Active learning without technology

Active learning with technology is great, but it’s not the only way. When students and instructors are together, in-person, taking advantage of the affordances of direct human-to-human interactions is the priority.

Habits to avoid

  • Showing slides and staying behind the podium throughout the class to deliver, presentation-style
  • Looking at a computer or other device more than occasionally
  • Sending students to devices — their eyes go to the device, they’ll be hard-pressed to turn away.

Strategies to activate your students’ minds during class

Strategy 1: Prime the pump by writing

Beginning Activities

  1. Freewriting. Begin with freewriting for simply 2-3 minutes (time it).  Freewrite along with your students.  Keep the room silent. Listen to the silence.  Stop the clock, stretch, and smile.  You’ve just refocused everyone’s mind, brought them to attend to what comes next.
  2. Guided writing.  Ask students to write for 2-3 minutes to an analytical question that asks students to synthesize, make a connection, or interpret an idea.  The goal is to push knowledge gained from reading or lecture to fuller understanding.  After writing, have students share in pairs and then ask a few individuals to report on their partners’ responses.   Sample questions: What are the pros and cons to X? What is the idea that we have discussed during this unit that you can imagine trying to explain to a parent or grandparent? Begin that explanation now, right in your notes.  What is the main argument that the author we read last night was making?
  3. Focused Summaries: write out a paragraph for assigned reading, with specific directions; i.e., what is the argument & what are 3 supporting examples.
  4. Annotations: write out key ideas of assigned reading and briefly evaluate strengths & weaknesses of an author’s argument or research.

Concluding Activities

  1. Teach others: at the conclusion of a unit, write out to an absent classmate the major themes, discoveries, and questions of the unit.
  2. What did I learn?  A focused quick detailing to self what one has learned, with the expectation of identifying a specific number of independent points.
  3. Identifying the conflicts: Review the major issues or authors discussed during this class/unit, and identify conflicting opinions, stating the opinion of the side.

A note on your role. Assigning more writing does not mean instructors should be reading all this writing.  This is writing for students to learn, not for evaluation.  Make sure students are writing by walking around the room and observing, cajoling, scolding, praising.  But don’t collect it.

Strategy 2: Class is for doing

When in class, avoid:

  • Summarizing homework content (why read if your prof will tell you all about it the next day?)
  • Preparing content that you will deliver via lecture and slides
  • Showing a video that runs uninterrupted for more than a few minutes
  • Projecting or writing on board what you are also saying verbally
  • Turning your back to students

Instead, think of a class as the time to apply, extend, and complicate what has been learned out of class.

Strategy 2a: Apply what has been learned– individually or in groups

  • Develop two examples of a concept discussed in reading or homework: call on some students to report, offering corrections to teach all how the examples are and are not successful.
  • Create in class: give a problem and have students solve it in class, on paper or in another form.
  • Think/pair/share on a controversial or challenging question
  • Debate prep: prepare 5-6 points for one side of a debatable question, with different students assigned different sides
  • Present new case studies for students to analyze or problem-solve

Strategy 2b: Make class discussions truly active

  1. Close down distractions: tell students why you are doing so, then require compliance
  2. Orient students to topic, reminding them of key terms, author’s name, and the purpose of the activity
  3. Move around: You are the action of the class, so be something interesting to look at by moving around, moving your hands, taking up space in unexpected ways.
  4. Cold call: students should expect to participate, but not know when exactly that might happen
  5. Eye contact: move quickly but purposefully from eye to eye. 
  6. Prepare your questions in advance to make sure they are answerable, not rhetorical or hunt & peck
  7. If you need to write on board, assign the task of board writing to a few students
  8. Be comfortable with silence
  9. Have a back-up plan (writing, small group, provocation)

Strategy 2c: Make a lecture engage your students’ minds

Lecturing can work, if the lecturer is dynamic and the student population is prepared, engaged, and controlled.  Dynamic lecturers are

  • in motion
  • dramatic
  • engaging with audience through eye contact, gesture, reference, observation
  • unexpected — in content and in action, creating tension between content, lecturer, and listeners

Students are prepared and kept engaged by:

  • requiring demonstration of attention (no screens, etc)
  • experiencing cold calls
  • experiencing alertness due to a mix of content, unease, and an expectation of performance


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