Active Learning Techniques

Learn about what active learning is and how to achieve it. This post provides five active learning techniques: just-in-time teaching, listening teams, structured sharing, students as teachers, and team quizzes.

Active learning is a very popular topic in educational literature, and we encourage it as a means to improve teaching and learning in the classroom. Be sure to review the rich collection of Active Learning Resources on CTL’s Web Site.

Below you’ll find a brief definition of active learning and detailed instructions for five sample techniques for increasing active learning (taken from our long list of potential active learning activities).

Active Learning

Active learning requires deeper planning than simply leading students through a classroom behavior. Marchese (1998) says “Active learning has the ring of a slogan; passive learning is an oxymoron.” All learning is active in the sense of changing long-term memory. Focusing on behavior without cognition ignores “both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century” (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). Proponents of active learning do no favors by offering this definition: “Active learning is, in short, any learning activity engaged in by students in a classroom other than listening passively to an instructor’s lecture” (Faust & Paulson, 1998). It implies the desired activity is observable, while all of us have experience learning by being actively engaged in lectures, though our outward appearance might appear passive. It is often the learner who decides their level of learning activity, through thoughtful consideration or note-taking. Mayer (2004) emphasizes that “learning may be best supported by methods of instruction that involve cognitive activity rather than behavioral activity.” The key to active learning is the learning activity taking place within the student’s brain rather than the observed behavior that is a means to that cognitive work. The animated figure on this page illustrates that the teacher guides students in active learning, triggering those cognitive events consistent with desired learning outcomes. Be sure that your classroom activities have a clearly defined objective and effectively guide the student toward that learning goal.

Just-in-time Teaching

One way to describe Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT), is to say that it lets the students’ questions, misconceptions, and/or knowledge gaps guide classroom instruction. With JiTT, students complete an assignment or assessment on a given topic before the class period. Shortly before the class, the instructor reviews students’ work and adapts the activities and discussions based on the common errors or misunderstandings in the students’ answers. The teacher may use a Web-based assessment package or course management system (such as Blackboard) to facilitate making the assignments and collecting students’ answers.

A variation of JiTT uses in-class response systems (such as i-Clicker) to pose questions to students during the classroom session. The teacher may ask questions prior to discussion to expose existing misconceptions, or ask questions after the discussion to assess understanding. In each case, the subsequent discussion addresses the students’ misunderstandings.

The major effort in using JiTT is in crafting good questions and reviewing student results before each class. For more detailed information, see:

  • The JiTT Web site: www.jitt.org.
  • Beatty, I. D., Gerace, W. J., Leonard, W. J., and Dufresne, R. J. (2006). Designing Effective Questions for Classroom Response System Teaching. American Journal of Physics, 74(1), 31.

For questions about i-Clickers, 801-422-1888 at the Center for Teaching & Learning.

 

Interactive Example

This is an example of monitoring student comprehension while lecturing, particularly for a very large class. The professor can observe student readiness, which they indicate by pressing A, B, or C. Press these buttons on the iClicker image to see how the bars change whenever the students signal their comprehension.

Listening Teams

Listening Teams keep students focused during lecture modules or video presentations. They also provide opportunities for questioning and group discussion of key course concepts. Here’s how to set up listening teams:

Create groups of four students. Each student will take on one of the roles. You can mix up roles within classes or between classes to keep students engaged.

  1. Student 1, Example Giver (Facilitator/Tutor): Gives examples or applications of key concepts.
  2. Student 2, Questioner (Inquisitive Student): Asks 2 clarifying questions about the material.
  3. Student 3, Devil’s Advocate (Critical Thinker): Identifies 2 areas of disagreement within the content and explains why.
  4. Student 4, Team Player (Positive Believer): Points out two areas of agreement with lecture content and explains why.

Once you have the teams set up, give them their assignment:

  1. While listening to the lecture or video, think of examples, questions, and areas of disagreement and agreement.
  2. After the presentation, meet as a group for 5-10 minutes to share ideas and finalize your contributions.
  3. Groups will share examples and ask clarifying questions of the professor or other groups to solidify their understanding of the key concepts.

Source: Mel Silberman, 1996. Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Allyn & Bacon.

Interactive Example

These students have just finished listening to a lecture which included the following ideas:

Selective perception is a powerful concept in psychology and has many applications in social life. It is defined as seeing what we expect to see or seeing what we want to see. When something we observe is complex or multifaceted we can only interpret that information through our preconceptions about the world. These preconceptions then influence our perceptions and interpretations of reality.
Vallone et al. observed the power of preconceptions in what they called the Hostile Media Effect. When Israelis and Palestinians watched the same news broadcast, 90% of each group perceived that the news story was biased against their side. How could that be?

Hover your mouse across the picture to reveal the roles they are playing. Click on a role to hear their “Listening Team” comments.

Structured Sharing

Structured Sharing is a technique that helps students review the content of the class/presentation from different points of view, and at the same time helps you assess whether the students are learning the intended information and discover what questions they may still have.

Any number of students can participate, but the best size is between 20–30. Each student will need three 3″ x 5″ cards, and you’ll need about 10 more for your own ideas.

A Structured Sharing activity takes about 15-20 minutes. You can easily expand or contract the activity to fill the available time.

Before class, identify a superlative you would like focus on. During the activity, the students will respond with their ideas about the superlative you choose. Ideas for superlatives include:

  • What are the most important points from the day’s lesson and/or readings?
  • What are the most useful ideas?
  • Which are the most relevant to our times?

