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