Characteristics of Active Learning: What and Why
Active learning is broadly defined as any learning activity or approach that replaces typical lecture methods of instruction and makes students active participants in the learning process. Active learning engages students in meaningful activities and requires that they think about what they are doing and why (Bonwell and Eisen, 1991).
Active learning is often coupled with collaborative learning in which students work cooperatively on these activities. A relatively recent movement in active and collaborative learning is the flipped or inverted classroom in which most of the content delivery happens outside of class—via readings, video lectures, handouts or other instructional material—and class time focuses on applying and understanding the material. The key question, then, for active learning lesson planning becomes what will students do in class to help them understand, apply, and master the concepts or information?
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Start Small. You don’t have to revamp or flip your entire class in one semester. You can start by incorporating a few active learning strategies throughout your course. Or you can pick a few key points, modules, or assignments that are most crucial to your course, or with which students often struggle, as starting places for including active learning.
Relate the activities to your learning goals and objectives. Be clear in your mind about how the strategy you select matches your desired outcomes for knowledge acquisition, application of concepts, and competency or skill development. Much of your success is dependent on integrating the activity into your content and goals, not simply creating an “add-on.” Backward Design is crucial to successfully integrating active learning techniques into your course.
Communicate to your students. When using a new learning activity, clearly describe the learning goals and how the activity will assist them in reaching those goals. Spend time helping students see the relevance of both the learning goals and the process you’re using to achieve those goals. Ask or show them how the learning goals, and acquired skills and knowledge, will be useful to them in other classes, their field, and outside the university. See Faculty Focus for more on “The Importance of Increasing Relevance.”
Keep it simple and be patient. Have two or three main goals for the class and assess whether the students are achieving those goals. Remember that this may be a shift for both you and your students. Just as your role becomes one of facilitating the learning process through critical inquiry, your students will need time and guidance as they practice the shift from passive to active learning.
Be prepared to make adjustments if your plans do not work as expected the first time. Take a deep breath, rethink things, and try something new. Learn from your failures and successes! Understanding which active learning strategies work best for you, your students, and your courses is a process that improves with time.
To help you make these adjustments, regularly solicit feedback from your students. See our Classroom Assessment Techniques for additional resources.
Also consider keeping a teaching journal, and record what worked (or didn’t) as soon as possible after each class session, module and assignment. See the GradHacker post on “Keeping a Teaching Journal” for more details.
The following tools and techniques can be used to incorporate active learning strategies into a traditional course or learning environment. They can also be used as resources for fully redesigning or flipping your course, and/or for teaching in one of our active learning classrooms.
At the end of class, ask students to answer a question or reflect on something from that day’s class to turn in.
Useful Minute Paper Questions:
The Fish Bowl
Ask each student to write one issue or concept they want clarified on a card and place it in a fish bowl (cardboard box, hat, etc.) as they enter class. During class, you can select cards from the bowl to clarify these issues or concepts. This gives students who are hesitant to participate an opportunity to ask questions.
You can also do this activity at the end of the class. Reviewing the feedback from the class as a whole gives you insight on the distribution of questions and concerns across the students in your class. At the next class, you can clarify the issues that were shared by the greatest number of students.
Interactive Lectures with Clarification Pauses
After 10-15 minutes of lecture, circulate around the room for two minutes while students review their notes alone and then in pairs. Then follow up with oral or written questions from students. If you prefer, you might use “clicker” technology to create interactive opportunities with your students.
Promoting Active Listening
After student A has given an answer, ask student B to summarize in their own words the points made by student A. You can also ask a student to rephrase a difficult point you have made.
Problem-Solving / Problem-Based Learning
Provide students with problems or exercises to cooperatively work through in groups. This can be an extended project or a problem-set to be solved during a class period. See our Collaborative Learning resource page for more information and techniques.
