Active Learning Techniques for the Classroom

Recommended Timeline

1–3 months before course for larger projects;
2–3 weeks before a class for one-time project or assignment

In an active learning classroom, students must think, create and solve problems rather than passively listen to lecture. Active learning techniques and strategies can be used to develop quick activities that punctuate lectures. They can also be used to completely fill the class time. Here are a few active learning techniques to try in the classroom.

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Active Learning Techniques to Try

  1. Try a Think-Pair-Share activity to encourage all students to interact with the material. In this activity, the instructor states an open-ended question. Ask students to spend a minute or two thinking about and writing a response. Then ask students to pair with a partner to discuss their responses. Reconvene the class after a few minutes, and call on individual students to share the pair’s responses.
  2. Use a One Minute Paper or Muddiest Point Paper in your class as a formative assessment. At the end of class or just before a break, ask either: “What are the two most important points from today’s session?” or “What was the muddiest (least clear) point from today’s session?” Give students 1-2 minutes to write brief responses to turn in anonymously as they leave the classroom. Address student responses either during the next class or online.
  3. With Peer Instruction, you pause during class and ask students a conceptual question. Give students a few minutes to think about the question, and then have them provide answers, possibly using clickers. Then, have students spend a few minutes talking about their answers, usually in pairs, and try to convince each other that their answer is correct. Then have students answer again.
  4. Asking students to work together in groups is a very effective way to actively engage them with your course. For example, Gallery Walk is a cooperative activity during which groups move between stations to build on solutions or discussions begun by others. The Jigsaw is a structured cooperative learning activity that relies on individual accountability to reach group goals.
  5. Student groups can discuss case studies to apply course content to solve real world problems. Cases for the sciences can be found at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. The Case Consortium at Columbia University provides a collection of case studies for the fields of journalism, public policy, public health, and other disciplines.

Additional Resources

Classroom Assessment Techniques –  Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
Information on Classroom Assessment Techniques, which are in-class activities that give useful feedback on the teaching-learning process as it is happening.

National Center for Case Study Teaching in ScienceNational Science Foundation
A collection of case studies for classroom use in the sciences.

Case Consortium Columbia University
A collection of case studies for the fields of journalism, public policy, public health, and other disciplines

Confessions of a Converted Lecturer – Eric Mazur, Harvard University
Active learning advocate Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard, shares why and how he decided to change the way he teaches.

References

Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E., & Weiss, M. (2009). Active Learning and Student-centered Pedagogy Improve Student Attitudes and Performance in Introductory Biology. CBELife Sciences Education, 8(3), 203–213. 

Bransford J., Brown A., & Cocking RR. (Eds.) (1999) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington (DC): National Academy Press.

Cooper, James L., Robinson, Pamela & Ball, David. The Interactive Lecture: Reconciling Group and Active Learning Strategies with Traditional Instructional Formats. Exchanges: The Online Journal of Teaching and Learning in the CSU (PDF).

Prince, M. (2004) Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.

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