Engaging students in active and meaningful experiences to strengthen learning.
On this page:
The Importance of Activities
Activities are what make your course come alive and help your students achieve learning outcomes. Because activities are what students will most experience and learn from, we first spend time articulating an active learning framework that details with how to create effective activities and then addresses why to build in social elements to these learning experiences. Finally, we share a variety of activities to consider in your course.
An Active Learning Framework
There are many ways to incorporate active learning throughout instruction. For this to be effective, it is important to incorporate these three key elements (Fink, 2003).
Information and Ideas: Students receive information and ideas often indirectly through lectures or textbook readings. However, students can also engage directly with primary sources, such as journal articles, through exploration and analysis and synthesis, furthering their understanding.
Experiences: A key component of active learning is the physical “doing” or “observing” to gain rich learning experiences in authentic settings or tasks. For example, if an instructor wants to prepare students to become a museum curator, they could participate in a virtual tour of an art history museum then prepare for a question-and-answer session with a curator. Similarly, the students could observe by shadowing the curator, or volunteer at the museum, deepening their learning experiences.
If opportunities like these are not possible, the instructor could still provide an indirect experience. For example, students could research the responsibilities of a curator and work together to create a small art exhibition. Doing so gives students the opportunity to apply their learning to an authentic situation. Regardless of whether the experience is direct or indirect, the objective is for students to actively participate in their learning.
Reflection: Students must also reflect on what they have done to consolidate their ideas and make meaning out of the experience. Reflection is an important factor for students to make meaning and should be included in each activity.
The following chart (Fink, 2003) helps support active, authentic, and meaningful activity building by organizing the three key elements with examples.
Activities That Promote Active Learning
Getting information and ideas
Reflecting (on what one is learning and how one is learning)
Real doing in authentic settings
Direct observation of phenomena
In-depth reflective dialogue and writing on the learning process
Secondary data and sources
Stories (can be accessed via film, literature, oral history)
Teacher can assign students to directly experience…
Students can engage in indirect kinds of experience at distant sites or online.
Students can record their reflections and then, if they choose, share their reflections with others in writing, via online.
Instructional Practices That Promote Active Learning
Activities should provide students with an opportunity to learn through direct and indirect authentic experiences where they can reflect on what they have learned and why they learned it. For an instructor to support active learning, they must shift some of their role as transmitter of information to that of a coach or facilitator. You can do this by including the following strategies into your instructional practice:
Incorporating formative assessments
Guiding student thinking
Prompting and cueing
Scaffolding learning and information
Supporting through the learning process
Thinking along with students to produce ideas
Social Constructivists posit that learning is inherently social, and the social environment is therefore central to learning. While learners build on prior knowledge, they also learn within a larger context that is cultural and social. There are several social benefits for learning:
Shared knowledge: When students discuss and work in groups, they share knowledge and learn from each other.
Practice skills: When students interact during group work or discussion, they must engage in skills such as reasoning, argumentation and communication. While practicing these skills they also discover gaps in their own knowledge.
Motivation: Finally, when done well, group work can be highly motivating.
Research has shown that working with others can be more effective than working alone. For example, cooperative learning, where students work together to reach a goal, is more effective than competitive learning, or individualistic learning (Hattie, 2008). Cooperative learning “has a prime effect on enhancing interest and problem solving provided it is set up with high levels of peer involvement.” (Nuthall, 2007).
Because of this we suggest:
Building in group work activities throughout your course. There are many examples below that include group work or that can be adapted to have students work together.
Because positive experiences require careful planning and support, we have a page dedicated to planning and managing group work.
This section provides an overview of the process to build activities and also includes many suggestions of activities that you can integrate into your course design that support active learning.
Process to Build Activities
First, review your learning outcomes and decide how you want students to demonstrate that they have achieved these outcomes. Next, break down the learning process into manageable chunks. For example, if you want your students to be able to research and explain a specific brain region, then create activities that give students an opportunity to learn how to research, explain concepts clearly and appropriately, and develop skills to present in multiple modes. Or, if a final assignment is for students to write a research paper, then design activities that support students in both the research and writing process. Providing students with this scaffolded approach will help them meet the expected outcomes.