Circulate to provide instruction and feedback as students work, but let them struggle through the process and arrive at the solutions in a variety of ways. Student groups can also compare and critique their respective approaches to solving the problems. See more on messy problem-solving and student-directed learning in the Faculty Focus article “The Messy and Unpredictable Classroom.”
Writing Discussion Questions
Students, at some point during the class, are asked to write a question that will solicit thoughtful discussion on the issues at hand. Or ask them to think about what you’ve just discussed, and write a suitable quiz question.
Think, Pair, Share
Ask question or pose situation, have students write 1 or two lines about the question, then talk to partner for 1-2 minutes. The professor should circulate in the room to hear the discussions and help encourage student to stay on task.
Have students read a paragraph or short piece. They write down the most important point. Or have students cite an example of inference, or good analysis, or an unanswered question from the text, then compare their thoughts with a peer. Poll the class.
On-Line Writing Partners
Assign students into pairs or groups of 3. Have each student write weekly (bi-weekly) about class readings, discussions, and related current events. This assignment can involve analytical writing, asking questions, integrating ideas across texts and discussions, etc. Students then share their writing with their partners who respond with their ideas, responses, and perspectives. This works well on blogs or in Blackboard. Ask students to periodically share their learning with the larger class.
Pass a Problem
Ask students a complex question which requires higher order thinking. Groups get 10 minutes to think about the problem and write a paragraph about the problem. This is put it in a folder and passed to another group. Groups get another 5 minutes to rethink the question, and write again. These thoughts are put in the folder with the original entry. Repeat. Groups then report out their solutions and how seeing others’ ideas and approaches helped them.
Peer Teaching / Student-Led Reviews
Assign students topics to research and then prepare a presentation about their topic to share with the class, either formally, informally, or electronically in Blackboard.
Write a set of 15-30 questions reflecting knowledge you expect students to bring into your class. In first class, give every student all the questions. Give each student a 3″x5″ card with one question and its answer. Give the students 20 minutes to find someone with the answer to each question, get the answer and have it “signed off.” Students meet each other and they review necessary material.
Lab activities, working with case studies, simulations and games, role playing and dramatizations, debates, and assignments such as oral presentations and interviews all engage students in the learning process and help them apply course concepts and theories.
Challenge: Some students will resist active learning or new learning environments
Strategy: Set and communicate expectations from the first day of class
Provide an introduction to the class. Send a welcome e-mail to your class explaining your approach and what students can expect, or provide an introductory video for students to watch prior to the first class meeting. Explain how and when they’ll take in content—and reinforce that it generally won’t happen during class. Clearly communicate these types of expectations to and for students:
Make sure that students do something meaningful on the first day—design an activity that will highlight key features of your course and let them experience what the class will be like. If your course won’t involve students listening to you talk throughout much of class, don’t default to that on the first day. If you won’t deliver content in class, don’t spend class time reviewing the syllabus. One way to initially set the expectation that students are responsible for taking in content outside of class is to assign the syllabus as reading; then design an online quiz, a question set, or a student activity to hold students accountable for reading and understanding the syllabus and other important course documents.
Take time during the first week for students to reflect on themselves as learners and on their expectations for teaching and learning. Here’s one possible approach, from Faculty Focus, for getting students to think about their learning experiences and expectations: “Two Activities that Influence the Climate for Learning”
Take time to discuss and define active learning—and your rationale for it—and to compare it to their prior learning experiences. This discussion, and your syllabus, should include information on what students will be expected to do outside of class to be prepared for what happens inside the classroom and how much outside study time they should allocate for your course.
Challenge: Getting students to do the reading or homework that prepares them for class
Strategy: Hold students consistently accountable for class preparation and readings
Give online reading quizzes in advance of class or assign reading journals or reflections. Hoeft (2012) found that 74% of students in a course that used reading quizzes and 95% of students in a course that used graded reading journals consistently completed assigned course readings.
