In an active learning classroom, students think, create, discuss and solve problems rather than only passively receive knowledge. Successful classroom discussions and activities take planning, but even small interventions can be effective ways to increase student engagement.

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Design the course around an active classroom

Plan activities that help students meet learning objectives. To determine what kinds of course activities will help students achieve your learning objectives, consider what you want the students to learn to do and how you will assess them. Then, plan your course activities so that students get practice and feedback as they work toward your learning objectives. For example, if one of your learning objectives is for students to apply elements of strategic analysis to business problems, perhaps demonstrate how you would do this in a brief lecture or out of class readings, then break the students into groups and give them novel problems to analyze and present to the class.

Activities should be meaningful. Engaging activities require students to do something with the knowledge they are learning. Such activities could be simple, like developing a critique of a text or comparing two things, or they could be more complex, like finding and analyzing new data. The key is that students should be doing, not just listening. Students remember more of what they learn when they practice new skills or synthesize and apply new knowledge.(1) Students disengage when they are asked to do activities that are not tied to what they are supposed to learn.

When thinking about course activities, design for in-class and out-of-class time. Designing homework, in-class activities and graded work that reinforce each other creates an efficient cycle that boosts student learning and retention. If part of the next major assessment is to identify relationships between concepts, instruct students to study the concepts before class, assess students’ understanding with a quick poll at the start of class, lecture about any unclear concepts, then break students into small groups to compare and contrast concepts.

Adopt active learning techniques

Active learning techniques and strategies can be used to develop quick activities that punctuate lectures or used to create an entire class session that is student-driven content.

The Think-Pair-Share technique encourages all students to interact with the material. This activity begins with an open-ended question that doesn’t have one correct answer. 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.

The One Minute Paper or Muddiest Point Paper is a simple way to encourage students to reflect on their learning. 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.

With Peer Instruction, students discuss course concepts and learn by teaching others. First 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.

Asking students to work together in groups is an effective way to actively engage them with your course. For example, a 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.

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 Science Teaching Association. The Case Consortium at Columbia University provides a collection of case studies for the fields of journalism, public policy, public health and other disciplines.

Foster a course community

Crafting opportunities for both casual and more meaningful conversations is essential for course cohesion and engagement. Setting the stage for inclusive discussions is as important as writing better discussion prompts.

Remember that communication is a social process. Building relationships between the instructor and students and among students are important aspects of learning. 

Emphasize community from the first day of class. Students and instructors could, for example, record audio clips or videos introducing yourselves and pronouncing your names, to post on the class discussion forum (also Sakai profiles include name pronunciation and pronouns). Another approach to community building among students is to start class with a short, informal question to talk about in small groups before class starts in earnest.

Connect with your students. Try to schedule in-person or online office hours at different times to accommodate student schedules. If you find that you’re not hearing from some students frequently in class meetings, you can set up short reserved time slots and have students sign up, to get a better sense of how their learning is progressing and what support they need. Consider more frequent announcements with reminders, check-ins and updates for the students. It also helps to build a course community if you are willing to connect informally with students; one idea might be to have a coffee hour a few times a semester, in addition to office hours.

Draft course communication policies

To foster course community and conversations that are inclusive, it is important to set expectations for discussions and provide clear plans for communicating. 

Set discussion guidelines to facilitate respectful engagement. To make your class discussions inclusive, set clear expectations for interactions. Include discussion guidelines in your syllabus, review them with the class on the first day and periodically throughout the semester, perhaps even asking for student input. These guidelines could include the following (adapted from the University of Michigan’s discussion guideline examples):

  • Respect that others’ opinions and beliefs may differ from your own. If you disagree, you may critique the idea, but not the person.
  • Listen carefully, be courteous and don’t interrupt.
  • Support your statements with evidence and a rationale.
  • Try to moderate how much you contribute to the discussion—if you have a lot to say, try to avoid dominating the conversation; if you’re reluctant to speak up, try to find an opportunity to share your perspective.

A course communication plan reduces stress and confusion. Include a communication plan in the syllabus that specifies to the students how and when to communicate with the instructor and sets expectations, such as how many times to check their email each week. In exchange, you need to reliably communicate the details of the course plan and assignments to reduce student anxiety and be consistent in how you communicate with students. These steps will help create and maintain a sense of connection within the class and will reduce opportunities for misunderstanding with regard to course assignments and expectations.