Here are a few more ideas for superlatives:

  • Most confusing
  • Most amusing
  • Most controversial
  • Most unusual
  • Most difficult
  • Most credible
  • Most surprising
  • Most trivial

Write your own answers for the superlatives on 3-10 cards (one idea per card).

At the beginning of class, pass out three blank 3″ x 5″ cards to each student. Tell them that by the end of class today they are to write down the three most __________ (fill in the blank with what you have chosen) on each card. You can limit it to the class activity/lecture or include readings as well. At the end of class, collect the cards and add your cards to the pile.

Before the next class, review the students’ answer cards. This will give you a chance to assess the students’ learning. How closely did the students’ responses match yours? Are you satisfied with their responses? Did they achieve the learning outcomes you planned? Can you see places where you need to clarify or expand concepts?

The next step is to show the students your responses and those of their peers. At the beginning of the next class period, give each student three or four of the cards (including yours) until they have all been distributed. Ask each student to select the card they most agree with or have them divide into groups of two to four and pool their cards and select one to share with the class. Give each student or representative from a group an opportunity to share the response they selected and, if time permits, the reason they picked the one they did.

Variations: If the room has desk or counter-top space, spread the cards after you collect them (and add yours to the stack). Ask students to come up and review the cards, selecting the one or two they most agree with. Then allow them to share their card/s with the class. You can do this at the end of the first class period or the beginning of the next. This lets students to see what others were thinking and can help frame their learning as well.

Interactive Example

Here are some “structured sharing” cards that students created after reading the following talks by Boyd K. Packer:

  • “The Word of Wisdom: The Principle and the Promises,” Ensign, May 1996
  • “Ye Are the Temple of God,” Ensign, November 2000

Click on each category group to flip through their notes.

Students as the Teachers


In this type of active learning experience, the students prepare an actual lesson on a given topic. The student’s lesson can range from a 10 minutes in a small group to a 30-minute activity presented to the whole class.

Don’t confuse this with a simple student presentation; the students must give an actual lesson that includes lesson objectives or learning outcomes, discussion questions, a form of practice and a form of evaluation. Their “class” is encouraged to ask questions and discuss points that the student presents.

Keys to Success

  • Create a basic lesson outline for students to follow.
  • Explain basic teaching skills to the students.
  • Define how you will evaluate the students’ performance on this task. For example:
    • You may evaluate based on their adherence to the lesson outline.
    • You may use their peers’ understanding of the topic to evaluate their performance.
  • Have clear-cut topics for the students to teach.
  • Give examples of reliable resources for students to use in lesson preparation.
  • Allow the students’ creativity to take over.
  • You may assign pairs of students to team teach.

The Online Twist

This is also an activity that you can use in an online environment.

Keys to Success in an Online Environment

  • Have the students teach their topic to a group of their peers outside of class.
  • Require students to turn in their lesson outline.
  • Provide teacher evaluation sheets for the student to give to their peers.
  • Have students submit completed evaluation sheets with lesson outline.
  • Evaluation sheets can include the following:
    • Likert scales asking the peers to rate—
      • Student’s ability to cover topic.
      • Student’s preparedness.
      • Student’s presentation method.
      • Effectiveness of student’s evaluation methods.
    • Short questions regarding—
      • Strong points of the lesson.
      • Points that needed improvement.
      • Specific aspect that they learned from the lesson.

Remember that all in-class “Keys to Success” also apply to the online students. Having the student become the teacher is in excellent way for students to become active in their own education. By preparing their own lesson, students are required to have a solid understanding of their topic and develop deeper insights, and they will gain ownership of their selected topic. This approach will allow for better classroom interaction then traditional methods of teaching. (For more information about alternative teaching strategies, see the University of North Carolina’s Center for Teaching & Learning, http://cfe.unc.edu/index.html)

Team Quizzes

Using team quizzes to help students review is a highly interactive exam-preparation strategy that requires careful—but well-rewarded—preparation from both the teacher and the students.

Here’s how it works during a class session:

  1. The class is divided into three teams.
  2. Team A creates a short-answer quiz while Teams B and C review their notes.
  3. Team A quizzes Team B.
  4. If Team B misses a question, Team C gets a chance to answer the question.
  5. The next question goes first to Team C, and missed questions revert to Team B.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Teachers

Here’s where the preparation comes in.

  1. Create a comprehensive outline of material covered in class/assignments. (Students may assist in this effort.)
  2. Give each student a copy of the outline.
  3. At the start of class, give a detailed explanation of the “Team Quizzes” procedure.
  4. Divide the students into three groups.
  5. Assign one team the responsibility of creating a specific number of questions guided by the outline and derived from the course materials.*
  6. Assign the remaining two teams the responsibility of collectively studying the outline and materials.
  7. Allocate an appropriate amount of time for group study/question synthesis.
  8. With the class still clearly and physically divided into three groups, stage a contest wherein the first group presents the questions they have created to the other two groups.
  9. Select questions from among those the students created to include in the actual test. This intrinsically rewards attendance, class participation, and attentiveness.

Optional: Award the first team with extra credit according to the quality of questions they create, and also award the winning group with extra credit. This can motivate the groups to study effectively and come up with potent questions.

*If you repeat the activity for future tests, ensure that a different set of students gets the opportunity to create the questions.

References

  • Faust, J. & Paulson, D. (1998). Active Learning in the College Classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 9(2), 3-24.
  • Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 76-86.
  • Marchese, T. J. (1997). The new conversations about learning: Insights from neuroscience and anthropology, cognitive science and work-place studies.” In Assessing Impact: Evidence and Action, pp. 79-95. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.
  • Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19.
For more information please contact Taylor Halverson, Teaching and Learning Consultant