Do a previewing activity (have students predict a situation or brainstorm ideas about the topic).
  • Show the video and consider providing guiding questions or prompts (find the error, spot the critical moment, etc.).
  • Post-video, students work individually or in pairs/groups to reflect on what they saw or discuss what they noticed.
  • Debrief as a class by asking a few students to share.

Smart Mobile Devices or Laptops

  • Ask students to check/clarify information by searching online in pairs or small groups.
  • Ask students to find a video that illustrates the lecture’s main point.
  • Have students create and evaluate questions using back channeling and question generation technologies.

Resources

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, P. A. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports.Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf.

David, B. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (1996). Navigating the bumpy road to student centered instruction. College Teaching, 44(2), 43-47.

Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A six thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64-74.

Johnstone, A. H., & Percival, F. (1976). Attention breaks in lectures. Education in Chemistry, 13(2), 49-50.

McCarthy, J. P., & Anderson, L. (2000). Active learning techniques versus traditional teaching styles: Two experiments from history and political science. Innovative Higher Education, 24(4), 279-294.

McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2011). Teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meyers, C., & Jones, T. B. (1993). Promoting active learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Middendorf, J., & Kalish, A. (1996). The “change-up” in lectures. The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 5(2), 1-7.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning really work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.