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Simple Active Learning Strategies to Use in Class

Implementing active learning techniques into class can be easy.

Strategy 1: Prime the Pump by Writing

Beginning Activities

  • 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.
  • Guided Writing. Ask students to write for 2-3 minutes in response to an analytical question asking students to synthesize, make a connection, or interpret an idea. The goal is to push knowledge gained from reading or lectures 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?
  • Focused Summaries. Have students write a paragraph about an assigned reading, with specific directions; i.e., summarize the argument and identify three supporting examples.
  • Annotations. Have students write out key ideas of assigned reading and make notes that briefly evaluate the strengths & weaknesses of an author’s argument or research.

Concluding Activities

  • Teach others. At the conclusion of a unit, have students write out for an absent classmate the major themes, discoveries, and questions of the unit.
  • What did I learn? Have students write a focused quick detailing to themselves what they have learned, with the expectation of identifying a specific number of independent points.
  • Identifying the conflicts. Have students review the major issues or authors discussed during this class/unit, and identify conflicting opinions, stating the opinion of the side.
  • Minute paper. Have students write a summary of the key points they learned during class or things they have questions about (“muddiest point”).

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, and praising. But don’t collect it.

What is the Value of Using Writing in Class?

Writing improves cognitive processing

“Language provides us with a unique way of knowing and becomes a tool for discovering, for shaping meaning, and for reaching understanding”. (James Britton)

A few research findings:

  • Writing to read: writing about material improves reading comprehension, reading fluency, and word reading .(Graham & Hebert 2011)
  • 1st year Bio: Journal writing on processes and problems as a supplement to lab reports increased scores on multiple-choice exams. (McCrindle & Christensen 1995)
  • Gen Ed Bio students: writing about experiments increased critical thinking skills of analysis and inference. (Quitadamo and Kurtz 2007)
  • Learners move from knowledge telling to knowledge transformation through increasing the complexity of writing tasks. (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1987)
Strategy 2: Use Class for Doing

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

  • 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.
  • Think/pair/share on a controversial or challenging question. Give students a set time to think, then discuss their response with a partner, and then have some share back to the full class, making connections with other pairs’ responses.
  • Debate prep. Prepare 5-6 points for one side of a debatable question, with different students assigned different sides.
  • Case studies. Present new case studies for students to analyze or problem-solve.
  • Worksheet. Design a worksheet that allows students to work through, practice, or apply key concepts (individually or in groups).
Strategy 3: Engage Your Students’ Minds During Lecture

Louis Deslauriers, director of Science Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, cautions that active learning is not simply engagement, but productive engagement toward a perceived worthwhile goal. Instructors can engage students even during lectures and direct instruction by pausing and giving students time to think about the following questions:

  • Does this make sense to me?
  • How is this relevant?
  • Does it connect with something I already know? And if so, how do I integrate with what I already know?
  • What sort of questions do I have right now?
  • Can I repeat what the instructor just did? Or is it going to require a lot of practice? (Ofgang)
Strategy 4: Engage Students in Reflection on Their Learning

One of the best things students can do is reflect on their learning – to see for themselves what it is they know and do not know. Strong learners do this all the time, reflectively, but less experienced learners need guidance in developing their learning muscles. Here are some reflective assignments you can do in class or as homework.

Problem-solving Log. Students record their steps or thinking in solving a problem or completing an assessment. You can require regular logs (or drafts) with progress reports and steps taken to complete the task. Have students identify challenges, gaps, the knowledge they already had, or new knowledge learned.

Exam wrappers. Add a metacognitive question to your exam to promote metacognitive thinking about the process of exam preparation. Direct students to report and reflect on how they prepared for an assessment and what they imagine doing differently next time. After the exam, or when you meet again next, conduct a short discussion asking students to share their reflections with classmates to support improvement in exam preparation activities. (Ambrose et al., 2010). For an example you can import and adapt for your course, log into Canvas, click on “Commons” (far left navigation) and search “Quiz and Exam Wrapper Survey.”

Short quizzes that test for understanding. A five-minute quiz once a week, perhaps even a one-question quiz, shows students immediately what their level of understanding is. Typically with a low point value, short quizzes should be followed by a brief discussion of questions missed and an investigation of what led to these gaps.

Exit tickets. Exit tickets allow you to quickly gauge student understanding and demonstrate that you value student success. Use index cards, post-it notes, online quizzes, or polls that students complete near the end of class. Prompts include: what is the most important thing you learned today? What more do you need to learn (to meet the objective)? What are you still confused about?

Muddiest point. This technique consists of asking students to jot down a quick response to one question: “What was the muddiest point in [the lecture, discussion, homework assignment, film, etc.]?” The term “muddiest” means “most unclear” or “most confusing.” (Angelo et al., 1993) and essentially helps students discover and zero in on the questions they need to address to conquer a lesson.

Minute papers. These provide an assessment of what students learned in a class and help students inscribe learning into long-term memory. Minute papers are easy to do: ask students to write for two minutes on the following questions: “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?” and “What important question remains unanswered?” Collect these papers as students leave for your learning, returning them to students the next class session. Notes or evaluations or not necessary, though it may be useful to make general comments about what you observed students’ understanding.

List of Additional Active Learning Ideas
  • Think-Pair-Share
    • Break down textbook quotations; respond to questions
  • Group Work
    • Find a solution to a problem
    • Summarize another student’s answer
    • Answer as a group
  • Edit Together
    • Syllabus, assignment, and/or course rubrics
  • Visual Representation
    • Concept maps, flow charts, etc.
  • Roundtable Discussion
    • Written discussion for quieter classes
  • Socratic Seminar
  • Debates or Games
Active Learning with Technology

Google Drive: collaborative folders, files, docs, sheets, slides

  • Have course/module notes as Google doc linked through Canvas
  • Have students create their own folders, Google Meet for collaborative sessions, working docs, etc.

Perusall: social annotation platform

  • Assign students to read texts collaboratively, annotating in groups or as a full class

Padlet: live discussion and brainstorming

  • Pose a question that asks for a definition, an opinion, what is already known, existing questions that are contestable, etc.

Kahoot: Create games and trivia for study sessions

Zoom Tools

Break-out rooms

  • Have specific activity/assignment–use the TILT model: purpose, task, criteria
  • Clarify timing for them ahead of time
  • Clarify instructor involvement–will you check in to each room, come in when asked, or monitor using Google docs
  • Creating groups: students can choose their rooms or they meet in regular groups

Share screen

  • Presentations, sharing videos, and audio
  • Collaborative writing w/ Google or Perusall


  • Warm-ups, temperature check, quick quiz (multiple choice only in Zoom)


  • Do nows/exit slips for everyone to post responses in Chat
  • Use of chat for quieter students

What Not to Do

  • Show slides/ lecturing/ staying behind the podium for the entire class
  • Summarize homework content for course lectures
  • Show a video that runs uninterrupted for a long duration
  • Answer your own questions. Wait after you ask a question, even if it feels uncomfortable.
  • Turn your back to students or avoid eye contact
  • Look at a computer or other device more than occasionally
  • Offering active learning opportunities that are (or are perceived as) disconnected from learning outcomes and seem like busywork
  • Assume that active learning will just happen when you present an active learning assignment – active learning takes instructors who coach, cajole, pester, and are active themselves.

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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