To help support you with building activities for your course, please see the list of activities below as organized by category. Integrating any of these activities will help you design a course that includes authentic and active learning experiences.
Pre-class activities allow students to review previous content and engage with new content prior to the next lesson. This gives the students an opportunity to monitor their understanding. The instructor can also gauge student understanding and misconceptions.
Advanced organizers: This is an activity used to help students collect and organize their thoughts, knowledge and connections. It is especially helpful when using guiding question to prompt information. They can be text-based or graphic in nature. Some examples are guided notes, a synthesis matrix and concept maps.
Entry ticket: This is a small assignment, activity or question that helps students recall the previous lesson’s objectives or helps prepare students for the current day’s lesson.
Videos with embedded questions: Using a prepared video (your own or curated), embed questions for students to answer prior to class using a tool like Panopto.
Question of the day: Share a question with students to think about throughout the day’s lessons. Ensure that the question is aligned with the lesson’s objectives. At the end of the class, discuss the answer to the question.
Summarize (e.g., reading the previous lesson’s objective): Students come to class with a summary of their homework assignment or previous lesson’s objective. They can share their summary with the class or a peer.
The following are activities that can be added to your lecture or that can replace parts of your lecture. Remember, active learning does not mean that lectures should be removed entirely. Breaking-up a long lecture into smaller parts helps students refocus and build understanding.
Concept maps: These visual representations depict relationships between multiple concepts. For example, students fill in a graphic organizer with the identified concepts, they then draw arrows between related concepts and label them with a short phrase to describe the relationship. This approach helps students build an external representation of their mental model and its organization as well as supports multi-modal learning. For more information, and an online concept mapping tool, visit Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (Novak, 2008).
Demonstrations: Ask students to predict the result of a demonstration, briefly discussing with a peer or take a class poll. After the demonstration, ask them to discuss the observed result and how it may have differed from their prediction; follow up with an explanation. Incorrect predictions help students see their misconceptions and prompt them to restructure their mental model.
Guided notes: An instructor-prepared handout that helps guide students to take notes during the lecture. The handout includes background information, terms, concepts, main ideas, etc.
Pair-compare-ask: Modeled after the think-pair-share activity, after taking notes, students pair up with another student and discuss their notes together. Next, they work together to create questions to ask during the whole group discussion.
Pause procedure: Pause for approximately two minutes every 12-18 minutes. Encourage students to discuss and rework notes individually or in pairs. Allows students to ask questions and receive clarification.
Polls: Can be used to take attendance, administer surveys and quizzes, play games, share notes, etc. There are many technology-based polling tools that can be accessed using apps or websites.
Retrieval practice: Pause for approximately two minutes every 15 minutes. Students write everything they remember from this class segment. Encourage questions. This strategy can be used during a lesson to review, or before a lesson to activate prior knowledge.
20 additional examples of interactive lecture strategies.
Writing activities help students reflect, process and document their understandings and misunderstandings. If reflective writing is an expectation in a course, students become more focused and self-regulated learners. They pay closer attention to lectures and readings, and begin to process and think critically about the content. Additionally, writing provides instructors with valuable information about students’ level of understanding.
Free writing: Students write a paragraph or two on a topic without stopping. The objective is for students to get as many ideas as possible on paper and to not focus on the quantity or quality of the ideas. Students can then use these ideas to participate in a class discussion, develop an essay, prepare for a debate, etc.
Journals: These self-reflective tools can be private between student and instructor, or can strictly be a place for a student to share their personal learning experiences privately with themselves. Journaling gives students a way to articulate how they are doing in the class, the challenges they may be experiencing, or the questions they have.
Learning logs: Students write about the concepts that they are learning and can be customized by the instructor to elicit specific types of information. Usually learning logs consist of a two-column chart where the first column lists the topics and their associated questions. The second column on the right is used by the students to answer these questions or write additional notes.
