Active Learning Techniques in Small Seminar Classes

Jewish Studies 89S students "simultaneously report" their answers to a question posed by their instructor, Dr. Laura Lieber during class in Fall, 2012.

Small seminar classes, by their nature, are active – the small class size and discussions necessitate participation and concentration by everyone in the room.  There are times, however, when the class may become unfocused or discussions don’t go into the kind of depth the instructor is looking for.

Some simple active learning techniques can help guide discussions and encourage students to explore questions in more depth.

Best Practices

  • Offer challenging assignments and activities, but ground them with explicit instructions and appropriate background
  • Pose constant questions for the students to explore and engage with the material
  • Create time where students can think and work individually and in pairs or small groups with their colleagues
  • Pause in class and make time for students to reflect on the class activities
  • Encourage risk-taking but offer clear and immediate feedback

Ideas for Activities in Small Seminar Classes

Here are some active learning techniques that can help put more focus and structure in your small seminar class discussions.  More ideas for getting the most out of assigned readings were featured in a previous blog post.

Background Knowledge Probe

You can better prepare students for class discussions with a short series of questions, submitted electronically or through a simple show of hands in class, before they begin the reading.  You can find out about possible misconceptions about the subject, gaps in knowledge that might need to be addressed to prepare for the reading or assignment, or get ideas for discussion topics.

After discussions and in-class activities, follow-up questions can guide you on further resources that might be needed by the students, lingering questions about the readings or assignments, and the overall reaction of the students to the assignment and in-class activities.

Minute Paper

Encourage students to reflect on a topic by writing a couple of paragraphs at the end of class.  You can collect the papers and offer points for completing the assignment, using the reflections as a staring point for discussion and activities in the next class session.

Think-Pair-Share

Probably the most common active learning technique, a Think-Pair-Share is a three stop process.  First, give students a question or problem to consider – give them a few minutes individually think and jot down notes.  Then, divide the students into pairs to discuss their answers with each other.  Finally, call on random pairs or all the pairs in turn for discussion.  With well designed questions, short case studies, or examples, debate and analysis can emerge as students try to convince each other on the merits of their point of view.

Focused Listing

In a focused listing activity, students respond to a prompt by discussing and writing suggestions on a white board or common piece of paper.  It can be used to introduce a topic or synthesize information before other activities.  In addition, you can return to the list with the students to gauge their thinking before and after class discussions and activities.

More Resources

For more information on active learning in small classes, investigate these articles and resources on the web.  You can also contact the CIT to talk with a consultant about great ideas for all types of course assignments.

Active Learning in Small Classes (Teaching and Learning Resources, University of Central Florida)

Improving Learning in Small Classes (Center for Teaching Excellence, Indiana University of Pennsylvania)

Promoting Active Learning (Stanford Teaching Commons)

Active Learning in the First-Year Writing Seminar (Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, Dartmouth)

Active Learning in Small and Large Classes (Accounting Education)

Classroom Activities for Active Learning (PDF, Center for Faculty Excellence, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

More Active Learning Techniques (Center for Teaching and Learning, Brigham Young University)

Randy Riddle

Author: Randy Riddle

Randy Riddle is a Senior Consultant in Duke Learning Innovation and consults with faculty in the Social Sciences on pedagogy, learning, student assessment, and integrating technology into teaching practices. His professional interests include active learning, “flipped” classroom methods, inclusive classroom strategies, and integration of e-learning tools, social networking, video and multimedia, and data visualization into the daily work of teaching.