Addressing Active Learning Concerns

There are many places for concern when implementing active learning. We address these and offer potential solutions.

Many of the concerns listed on this webpage use technology to address active learning problems. We have complied a list of additional resources to help you use technology to facilitate teaching.

On this page:

Limited time

There is no time to add more to an already packed lecture.  

Swap direct instruction and homework. Remove some direct instruction from class time and assign it for homework (e.g., using videos or readings). Adapt homework for in-class interactive activities.

Implementing interactive activities means adding more assignments that need grading.

  • Use peer assessment. Create low-stakes assignments that students need to complete in order to succeed on other graded projects or assignments.
  • Use technology. For example, in Blackboard you can set up low-stakes assessments that can be automatically graded to ensure students are coming to class prepared.

Too many emails. Students have too many questions since active learning is unfamiliar.

  • Set clear expectations for students to reach out to each other for help via the classroom message board.
  • Answer students’ emailed questions on a message board. If one student has a question about a part of the assignment, it’s likely that others do, too. Be sure to remove all identifying information.
  • Collect student questions and create an FAQ page. This FAQ can be an online document or attached to the syllabus.
  • Use a rubric (see Rubrics). Rubrics answer many common student questions and clearly communicate your expectations for the assignment.

Student problems

While you may meet with some resistance from students, it will generally be at a much lower level than expected (Finelli, 2018).

  • Clearly explain why students are being asked to engage in these tasks and the benefits for them (see Evidence of Active Learning's Effectiveness).
  • Facilitate student work by walking around the room to engage with students.
  • Plan activities that students perceive as having value. Be explicit about these learning outcomes and why you feel they’re important.

Students will be distracted and off-task.

Adopt “facilitation strategies” where the instructor walks around and engages with students while also working to discourage students from being distracted. Instructors should not be hesitant to refocus students on their work.

Students will come to class unprepared.

  • Make your expectations clear. Explain to students what it means to be “prepared” for class and what they should be able to do when they arrive in class. Whether the material is text or video, students need to know what to look for, how to identify the important parts and to understand why it matters.
  • Hold students accountable. A “ticket to enter” strategy asks students to complete a task as part of their pre-class work. Other strategies include: a low-stakes quiz, writing three questions based off the reading or posting to the class discussion forum. The instructor can use this information to adjust class time as needed to address content students may be struggling with.
  • Allow students to bring a one-page “cheat sheet” to class as their only resource for completing a group activity. If they know the groups in advance, students can collaborate and develop sheets as a group rather than as individuals; this holds them accountable as a team member. Some additional solutions from: Honeycutt, B. (2016). Five Ways to Motivate Unprepared Students in the Flipped Classroom. Faculty Focus, April, 4TH.
  • Have a conversation. Identify who is not prepared and see if this is a trend. Talk to the student or arrange a future meeting. Once students realize they are on an instructor's radar, they often resolve their unpreparedness.
  • Proceed as planned by reviewing material students struggled with and go on with activities as planned. Do not give a quick lecture to recap the pre-class work. Unprepared students will learn that class time will not be derailed by their lack of preparation.
  • Rethink participation grades. Make the completion of pre-class work a significant part of participation and their final grade. This allows instructors more flexibility in determining what counts as “participation” and encourages students to come prepared.

Large classes

It can seem especially overwhelming to incorporate active learning activities into large classes.

Sorting large numbers of students into groups.

If students need to meet outside of class, utilize a tool such as Doodle to create groups based on availability. Or use a simple Google Forms survey to collect metrics that will help determine how students are grouped.

Supervising student work can be overwhelming.

Have students work in a digital environment (e.g., Google Drive or UBbox) and then send a link to their group folder. The faculty or TA can decide how much oversight they would like to provide. This also creates a time- and date-stamped paper trail of the work each student contributes.

No time to grade additional work.

Blackboard has automatic grading built into its quizzes. Peer grading can also be useful, but students will need direction on how to properly critique and give feedback.

Many students need help and there’s only one faculty in the room.

Encourage students to ask their peers before asking the faculty. Make use of message boards in Blackboard, Twitter, Facebook or Padlet where students can post questions and everyone can respond.

Space

Students can’t adjust their chairs to work together in groups in a large lecture hall with fixed seating.

When group work isn’t feasible, have students work in pairs or contribute on a digital platform.

As the university renovates classrooms, older chairs are being replaced with new ones that rotate 275 degrees so students can comfortably turn and speak to those around them. Newly renovated smaller classrooms will have tables and chairs that can be easily moved and adjusted to accommodate different activities.