Active Learning Techniques

Active learning does not mean that lectures should be removed entirely.

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Lectures are an efficient way of delivering information, especially information that needs to be memorized or understood. Active engagement activities can exist both within lectures and alongside them.

The following examples are organized by activities that can be added to your lecture or that can replace parts of your lecture.

Activities to supplement your lecture

Active learning activities can break up a long lecture into smaller parts, helping students to refocus. 

  • Pause procedure
    Pause for two minutes every 12 to 18 minutes (or at logical places in the lecture), encouraging students to discuss and rework notes in pairs. This approach encourages students to consider their understanding of the lecture material, including its organization. This pause also allows students to ask questions and get clarification. The pause procedure has been shown to significantly increase learning when compared to lectures without pauses (Bonwell, 1991; Rowe, 1980; Ruhl, 1987).
  • Retrieval practice
    Pause for two or three minutes every 15 minutes and have students write everything they can remember from the preceding class segment. Encourage questions. This approach prompts students to retrieve information from memory, which improves long-term memory, the ability to learn subsequent material and the ability to translate information to new domains (Brame, 2015).
  • Demonstrations
    Ask students to predict the result of a demonstration, briefly discussing with a neighbor. After the demonstration, ask them to discuss the observed result and how it may have differed from their prediction; follow up with instructor explanation. Incorrect predictions help students see their misconceptions and prompts them to restructure their mental model.
  • Peer instruction with ConcepTests
    This modification of think-pair-share involves student response devices (e.g., clickers). Pose a conceptually-based multiple-choice question. Ask students to individually think about their answer and vote on a response before turning to a neighbor to discuss (pair). Encourage students to change their answers after discussion, if appropriate, and then share class results by revealing a graph of student responses. Use the graph as a stimulus for class discussion.
  • Minute papers
    Ask students a question that requires them to reflect on their learning or to engage in critical thinking. Have the students write for one minute and then ask them to share responses to stimulate discussion or collect all responses to inform future class sessions. Like think-pair-share, this approach encourages students to articulate and examine newly formed connections (Angelo & Cross, 1993).

Activities to replace part of your lecture

Active participation in activities improves student learning and retention compared to lectures. More complex activities encourage students to engage on a deeper level with the material. This is particularly useful for challenging concepts or skills that students tend to struggle with on their own. These activities give students class time to practice what they are learning so that they can receive immediate feedback. Instructors are encouraged to move some direct instruction to a non-sequential format (e.g., online video) to allow class time for engagement of these activities.

  • Strip sequence
    Students are given the steps in a process on strips of paper that are jumbled. They are then asked to work together to reconstruct the proper sequence. This approach can strengthen students’ logical thinking processes and test their mental model of a process (Handelsman, 2007).
  • Concept map
    Concept maps are visual representations of the relationships between concepts. Concepts are placed in nodes (often circles), and the concepts are connected by labeled arrows to show their relationships. It is helpful for students to identify the key concepts to be mapped in small groups or as a whole class. Students can then determine the relationship between the concepts and, arranging two at a time, draw arrows between related concepts and label them with a short phrase to describe the relationship.

    By asking students to build an external representation of their mental model of a process, this approach helps students examine and strengthen the organization within the model. Further, it can emphasize the possibility of multiple “right” answers.

    More information and a tool to do online concept mapping can be found at the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (Novak, 2008).

For concept mapping to be done well it often requires practice and training for students. This is a more difficult activity to implement but works well for content that can be organized in a two-dimensional space.

  • Mini-maps
    Mini-maps are like concept maps but students are given a relatively short list of terms (usually 10 or fewer) to incorporate into their map. To use this approach, provide students with a list of major concepts or specific terms and ask them to work in groups of two or three to arrange the terms in a logical structure, showing relationships with arrows and words. Ask groups to volunteer to share their mini-maps and clarify any confusing points. Mini-maps have many of the same strengths as concept maps but can be completed more quickly and thus can serve as part of a larger class session with other learning activities (Handelsman, 2007).
  • Categorizing grids
    Students are presented with a grid made up of several important categories and a list of scrambled terms, images, equations or other items. Ask students to quickly sort the terms into the correct categories in the grid and the share their grids and answer questions that may arise. This approach allows students to express and thus interrogate the distinctions they see within a field of related items. It can be particularly effective at helping instructors identify misconceptions (Angelo & Cross, 1993).
  • Student-generated test questions:
    Provide students with a copy of your learning goals for a particular unit and a figure summarizing Bloom’s Taxonomy (with representative verbs associated with each category). Challenge groups of students to create test questions corresponding to your learning goals and different levels of the taxonomy. Consider having each group share their favorite test question with the whole class or distributing all student-generated questions to the class as a study guide. This approach helps students consider what they know as well as implications of the instructor’s stated learning goals (Angelo & Cross, 1993).
  • Decision-making activities
    Ask students to imagine that they are policymakers who must make and justify tough decisions. Provide a short description of a thorny problem, ask students to work in groups to arrive at a decision and then have groups share their decisions and explain their reasoning. This highly engaging technique helps students critically consider a challenging problem and encourages them to be creative in considering solutions. The “real-world” nature of the problems can provide incentive for students to dig deeply into the problems (Handelsman, 2007)
  • Content, form and function outlines
    Students in small groups are asked to carefully analyze a particular artifact — a poem, a story, an essay, a billboard, an image or a graph — and identify the “what” (content), the “how” (form) and the “why” (function). This technique can help students consider the various ways that meaning is communicated in different genres (Angelo & Cross, 1993).

Problem-, Project- and Cased-Based Learning

Commonly referred to as PBL and CBL, students learning in a course that use these techniques develop a variety of higher order skills as they are asked to use analytical thinking and reflective judgement by working with complex, real-life scenarios. Instructors use PBL and CBL to teach students how to solve salient problems using course content.

PBL and CBL have a long history of effective use in academia in areas such as architecture, medicine, and engineering. For example, an engineering instructor might have students design and then build a model of a bridge. This style of learning has many benefits, not least of which is to teach students to work in a manner that is reflective of the modern workplace (Lathram, 2016).

Problem- and Project-Based Learning (PBL)
Similar to case-based learning, this learning model encourages them to direct their own learning by solving problems of academic significance and move beyond the controlled classroom environment. Rather than being the source of content expertise, faculty are facilitators of knowledge and motivators of action.

PBL organizes learning around projects of complex tasks precipitated by an in-depth question or problem. Generally, the scope of PBL is larger and broader than a traditional assignment.

Case-Based Learning (CBL)
Case-based learning presents students with situations from the larger world that require students to apply their knowledge to reach a conclusion about an open-ended situation.

To use CBL, provide students with a case, asking them to decide what they know that is relevant to the case, what other information they may need, and what impact their decisions may have, considering the broader implications of their decisions.

Give groups of three to five students time to consider responses, circulating to ask questions and providing help as needed. Provide opportunities for groups to share responses; the greatest value from case-based learning comes from the complexity and variety of answers that may be generated.

PBL and CBL Resources