Active Learning in the College Classroom

More and more college instructors are finding value in enhancing their lectures with active learning activities. The reason behind this shift is the evidence that students are more likely to absorb, understand, and retain material learned through actively engaging in the learning process. The classroom (physical or digital) should not be a place to solely dole out information. There needs to be time for students too apply and reflect on the information being presented to them. Active learning activities require students to use higher-order thinking skills. Active learning should not be looked upon as a replacement of the traditional lecture model, but rather as an enhancing technique to supplement instruction. 

Active learning techniques

One minute paper / periodic free recall - Short writing assignments during class is a powerful way to assess student learning. The writing prompt can be about something specific from the lecture or reading homework, or it can be as simple as "What are some of the major concepts presented in today's lecture?" or "What was the most interesting and challenging thing we discussed today? Short writing assignments force students to reflect on their learning and they can inform the instructor what students got out of the lecture or reading assignment. Periodic free recall is an activity where students put away their notes and recall from memory important points of the lecture. This activity can be paired with a pair-and-compare option where students can compare what they remember and answer each other's questions. Instructors can check on what students thought were the most important points then reveal what they intended to be important things to recall. This activity will help improve students' active listening skills.

Journal - You can instruct students to include sentences that start with certain prompts like: I was surprised that ... I found it interesting that ... Something that I still find confusing is... I think ___ will be on the next exam, and here is what I remember about it...

Classroom assessment techniques - Ungraded quizzes, informal assignments, or  activities are a low-stakes way to assess student understanding of the material. There are many technology tools instructors can use to implement quizzes in a fun way, including Kahoot!, Quizizz, and polleverywhere.com. Use similar questions to the ones you will use in an examination. This preview can help students get comfortable with your  expectations, which can lead to a decrease in  feelings of test anxiety. Short quizzes also reveal points of confusion that warrant more explanation.

Just-in-time-teaching - Instructor changes or improvises lectures or activities to adjust to student confusion revealed by students' responses to a quiz or poll. The quiz is often done at the beginning of class or the night before to motivate students to do the readings.

Project-based learning - This learning experience encourages students (as individuals or groups) to solve real-world problems. Teacher's guide students through a problem solving process, which includes identifying a problem, developing a plan, questioning the of the plan, implementing the plan, and reflecting on the process. It's a teaching method that allows for more autonomy and student-directed learning. It also requires students and teachers to understand that students may undergo several attempts to solve problems before completing the project satisfactorily. Project-based learning requires a significant amount of planning and designing time for the teacher. Read more about PBL.

 Written self-evaluation - Self-evaluation is a good way to help students develop metacognitive skills. After all, a teacher's role is not only to expose students to the core information of a discipline, but also to guide them through engaging with, contributing to, and testing the knowledge base. It's important to communicate to students why it is important to self-evaluate. Explain that we learn from our mistakes, but first we must recognize and correct the mistakes in order to learn from them. Some samples of prompts for students to answer during a self-evaluation are: 

  • For an exam: What study strategies did you use to prepare for this exam? Did these strategies work well? What strategies will you adopt for the next exam? (Give same study strategies such as the ones found on the "Try a new study strategy" page.)
  • For a paper: What works well in this piece? Give specific examples. What would you like to change? Who do you see as the intended audience? How did you go about writing this piece? Did this change the last time you wrote a research paper? What will you do differently next time? What mechanical, grammatical, or structural problem would you like me to focus on when reading this paper? Why?

Peer Teaching/Discussion Leaders - Peer teaching is when students are responsible for a portion, or all, of a lesson. Teaching can be done individually or in small groups depending on the class size. Peer teaching can take place informally (i.e. a student solves a problem on the board and explains the steps to the solution), or there can be a more formal plan. Instructors can prepare a list of weekly topics that are tied to the course learning objectives. Students sign up at the beginning of the semester for the topic that they will be responsible for teaching. Sample guidelines for peer teachers or discussion leaders might include: (1) Create an outline/lesson plan of the topic. (2) Prepare discussion questions or hands-on learning activity to reenforce the learning objectives. (3) Create a supplemental visual, such as a video, PowerPoint, or data visualization. It's a good idea for the instructor to offer an example of each requirement so students understand expectations.

Think-pair-share - This widely used technique works well in a variety of disciplines and class sizes. Typically the instructor poses a question or problem to the class (preferably in written form so students can refer back to it). Individuals have  time to answer the question themselves, and then they break into pairs or small groups to collaborate and come to a consensus. The pairs or groups then share with the class the answer they settled upon. This technique gets the whole class involved, and is an effective way to overcome student reluctance to answer questions from the instructor. The fear of shame or "looking stupid" in front of classmates and the instructor is very real to students. Allowing time for students to think privately, then talking out their ideas with classmates before sharing with the instructor is an effective method to overcome anxiety, build confidence, and promote participation.

Paraphrase the idea - Students put a theory, definition, statement, or procedure into their own words. They can also paraphrase the idea to target a specific audience.

Role play - Assign students roles in a true-to-life problematic situation. Players should be given written descriptions for each role to review privately.  Following the enactment, lead a debriefing discussion. This technique is especially good in healthcare fields, human services, and the humanities. In other fields, use case studies you can adapt for a role play exercise. You may use role play when discussing professional ethics or dealing with conflicts with customers or clients. Students get conversational practice, problem-solving, empathy, and the opportunity to simulate real-world situations of the profession. History instructors can take a different spin on role play and have students react the past. Students assume the identity of historical figures and write or perform an argument within a given historical and social context.

Debate - Classroom debates work better when students are taught rhetorical structure, using evidence, and logical fallacies before having them debate. There are different variations on debates including assigning students a side (which can lead students to argue against their own beliefs). The room can also be physically divided and students can choose which side of the room to sit/stand, and they have the freedom to switch sides if their minds are changed. Along with debate, students can write a reflection paper on the strengths and weaknesses of both positions, and evaluate how well each group did applying literature/evidence to argue their position.