One-minute paper: This brief activity allows students one minute to answer an instructor generated question. It can also be used to summarize part or all of the class session. Students then can share responses to stimulate class discussions, or the instructor can collect the papers to assess student responses.
One-sentence summaries: Students answer “who, what, when, where, how, why” questions about a particular topic in one sentence.
Provides a variety of writing activities you can integrate into your course.
Creating well-directed and thought-provoking discussions that allow for a supportive and inclusive exchange of viewpoints can be challenging, but the benefit to student learning outweighs the challenges. According to Nilson (2013), discussion boards that are well planned and facilitated can help students achieve any learning outcome. Use the resources below to help you plan and facilitate your discussion activities.
Backchannel discussions: This is a secondary channel of communication that often happens in real time. For example, students engage each other alongside a lecture or activity. Students can support one another by asking and answering questions. A teaching assistant can also be included to provide support and monitor the chat so questions, concerns or misconceptions can be brought to the instructor’s attention.
Discussion forums: These can be used for many purposes, however, the most common is to pose questions that require students to think critically and post a response. The discussion becomes robust when students thoughtfully reply to additional posts.
Scenario-based discussions: An activity that is designed to have students analyze and think critically to solve a problem, make a decision or explore an issue. The scenarios are culturally, socially or contextually relevant and of high interest to students.
Socratic seminar: This activity helps students develop a deep understanding through a series of thought-provoking questions. Furthermore, students practice their critical thinking skills through dialogue and (re)examine their thoughts and opinions about a particular topic. The objective is not for students to come to an answer, but to delve deeper into a topic and spark curiosity.
Student-generated questions: Challenge students to create quality questions related to learning outcomes and their levels of cognitive complexity.
Think-pair-share: Students independently think about, or write, the answer to a question. Students then work with a peer to discuss their responses. From there, students share with a larger group or with the whole class.
Further activities to facilitate discussion boards.
Small group activities are designed for students to benefit from the peer-to-peer interactions. When students collaborate, it gives them the opportunity to work together and maximize each other’s learning, leading to increased student success. Further, cooperative learning allows students to practice 21st century skills.
Analyze data sets: Students work collaboratively to analyze specific data sets to come to informed conclusions.
Case study analysis: Students analyze a real-world situation in pairs or in small groups. Through prepared questions, students identify the problem and develop a solution such as a diagnosis and prognosis.
Fishbowl: A small group of students are broken up into two small subgroups. One group sits in an inner circle called the fishbowl. These students are discussing their opinion about a topic. The other students on the outer circle actively listen to the students in the fishbowl. After several minutes, the two groups switch. The new group can provide counter arguments. This continues until the instructor ends the fishbowl.
Jigsaw: Students work on part or “piece” of a concept. Students share their “pieces” with others to create the whole. This activity can be done with sections of an article, chapters of a book, parts of a problem, sections of a study review, etc.
Identifying Processes: This can be done using a worksheet or workflow for students to determine the steps of a particular process. Additionally, the process steps can be cut into strips of paper and then jumbled. Student work to order the steps of the sequence or procedure. This activity can be used as a self-assessment tool when accompanied by an answer key.
Think-write-pair-share: This is like think pair share, except that there is an additional step where students write down their thoughts before they turn to share with a partner. Or you can consider think-pair-repair where you pose an open-ended question to your class and ask students to come up with their best answers.
An experiential activity is a pedagogical process. Instructors engage students through direct experience and reflection. Students can analyze and experiment to deepen their understanding. The following activities allow for students to learn by actively engaging in the learning process.
Community service: Students can participate in a community service project. They learn from and reflect on this hands-on experience.
Debates: A formal argument on a particular topic. Students apply their understanding to form arguments for and against a particular topic. The objective is for students to be able to argue for both opposing viewpoints using their content knowledge and if allowed by the instructor, supporting resources.
