Active learning refers to learning environments and activities where students actively engage with course materials in class instead of mainly just listening to a lecture. Common active learning techniques include small group work, individual writing, polling, and many others. These teaching strategies can be incorporated into lecture courses of any size and are very effective. Active learning has repeatedly been shown to increase student learning in comparison to passive lectures in many studies.
Use the ideas below as a starting point to begin incorporating active learning into your class, or as inspiration to take your existing active-learning lectures to the next level.
The General Tips section offers some recommendations on how to incorporate active learning in your courses.
In the Beyond “Think-Pair-Share” section, we provide a number of example activities to use in class in addition to the classic active-learning exercise of Think-Pair-Share.
- Build in attention resets
It can be difficult to stay focused in a gathering of people. A key strategy to help people stay on task, or bring back those whose attention may have wandered, is interspersing attention “resets” in your lectures that encourage people to pay attention. By resets we’re referring to changing instructional modes: for example, if you were lecturing, you might want to switch to a small group discussion, an individual writing activity or a poll to help “reset.”
- The most important thing is that these resets require people to do something: respond to a survey, write something, talk to someone, etc. There are many reset strategies that fall under the category of “active learning.”
- Target your attention resets to correspond to your most important learning goals for your students. If a topic is especially important to your course that may be a good opportunity to refocus people’s attention.
- Aim for “desirable difficulty.” This is when a task is hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard as to seem impossible to students.
- Building attention resets into your class does use up some class time, but it also makes it more likely that your students will get the most out of your course and learn the material.
- Organize your class for active learning
A little organization will go a long way in making your active learning activities successful.
- Start small, by adding 1-2 activities to your class. You don’t need to jump from a pure lecture course to a purely flipped course. Even a small amount of active learning will help your students.
- Set expectations: Explain to students how you expect them to participate in the class and talk about active learning directly. Set these class expectations on the first day of the course and repeat them often.
- Incentivize participation: find ways to create reasons for your students to want to participate.
- Formal incentives might include making class participation part of students’ grades, and/or having later class activities/assignments build on previous participation (e.g. make something done in class a component of a later assignment, recitation section or lab activity. There should also be a process to take into account any students who cannot attend class for excused reasons).
- Informal incentives can include instructor interactions, enthusiasm and making the relevance of content clear.
- Use cues to speed class along: One way to help make transitions between active and lecture portions of your class run more smoothly is by using cues. For example, one can make any slides introducing active learning activities a different color; when students see those slides, they know an activity is coming. Using visual timers on slides can also help ensure that an activity doesn’t go over its budgeted time limit, and makes students come back together as a full class faster because they know when the activity is almost over. The CTL offers a visual timer template for use in PowerPoint slides.
- Assistants in Instruction (AIs): If your course has AIs assigned, they can help manage in-class logistics and also encourage student participation. Examples include tracking participation, answering questions during activities, engaging in discussions with students, walking around the room encouraging participation, etc. This sort of teaching may be new to your AIs, so it’s important to talk about your expectations for their help during class.
- When designing active learning tasks, make sure that your instructions are clearer than you think they need to be. It also helps to have activity instructions projected on a screen in the classroom so that students can refer to them if they missed anything or get lost during an activity.
- Remember it takes practice to implement active learning in your class. Don’t become frustrated if things don’t go perfectly every time. You’ll get better quickly!
- Using polls is an easy way to conduct a quick attention rest and works well in large classes. Both simple (e.g. multiple choice) and more complex poll types (e.g. typed answer, select a spot on an image, etc.) are possible with Poll Everywhere. WashU has an institutional Poll Everywhere subscription, and your school’s Poll Everywhere contact person can set you up with an account if you don’t already have one.
- Polling can be used within many activity types, including knowledge checks, gathering class opinions, predicting data, etc. Check out this polling activity resource for more ideas.
- Remember to allow a few seconds for students to take out a device and answer a poll, especially if it’s the first poll of a particular class session.
- Working with "data"
Try giving your students some “data” to work with during class. Depending on your discipline, data might include tables, figures, maps, images, or even passages of text. Work with the data can be done individually or in small groups. There are many different kinds of tasks that you can use with data including:
- Discover: Project a chart or a significant text passage from a reading. Ask students to spend 2 minutes trying to discover the main patterns in the chart or the meaning of the text. Come back as a group and discus what people found.
- Predict: Ask students to predict the results of a demonstration, experiment, results of a representative poll, or the next steps of an author in a text. For example, in a sociology class one might ask students to answer a poll predicting the percentages of different social groups in the United States, and then discuss the actual percentages based on representative survey data.
- Play: Sometimes data is interesting and accessible enough that giving students a few minutes of guided play to simply look around things and find what is interesting to them can be a great and motivating learning experience. The key is to prime students with instructions on how to explore the data and possible areas to look at so they’re not at a loss of what to do. There are many websites that lend themselves to this kind of activity, for example, in a social science courses one might point students to the General Social Survey, in humanities courses sites like Public Symbols of the Confederacy or the Public Art Archive could be relevant, and a natural science course might use something like NOAA Climate Data.
- Additional ideas
There are lots of other ways to incorporate active learning in your lecture course including:
- Think-Pair-Share: Give students a prompt and then let them think about it on their own for a period. Next have them pair up with someone near them and share their thoughts / solution / critique, etc. This is a classic active learning activity that’s easy and works well.
- Minute paper: Have students do independent writing on a prompt for one minute.
- Case studies: Use case studies to illustrate points and/or point students to case studies online to analyze in groups.
- Use short videos: show a short video in class and ask students respond to prompts related to the video using any of the other techniques listed here.
- Ask students to draw a concept: if they don’t have paper tell them to just draw it on their laptop/tablet or even in the air with their finger. The goal is to get students engaged with the concept in a novel way and the format of their “drawing” does not matter.
- Be creative and create your own to match your class and learning objectives!