Building Activities

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 Experiencing Reflecting (on what one is learning and how one is learning)
Doing Observing
  • Original data
  • Original sources
  • Real doing in authentic settings
  • Direct observation of phenomena
  • Classroom discussions
  • Term papers
  • In-depth reflective dialogue and writing on the learning process
Indirect, vicarious
  • Secondary data and sources
  • Lectures, textbooks
  • Case Studies
  • Simulations
  • Role Plays
  • Stories (can be accessed via film, literature, oral history)
Distance learning (online courses, interactive video, correspondence courses)
  • Course Web site
  • Internet
  • Video lectures
  • Printed materials
  • 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:

  • Asking questions
  • 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

Group Work

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Because positive experiences require careful planning and support, we have a page dedicated to planning and managing group work.

Choosing Activities to Build

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.

Choosing Activities

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.

Online Learning Active Learning Strategies

While almost all the activities can be used in face-to-face or online delivery modes, the following are examples to show you how to adapt activities to online formats.

Activity Ways to adapt to online learning
  • Hold virtual discussions via conferencing tools such as Zoom​
  • Use the discussion board feature in UB Learns​
  • Use collaborative documents and color code student responses​
Exit ticket
  • At the end of a virtual session, have students write a response in the chat (to instructor or to group - chats can be saved for later review)​
  • Create a quiz in UB learns using an open ended question​
Comprehension questions
  • Embed questions into your Panopto instructional videos​
  • Use interactive technology such as Top Hat​
  • Use UB Learns quizzes within a learning module​
  • Submit a document via assignments in UB Learns​
  • Create a digital portfolio​
Group work
  • Use the breakout room feature of conferencing tools such as Zoom​
  • Create groups in UB Learns and assign group tasks​
  • 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:
    • Unit purpose
    • Goal statement
    • Learning outcomes.
  • 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?

Next Steps

Now that you have built the activities for your course, the next step is to ensure accessibility and inclusivity for all your students.