Utilize Active Learning Strategies

The Basics

Some "frightening" facts:

  1. During lectures, students are only paying attention 40% of the time (Pollio, 1984).
  2. Students retain 70% of information from the first 10 minutes of lecture, but only 20% in the last 10 minutes (McKeachie, 1986).

And since the advent of the "laptop age," students have ever more distractions that teachers must compete with. Let's face it, there is some magnetic force constantly drawing students to play solitaire.

Thus, sometimes lectures are not the most effective way to communicate information. Many education scholars and teachers prefer to employ Active Learning strategies. Active Learning is basically any form of learning wherein the students are more than passively receiving information. Various forms of pairwork and groupwork are some of the most common examples. Other examples include case studies, role playing, and debates. See the section of diverse teaching-strategies for further examples and specific suggestions.

Pairwork or Pair-Share can be a valuable tool to use at the beginning of discussion sections. It helps set the tone for the remainder of the section as it engages students right away and gets them accustomed to speaking. It also provides a safer environment for some of the more reserved students to participate if they feel intimidated speaking in front of the entire class. It also helps ensure that each student has at least thought about the topic before class discussion begins, and thus (and optimistically), this fosters a more inclusive and dynamic class discussion.

Pairwork can be as simple as presenting the class with a question and asking students to discuss their answers with a partner for as little as 1,2 or 3 minutes- just to get their mental juices flowing. Pairs can be made easily by pairing up students sitting next to each other, or, to get certain students participating or to separate certain troublesome/talkative students, the TA can assign pairs. Random numbering can be successful as well to ensure that students work with a diverse set or partners throughout the semester.

Groupwork can also be a valuable tool. Students can be separated into small groups for brief assignments (15-20 minute tasks) or even given tasks intended to last several weeks. The benefits of groupwork include teaching students:

  • to be good listeners
  • to cooperate in a common task
  • to give and receive constructive feedback
  • to respect differences of opinion
  • to support their judgments with evidence

(Meyers and Thomas, 1993, 61-62)

Groupwork can also be used to:

  • generate ideas in perparation for a lecture, film, and so on
  • summarize main points in a text, reading, film, or lecture
  • brainstorm applications of theory to everyday life

(Meyers and Thomsas, 1993, 63-64)

  • compose questions to propose to the class
  • extract main points from lecture material
  • and for peer-to-peer teaching

During groupwork, TAs may be best utilized as monitors of student progress. Quietly walk around or behind the groups or sit down amongst the students passively listening to their discussions. If necessary, provide assistance or keep students on task.

Groups can be chosen at random but are sometimes most beneficial if strategically chosen by the TA to provide a balance of skill level and/or participation.

Be sure to provide students with clear instructions and achievable goals. When the task is complete, reconvene the class and ask every group or volunteers to report on their conclusions or answers. This final step (sharing and discussing their collective efforts) can help instill a sense of accomplishment, ownership and help students feel as though they contributed to the class. Not to mention they might learn a thing or two having been actively involved in their education!

Additional Ideas

Description: Debates are great for getting students engaged with the meat of the material. While debates are most easily envisioned for controversial topics in the social sciences, this activity can be used in nearly every subject! “How should we do an HIV test? Using gel electrophoresis or using PCR?” … or … “Which is a more powerful medium for moving people with words, prose or poetry?” Of course, in all of these, the answer is “depends!” Which is great, because both sides can argue the circumstances in which their side is right, and in the end it becomes very clear to everyone where the distinctions lie (rather like a compare and contrast exercise, except more fun!).
Amount of preparation required of you: Very, very little! Just pick the topics/questions.
Pros: Lots of fun. Make students think for themselves. Helps students see both sides (pros and cons to an issue, or compare and contrast to different techniques/mediums/approaches).
Cons: Can take a lot of class time / homework time, especially if you pick a topic that requires students to do outside research.
Tips for making it work: Either make it a really easy topic that takes 5 minutes to prepare and 5 mintues to debate (like the HIV testing method question above, which should be trivial for a class that has discussed the two techniques), or stretch the exercise across the whole semester so that the students can work on it slowly and engage the ideas throughout (might be a good approach for the poetry vs. prose topic, if your class reads poetry and prose alternately throughout the whole semester).