Give collaborative quizzes at the start of class to hold students accountable and prepare them to work together for the class period. Have students decide who gets credit on the quiz or articulate who contributed in a valuable way (and why or how).
Start class by having students summarize or write reflections on the most important points from the readings.
Collect written notes, homework or other prep work at the start of class—don’t accept it late or give students an opportunity to complete it in class.
Cold call by table or group.
As part of setting expectations for the semester, emphasize the collaborative nature of the class. Make students aware that their preparedness affects not just their own learning but the learning of other students.
Challenge: Making connections between work done outside and inside the classroom, and between class activities, homework and larger assignments or learning outcomes
Strategy: Create opportunities for making connections
Ask students to point back to earlier elements of the course and explain how they are applying them to current assignments, or include connections and references to earlier material and assignments on new activities or assignment.
Spend class time on exercises dedicated to students explicitly making—even literally mapping—connections.
End activities or weeks with students reflecting on how the activities or work done in class connects with the current major assignment, module or course learning goals and to their work outside of your course.
Challenge: Providing instruction and answers to questions—but not the answers—during activities
Strategy: Prepare and circulate
Provide clear, concise written instructions for activities and build answers to likely questions into the prompts or instructions. Hold students accountable for reading and following these directions and for answering basic questions in their groups.
Circulate to groups or tables. You may want to interrupt the group or class to answer repeated questions or use a group’s work as an example. If you have students serving as Learning Assistants (LAs) or Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), you will want to practice how to respond to student questions without providing direct answers.
Challenge: Measuring participation and valuing the work of quiet students
Strategy: Recognize diverse forms of participation
Set clear syllabus policies on what forms participation can take, and how it will be assessed or graded. Help your students recognize that talking isn’t always the most valuable contribution that they can make and that not all talking is value added. Clearly state (and reinforce) that commitment, preparedness, level of engagement, trying hard, and respect for the classroom environment are all important participation and engagement components.
Create a classroom environment that encourages active participation but doesn’t encourage students to (meaninglessly) talk for points. See Faculty Focus for more on “Keeping Introverts in Mind in Your Active Learning Classroom.”
Start discussions or group activities with an individual component that allows students to think and write in advance of sharing or working with others.
Assign students different roles or responsibilities for group activities. Possible roles include note-taker or scribe; questioner, whose role is to push the group and asks some of the hard questions; facilitator, whose role is to keep the group on track; and reporter, who helps report out to you, other groups, or the entire class.
Assessing participation can be tricky and time-consuming, especially early in the semester. Using nametags in large classes, taking notes or using a participation log or app as you circulate to groups, assigning group member roles, and requiring that students post process work or reflection on in-class activities all help.
Challenge: Students will need outside resources and assistance
Strategy: Plan extra time, and start small
There’s just no getting around it: you will need additional prep time when creating new active learning courses, course components, or activities. Building or locating readings, tutorials, and other class resources is time consuming. So is designing value-added activities that enhance learning and provide motivation for students to participate and prepare for class. But it’s also fun and rewarding.
Remember that you can start small and work towards a completely flipped or active learning course over time—if that’s your ultimate end goal.
You can also find ways to recoup time that you traditionally spend on other aspects of class. For example, use an online discussion board or a tool like Twitter for publicly answering individual student questions that will benefit the entire group. Encourage students, as part of the collaborative nature of the class, to answer each other’s questions, too.
Mason debuted its new Active Learning with Technology (ALT) classroom in fall 2013. This 72-seat room, located in Exploratory Hall L-102, is designed to support interactive and technology-enhanced learning.
If you are interested in teaching in this room or would like more information, see our Request for Proposals.
Additional Reading and Resources
Bonwell, C.C., and J. A. Eison, “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom,” ASHEERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, George Washington University, Washington, DC , 1991.
Hoeft, M. E. (2012). Why university students don’t read: What professors can do to increase compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6, (2). http://academics.georgiasouthern.edu/ijsotl/v6n2.html