Be conscientious when grading participation

Allow students to skip a discussion without penalty or excuse. Whether they are sick, got a poor night’s sleep, or are just not ready, allow students to contact you if they can’t fully participate in class. Giving students a “skip day” emphasizes you are interested in what they have to say more than grading and have their well-being in mind. A student’s interest or participation in your course should not be tied solely to the number of unexcused absences so a bit of flexibility can encourage students to regroup and participate fully in the next session.

Don’t trust yourself to grade participation fairly. Many grading schema include a category for class participation but successful participation is not well defined and its grading can be arbitrary. Sometimes class participation is equated only with attendance, but being there doesn’t necessary prove they were engaged that day. It’s also important to note that class participation doesn’t look the same for all students. Without specific measures, instructors can inadvertently award higher grades to students who speak up in class, and miss the students who produce more high quality comments in the discussion boards. To avoid such biases, rely on points you can award for tangible work (for example, a summary statement of their learning in a discussion board, or a contribution to an in-class text annotation), or have clear measures of success (post 5 times a semester, see the examples of what is in a quality post and the discussion board rubric).

Accept alternate modes of discussion. For example, if there are students who have trouble speaking up in class, allow them to write you follow-up emails or post more often to the discussion forum. Encourage students to speak to you about their needs.

Know the purpose of in-class discussions

For each discussion session, have an overall learning objective in mind as you plan discussion activities. During the discussion, keep track of progress toward that learning objective, and help guide students toward outcomes that you would like to see. To students, good discussions may appear to be free-flowing; going where  student comments lead, but that should be due to subtle steering and guidance by the instructor.

Take a few minutes to summarize (or have the students summarize) key takeaways. This will insure you and the students all recognized the same important points and made progress towards the intended learning objective. To include students in summarizing material, you can assign one student per class to take online notes to be annotated by the group, or ask each student to write down the most important point of the day on a card during the last few minutes of class. Highlight any follow up activities  and determine who will do them. List ideas that will be brought to the next class or posted online.

Write discussion prompts that are focused and open-ended

Discussion boards, when used effectively, can provide an engaging experience for students. Researchers at Duke found that students who participate in online discussion boards are more likely to feel engaged with the content of the course and with each other. (2)

Hold fewer — but deeper — discussions. Give yourself permission to have fewer discussions, but make them conversations that can go on for days or even weeks. One instructor who rethought the traditional “post one, read two” requirement decided to start only five threads at the beginning of the semester about major themes in the course and ask students to post a set number of times a semester in whichever forum felt most relevant or interesting. Later in the semester students were asked to start their own threads. Students who furthered the conversation received more points than those students who posted in a rush toward the end of the time period. If you try this approach, tell your students what meaningful engagement looks like and give them some examples of posts that advance discussion.

Ask students to present solutions to a challenging, novel question based on course materials. Online discussion prompts shouldn’t be quiz questions with easy answers or assignments in disguise. For example, instead of asking students to summarize the key points of an article, ask them to choose one concept from a text and find or draw a related image or write a post as if they are describing the concept to a 10-year-old. Building in variety in how students may present their answers (audio, written text, video, infographic) decreases discussion board fatigue.

Engage in forums weekly. Especially in the first weeks of the course, set the tone of intellectual engagement by responding to forum posts with follow-up questions that probe for more information and avoid giving the right answer: “What additional evidence is there to support this idea?” “Did anyone else reach a different conclusion?” By being active in the forums, you also model the type of engagement that you expect from students. It is not necessary to respond to or even read every post, but you should engage in the conversation a few times a week. If you are grading forums, be sure to provide feedback about quality of posts early in the semester or grade forum contributions more than once.

Resources & further reading

Active Learning

Active Learning Guide (Carnegie Mellon University)

The Interactive Lecture (The Exchanges Journal)

Making the Most of Assigned Readings (Duke Learning Innovation)

Interactive Teaching Techniques (K. Lee, University of Southern Florida)

Course Communication Plan

Establishing Guidelines for Communication and Interaction (Duke Learning Innovation)


Key Questions for Designing Online Discussions (Harvard)

Ideas for Great Class Discussions (Duke Learning Innovation)


1. Hammer Chiriac, “Group work as an incentive in learning — students’ experiences of group work”, Frontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5: 558. Published online, National Institute of Health, 2014 Jun 5.

2. Robinson, J.; Manturuk, K. R.; Çetinkaya-Rundel, M.; Canelas, D. A. “Analysis of adult learner sense of community in online classes,” Digital Universities: International Best Practices and Applications, 2018, 5(1-2), 163-177.