Each-One Teach-One
Description: This exercise enables students to be involved in the teaching, engaging them and making them an active participant in the learning process; this is ideal for times when a long list of simple topics need to get covered, and it can be less boring when the teacher changes for each topic.
Amount of preparation required of you: Very, very little! Just pick the topics/questions.
Pros: Can be used in any subject (polisci, math, music history, bio, you name it!); great learning opportunity for the student who is doing the teaching; adds variety and life to lecturing
Cons: Some students have anxiety speaking before the class, some students may teach their topic poorly; this can become passive for the students who aren’t presenting
Tips for making it work: Unless you plan on giving your students time to research and prepare (in which case this becomes a high stakes event), it’s advised to take material directly from class/required reading or from problem sets already assigned. You may wish to assign easier topics to weaker students. Set the stage that this is low-key, that no one is really expected to do this perfectly, and that you’re liable to jump in and add commentary throughout people’s presentations. Keep things fast-past, light-hearted, and humorous. Remember that if each student presents for four minutes and you add an additional minute’s worth of comments, in 10 students you’ll go through your idea period of time!

Journaling and Refection
Description: Students are asked to write a stream-of-consciousness reaction to a reading/class/concept
Amount of preparation required of you: Relatively small; dependent upon feedback you give
Pros: This enables students to connect personally with the material
Cons: You probably don’t want to grade on quality, but rather upon timely completion of the assignment; be cognizant of the fact that some students are shy about sharing
Tips for making it work: Journals can be on paper or online. They can be anonymous or bear names. There are many ways to approach journaling, but it’s often best when you provide students with prompts: How is this historical event similar or dissimilar to current political events? The ability to calculate a derivative is considered to have changed the face of the world…how does the notion of the derivative and the integral of a function impact your world? Of the things you’ve learned in this unit, which resonates most deeply with you, and how would you like to apply it in the future?

Card Classification
Description: This exercise is sort of a cross between “compare and contrast” and “discussion/debate.” This exercise helps students differentiate between concepts/categories/diseases/events that are somewhat similar in nature by asking the students, working in groups of 3-5, to classify a list of words (usually adjectives) into the assigned categories. As a silly and super simple example, consider take the three categories of the common cold, the common flu, and food poisoning. One card would say “congestion” and another would say “nausea” (you might have 30 cards in total for an exercise like this). The students would likely correctly place “congestion” under the common cold, but when they got to “nausea,” there would be a lot of inter-group discussion and debate over the fact that nausea fits with both the flu and with food poisoning. In the end, their internal debate helps them learn more than if they were told the right answer.
Amount of preparation required of you: Making the cards can take you from 15-45 minutes.
Pros: Really helps students understand the distinctions between similar entities.
Cons: Can take some thought and time for you to plan out the cards.
Tips for making it work: Pick your topics for comparison well, pick your terms well, and during the exercise wander from group to group to make sure that they’re struggling just enough – but not too much!

Helpful links
http://www.crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsal.html Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, Univ. of Michigan. Provides a list of additional resources on Active Learning.

http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/RMF.html Website composed by Dr. Richard M. Felder with an extremely thorough list of various Active Learning resources.

http://www.flinders.edu.au/teach/t4l/teaching/groupwork.php Teaching Strategies: Group Work. Flinders University, Australia. Good overview and discussion of group work techniques.


Erickson, Better LaSere, Calvin V. Peters and Diane Weltner Strommer. Teaching First-Year College Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publisher, 2000.

McKeachie, W.J. Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher. 8th edition. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1986.

Meyers, Chet and Thomas B. Jones. Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 1993.

Pollio, H.R. What Students Think About and Do in College Lecture Classes. Teaching-Learning Issues. no. 53. Knoxville: Learning Research Center, University of Tennessee, 1984.

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