Exploring Active Learning at the CIT Showcase

At the CIT’s annual Instructional Technology Showcase last week, I led a session called “5 Active Learning Techniques in 45 Minutes”.  While we have taught Duke faculty active learning techniques in longer workshop and Fellows sessions, this was an opportunity to introduce the five most common (and fun) ways to engage a class in a quick workshop.  There was a big turnout for the session (over 60 people) and I appreciated help from CIT colleagues Justin Johnsen and Elise Mueller who acted as ‘teaching assistants” for the demonstration activities.

The session started with a quick show of hands.  I asked how many in the audience were Duke faculty, how many were visiting us from other institutions, and about their experiences with active learning.  It’s something that many faculty might commonly do in a course before beginning a class session or activity – it also demonstrated the first active learning technique, a Background Knowledge Probe.


Next, we looked at a list of some common activities in courses – lectures, quizzes, writing, group work – and I asked each of the participants to think about the list and whether these are considered active learning.  Then, after a few minutes, I asked them to share with the person next to them what they thought of the list and discuss.  Finally, I called on different groups to report on their conversation.

This demonstrated one of the most common active learning techniques – Think-Pair-Share.  There were a wide range of opinions expressed as the paired attendees discussed the question.  A Think-Pair-Share activity works well for open-ended questions that do not have a definite answer – I wanted to stress that there’s no set definition of active learning and encourage the attendees to be open to interpret active learning in the context of their own classroom.

We then looked at some short definitions of active learning from various sources – Wikipedia, leaders in the instructional technology field, and individual faculty.

I asked the audience to think about, based on what they had seen and heard, what qualities would make a successful active learning exercise.  What should students and faculty get out of it?  Each row in the room was provided with a notecard where they could jot down ideas.

This demonstrated Brainwriting, a technique to generate many ideas in a short period of time and encourage everyone in the room to contribute without early suggestions dominating the conversation.  This activity encourages students to synthesize information; it might be used to “brainstorm” ideas for solving a difficult problem or approach common solutions or a consensus on an issue.

Some of the ideas the attendees came up with for what students and faculty should get out of a class activity included:

  • achieving course learning objectives
  • new perspectives on the content/subject matter
  • an understanding of other perspectives
  • new questions to explore
  • connection with content and peers
  • deeper understanding of the subject matter
  • feedback on teaching
  • better idea of what concepts students are struggling with
  • a fun experience

Next, I presented the audience with a problem:

Professor Mustard has decided to flip his class. He has given his students his learning objectives and selected readings that they must complete before class sessions each week. However, he knows that the students won’t prepare unless he gives them an incentive.

What ideas would you suggest he do to hold the students accountable for the work outside class?

Around the room were large sheets of paper and members of the audience counted themselves into groups.  Each group was placed at the numbered sheet to discuss possible solutions and write down the best ideas they could come up with.  Then, after a few minutes of writing down solutions, they switched to each other’s sheets and were given colored stickers to vote on the best ideas the other groups came up with.


This technique is called a Gallery Walk.  There are many ways to organize this activity, including giving students different texts and questions around the room, but the overall goal is to encourage students to get up and interact with each other.  Voting provides an organized basis for discussion.

Ideas the groups came up with to solve the problem include:

  • use poll questions on readings
  • have students take a readiness assessment
  • have students create a timeline
  • use a low stakes formative assessment
  • have students blog or make forum posts about readings
  • solve problems or respond to case studies in class about the readings
  • have students present or teach main points in the readings to each other in the class.

Finally, I demonstrated a fun activity that many faculty in introductory courses use for review – a Jeopardy-type PowerPoint game.  The PowerPoint template can be used to put together questions about the course content to review for a exam.  Some faculty have groups of students put together the quiz and compete with each other.

You can download the demonstration PowerPoint we used, substituting your own questions.  (To run the quiz, start the PowerPoint playing from the first slide and click on a particular question, then click to reveal the question and answer.  To return to the main board, click the link on the lower right of the PowerPoint screen.)

If you missed the active learning session, you can also download a PDF of our handout with information on each of the active learning techniques or the presentation slides.