How to encourage active learning

Active learning pedagogies, when done well, can achieve at least two important goals. First, these modes can encourage students to think more deeply about course materials in a setting where they can easily question or communicate their level of comprehension. Second, they can give the course instructor quick feedback on the level of class achievement. Active learning interventions can take time away from other aspects of the traditional lecture, however, having students apply what they are learning  also add value. In order to stimulate thought and not miss out on traditional course materials. Recent studies have shown that although the “activity” of active learning might make students uncomfortable, and that they percieve passive lectures to be more effective, they actually learn better and retain more knowlege using active learning.

How can you recover displaced time in lecture? Other information delivery methods such as lecture-flipping often go hand-in-hand with active, in-class learning.

Here are a few suggestions for active learning exercises:

Doorknob polls:

Getting feedback from students at the beginning and end of each class session can provide talking points for precept discussions, or in revising the content for the next lesson. Thesed responses should be very short. They can take place on index cards, small sheets of paper, via a “clicker” exercise, or a quick poll question.

Pre-class queries might ask about student expectations, prior knowledge, assumptions, or understanding of key points from previous lectures. What students think about something going into a class can change the experience that follows. Exit queries can provide opportunities for more reflective responses. You can ask about the strengths and weaknesses of the lecture, or compare assumptions gathered at the beginning of class with changed perspectives after the immediate experience of the class.

These types of simple questions can focus a student on the salient points of the lecture, making them feel included in the process of learning. It can also provide a snapshot, before and after, of how the class is going. Frequent polling can allow for an agile teaching style that keeps pace with student understanding and misunderstanding.

Active writing:

Words dreaded universally by students? “Take out a piece of paper and . . . . ”
Well, perhaps not. Used as a form of exit or entry poll, a short written exercise can tell you what the student took away — or failed to comprehend–from some aspect of your course. Or, you can just ask them to articulate the sort of questions you’d ask in doorknob polls.


This might seem obvious, but it’s nice for students to get to know a bit about each other before being asked to work together. It’s easy to see students as a monolithic cohort. The reality is that they are often strangers to one another, meeting for the first time in a class.They do already have one thing in common: they elected to take the same course. A brief statement of name, reason for taking the class, and perhaps one fact about themselves to share can create a more collegial feeling in a course. This is particularly important for seminars and other class types that require a certain level of trust, and a shared responsibility for keeping the conversations in class meaningful and repectful.

“The whole is greater than the parts” exercises:

The following exercises are designed for students working in pairs or teams. It can take time for a team to form an effective working group, but research has shown that the group accuracy often is greater than the the average of individual work by team members. Working in teams is a valuable lesson — often resisted by students — but a practical way of learning how most real-world problems are solved. Be clear and fair in defining group work. Students often dislike group assignments, because they feel they may need to contributr more than others in the group to achieve a successful outcome.

Peer-to-peer exercises:

Early examples of the effective use of clickers tended to focus on a simple trick. Have students vote individually on a difficult question. If the results show that a majority of the group did not answer correctly, do the vote again, but ask students to work in pairs before deciding how to vote. The second result? The correct answer becomes the majority vote. Similarly, assigning one clicker (or test sheet) to a group of students most often results in the group grade being higher than the average of the scores of the individuals in the same group. Many students hate the idea of group work, however this exercise is one way to prove that in most cases, group thinking can be more carefully reasoned than individual thinking.

This exercise takes time. Students need the opportunity to think, and to reach consensus in the subsequent pair/group exercises. It is particularly valuable in group exercises to have each group share back to the whole class and explain their reasoning. These exercises can lead to very effective forms of learning.

Interactive demonstrations and assumption-checking:

This exercise works well your course lends itself to live demonstrations, or you can present narratives or case studies, the outcome of which might be predictable based on depth of subject-knowledge

First, introduce the demonstration or scenario, describing the beginning state.
Explain what the change element is — for example, you are going to do “x” in order to run the experiment, or “this event happened” to a community.
Ask the students to pair up and discuss what they think will happen. Survey the predictions/expectations of the small groups
Run the experiment, or reveal the outcome of the scenario.
Have students discuss or analyze the outcome, based on their prior expectations.

Role Play:

Debates, mock courtrooms, assuming identites or other forms of role play can be an important way to learn a new language, to internalize new forms of understanding and behavior, or to understand a historic event. Record the session so that you and the students involved can assess their performance.

Problem-based learning:

People like to solve problems. Depending upon your discipline, examples of workable problems might be quantitative, analytical, or situational.
In some cases, the solution can be instantly checked (does the code compile? what is the solution to the equation?); in others, there might be many paths to a solution (how can a community get clean drinking water? How can a structure be designed? What happened in this case study?).
Guiding questions should lead students through the activity.  The questions should be designed to develop student’s critical thinking by asking students to distinguish between fact and assumptions, and critically analyze both the process they take in solving the case study as well as the solution itself.  Example questions include:

What is the situation? What questions do you have?
What problem(s) need to be solved?  What are some solution strategies?  Evaluate pros/cons and underlying assumptions of these strategies
What information do you need? Where/how could you find it?
What criteria will you use to evaluate your solution?

The advantages of problem-based learning include developing students’ problem solving and decision making skills, developing critical thinking skills, encouraging reflection, and enabling the appreciation of ambiguity in situations.

For complex scenarios or case studies, the groups or an individual can each be assigned one aspect of the problem to solve — and then to come together to create an whole solution out of the pieces.

Posted by November 13, 2015