Field trips: Students have first-hand experiences outside the classroom. Providing students with an opportunity to observe and interact with the real world allows them to apply their new understandings to authentic contexts.
Panel discussions: Panels often focus on a particular topic and can include a variety of people such as experts, former students, career-oriented professional or community members impacted by a relevant issue. Students then engage with the panel members by asking thought provoking questions while deepening their own understanding through higher cognitive skills.
Press conference: This activity is a version of role playing in which students act as interviewers by developing questions on a particular topic, lesson or unit. During the press conference, students take turns asking the instructor their generated questions. Students jot down notes and ask follow-up questions as needed. By engaging in this dialogue, students build knowledge, think critically and make connections.
Virtual tours: Instructors can use virtual videos of particular places to enhance their instruction and students’ learning experiences. Virtual tours are simulations. There are several virtual tours available to bring specific places into your classroom.
Integrated With UB Learns
Please see our teaching tools page for guidance and support to build specific items (e.g., assignment, quiz, discussion board, to name a few) in UB Learns.
Create a poster session: Students create a dynamic or interactive poster to explain, pose, solve and answer a particular topic and its surrounding questions. The poster is the tool for students to demonstrate their understanding of a topic and their ability to apply specific skills.
Build a wiki: Students collaborate to create a “living document” (students can work simultaneously to build the document) on a particular topic. This document can be built over time.
Design a vlog: This is very similar to a blog, but the content is not written, rather it is presented in short videos.
Develop a computer code: Students work on building a code to solve a particular problem or overcome a specific challenge. They can apply their newly learned skills to an authentic problem and/or situation.
Record a podcast: Students can create their own audio file that discusses, interviews, reenacts or reviews a particular topic, person, event or place.
Write a blog: Students can comment on current topics or events. It is often written in an informal conversational tone. A blog is typically a website that is continually added too.
Exit tickets: Students answer a question or solve a problem. Students hand their exit ticket to the instructor before leaving class. The instructor reviews the exit tickets and uses the information to prepare for the following class. This might include identifying misconceptions to review or to confirm that students grasped new content and are ready to learn subsequent concepts.
Muddiest point: Students identify concepts that are confusing or need clarification. This can be done in a variety of ways such as a one-minute paper, discussion board response, index card, survey, etc.
Peer-assessment: Students work collaboratively to review each other’s work using an objective tool such as a rubric.
Academic games: There are a number of academic games you can integrate into your course design (e.g., Kahoot!, Jeopardy, Quizlet, or Plickers). These games should be used to meaningfully engage students with the topics while applying their understanding. The feedback these tools provide helps both the instructor and students monitor learning and misconceptions.
Reflection/Reaction paragraph: Students take several minutes at the end of class to reflect on and write about their learning experience. This reflection could include a sentence of what they understood, if they felt they achieved the learning outcome for the day, as well as the questions or concerns that remain. The objective of the paragraph is for students to be able to strengthen their self-regulation skills.
Self-assessment: Students review their work from a supportive and constructive perspective. Meaning, students identify their strengths and areas of growth on a particular assignment or project. Doing so helps students become self-regulated learners.
Use collaborative documents such as within UB Box
Use the unit plan template to develop your activities.
Step 1: Review the following prior to choosing and aligning activities:
Step 2: Determine the activities you will build to help support your students in achieving the learning outcome. Include the steps, stages or parts that students need to learn or practice to develop proficiency.
Step 3: Build your activities. Ensure they are aligned and will help students progress through the course. Consider these questions when building:
What activity will help students achieve the learning outcomes?
How will the activity orient students (e.g., connected to the unit, where the unit is going and includes clear criteria and expectations)?
Is the activity authentic, relevant, interesting, and meaningful for your students?
Does the activity give students the tools necessary to process and analyze key concepts and issues?
Have you included an opportunity for students to reflect and evaluate their learning experience?
Is the activity inclusive and equitable for all learners?
Now that you have built the activities for your course, the next step is to ensure accessibility and inclusivity for all your students.