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Active Learning

Whereas higher education was once thought of as primarily a process of transmission (i.e., pouring knowledge into empty vessels), a growing body of research has made it clear that the overall quality of teaching and learning is improved when students have ample opportunities to clarify, question, apply, and consolidate new knowledge. There are any number of teaching strategies that can be employed to actively engage students in the learning process, including group discussions, problem solving, case studies, role plays, journal writing, and structured learning groups. The benefits to using such activities are many. They include improved critical thinking skills, increased retention and transfer of new information, increased motivation, and improved interpersonal skills.

Some Simple Paired Activities

Having students work in pairs on a task is a low-risk strategy which virtually ensures close to 100 percent participation in classes of any size. Below are a few simple activities which can be adapted to almost any content area. A more extensive list of active learning strategies (including over twenty individual, paired, and group activities) can be accessed here: Active Learning Techniques (pdf).

Think/Pair/Share

The objectives are to engage the class with the material on an individual level, in pairs, and finally as a large group. The activity can help to organize prior knowledge; brainstorm questions; or summarize, apply, or integrate new information. Approximate time: six to eight minutes.

The procedure is as follows: 1) individuals reflect on and write brief notes for one minute in response to a question; 2) students pair up with someone sitting near them and share their answers verbally for two to three minutes, or they may choose to work together to create a better answer; 3) the instructor randomly chooses a few pairs to give thirty-second summaries of individual or joint answers.

Question and Answer Pairs

The objective here is to engage individuals with readings and then to pair them to answer particular questions. This helps to increase motivation to read before the class, to deepen the level of analysis of articles, and to practice explaining difficult concepts. Instructors may choose to model the kinds of questions that are appropriate to this exercise or somehow indicate the level, content, or scope of appropriate questions. Approximate time: five to ten minutes.

The procedure is as follows: 1) students read the assignment before class and compose one or two questions about it; 2) in class, the students pair up; A asks a prepared question and B responds; then B asks a prepared question and A responds; 3) the instructor may ask students to turn in their questions and summary answers.

Note-checking Pairs

The objective is to engage students with their notes during class in order to integrate their notes on new material with previous material, to clarify major and minor points, and to increase accuracy in note-taking. Approximate time: two to five minutes.
The procedure is as follows: 1) at the end of a lecture segment (15 minutes is a good length), students pair up to complete a task with their notes; for example, they could summarize the three major arguments of the lecture, choose the most important idea that will appear on the exam, check the accuracy of some information, or use the notes to solve an example problem; the instructor may generate a question from the group for the pairs to work on; 2) the instructor may ask students to turn in their answers.

General Guidelines for Paired Activities

  • Don't use the same techniques too often. Once per week per technique is a reasonable use.
  • Vary the accountability by occasionally having students turn in the work. Read a sample then comment specifically on it.
  • Have students occasionally pair up with the student behind them, since friends often sit side by side.
  • Request students vary their seating arrangements to increase their chances to work with different people.
  • Reflect some of the informal activities in the formal evaluations in some way. For example, include a short essay question that was used in a think/pair/share.
  • Be candid with the students as to why you are asking them to do these things. Explain attention span, the need for engaging material individually and socially, and that research shows better learning occurs by using active learning.

Planning an Active Learning Activity

When planning an active learning activity, answering the following questions will help you clarify your goals and structure:

  • What are your objectives for the activity?
  • Who is interacting? Will students pair up with someone beside them? Or perhaps someone sitting behind/in front of them? Should they pair up with someone with a different background? Someone they don't know yet?
  • When does the activity occur during the class? Beginning? Middle? End? How much time are you willing to spend on it?
  • Will they write down their answers/ideas/questions or just discuss them?
  • Will they turn in the responses or not? If they are asked to turn them in, should they put their names on them?
  • Will you give individuals a minute or so to reflect on the answer before discussing it or will they just jump right into a discussion?
  • Will you grade their responses or not?
  • How will they share the paired work with the whole class? How will you share the feedback and insight you gain from their responses?
  • If they are responding to a question you pose, how are you going to ensure that they leave with confidence in their understanding? Often, if the various student answers are not discussed without the instructor explicitly indicating which ones are "right", students become frustrated. Even with a question that has no absolute "right" answer, students want to know what the instructor's stand on the question is.
  • What preparation do you need to use the activity? What preparation do the students need in order to participate fully?

Keys to Success

  • Start small and be brief
  • Develop a plan for an active learning activity, try it out, collect feedback, then modify and try it again.
  • Start from the first day of class.
  • Always try the question or task yourself first. Whenever possible, also try it on a colleague.
  • Be explicit with students about why you are doing this and what you know about the learning process.
  • Negotiate a signal to stop talking.
  • Randomly call on pairs to share.
  • Find a colleague or two to plan with (and perhaps teach with) while you're implementing active learning activities.
  • Continue learning through workshops, reading, and practice.

Further Reading on Active Learning

  • Bonwell, Charles C. and James A. Eison, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report. Washington, D.C.: 1991.
  • Campbell, William E. and Karl A. Smith. New Paradigms for College Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.
  • Johnson, David W., Roger T. Johnson, and Karl A. Smith, Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co, 1991.