How do I implement active learning strategies in a traditional lecture-style classroom with fixed seating and tables?
Classroom space is one of the major barriers instructors encounter when implementing active learning strategies, as many classrooms still have fixed seating and tables that cannot be moved.
You can get creative by incorporating activities that allow students to move around the classroom and collaborate with others, like Post-It Parade. You can also implement activities (like Think-Pair-Share) or technology and social media tools (like clickers, Poll Everywhere opens in new window, or Today’s Meet opens in new window) to engage students in discussion without having them leave their seats.
How do I implement active learning in large classes?
Match the active learning activity to the size of the class. Round tables will not work with 400 students, but Think-Pair-Share will. Line-up and Quescussion can also work with large classes of 150 or more. Another way to engage students is by using clickers or asking students to respond to questions on Poll Everywhere opens in new window or Today’s Meet opens in new window using their smartphones.
Large classes also lend themselves to participation “by proxy” – with a smaller group of students participating in a role play, simulation, or panel at the front of the room, and the rest of the students observing the “FishBowl” and answering questions like “what did you observe?” later.
For more on implementing active learning in large classes, watch interviews with faculty who use active learning with 400-800+ students in the “How do I implement active learning” section of the module.
How do I incorporate active learning activities and ensure that I get through all the content I need to cover?
Instructors often feel like they have to “cover a lot of content” and do not have time for active learning. Research suggests that active learning activities lead to deeper, more enduring learning, and allow students to apply what they have learned more easily than information delivered in lectures or acquired through reading.
To assess what students have learned after a particular activity, ask students to write a 1-Minute Paper at the end of the lesson. This activity will provide feedback on any gaps in students’ learning, which you can address before moving on.
Consider using a “flipped classroom approach,” where students are responsible for becoming familiar with the content through readings, videos, or online materials before class, and classroom time is used for application of the material through active learning.
Is there still value in lecturing?
There is value in lecturing when it is aligned with course objectives and learning outcomes. For example, lecturing may be useful when the instructional goal is to transmit information, as long as it is not done in every class, all the time.
Short lecture segments can complement active learning activities, and can be an important tool for summarizing what students learned from an activity, introducing new concepts and providing examples.
In a well-designed class, there is a balance between active learning activities, reflective learning experiences and short lectures.
How do I know which active learning activities are appropriate for my class?
Try out a variety of learning activities to see which one works best for your students. Ask the class which activities they have used in the past, and which ones helped them learn most.
When you are introducing challenging new content, use an active learning activity that is already familiar to students. If you increase the challenge of content and process at the same time, the cognitive load will be too high for students and they will not be able to engage with the material in a meaningful way. Introduce a new type of activity when the content is not very challenging.
Ask for feedback from your students frequently using a “Stop-Start-Continue” activity – using an anonymous survey or index cards, ask them to list what you should (1) start doing, (2) stop doing, and (3) continue doing in the class to help them learn. Students will let you know if you have overused an activity.
If you use games such as Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in class (you can find downloadable templates online), make sure your students are familiar with the rules of the game. International students, for example, are often unfamiliar with Jeopardy rules, but can participate if they are part of a team.
How much time do I need to run an active learning activity in my class?
The time it takes to run an activity depends on the outcomes you want to achieve.
Many active learning activities take just a few minutes (e.g. Reflection, Think-Pair-Share), while extended activities (e.g. case studies, simulations) may take the whole class or several classes.
Before starting an activity, know how much time you want to spend on it and let your students know how much time they have.
During the activity, periodically remind students how much time they have left before they need to share their work.
What do I do when students get off track during an activity?
To ensure students stay focused during an active learning activity, be sure to give clear instructions beforehand and let students know that they can only start after you’ve finished outlining the activity.
If you are asking students to work in groups, post the tasks/questions on a PowerPoint slide or print them out for each group to make sure everyone is clear about the task.
To keep students on task during the activity, periodically remind students how much time they have left before they need to share their work.
If you notice students are getting off track (e.g. if groups are chatting about something unrelated to the activity), it may be because they are stuck or have already finished their work.
To assess how students are doing, check in to see if there are any questions, or poll students to see how far along they are in the activity.
The noise level in the room will drop for a few minutes when groups are finished discussing the key question – this is usually an indication that it is time to move on to the next question/task.
What do I do if my students don’t want to do active learning activities?
Most students are used to passive learning (i.e. sitting in a classroom and having information “wash over” them). Since active learning is more work, some students may say that they don’t like it, or that the instructor is not “teaching them.”
Students may also be reluctant to participate in active learning because they do not know what they should “get out of active learning.” They may feel like active learning is a “waste of time” because what is discussed may not be on the exam.
You can inoculate the class against these reactions by:
modelling active learning from the first class
articulating what students will gain from active and collaborative learning (e.g. interpersonal communication, conflict management and group interaction skills)
providing a clear summary at the end of the class in which you highlight the main takeaway messages from the activity, connect it to what comes next, and emphasize how students can use what they learned in the session (including how it will be used in papers, exams, or other assignments)
getting on-going feedback from students regarding their experience with active learning
addressing some of their concerns as the course progresses
Students are also encouraged to participate when they are responsible for some output. Before an activity, assign students roles to encourage participation and meaningful engagement (e.g. during group work, have one person record what is discussed and another person share it with the class).
What do I do after an active learning activity?
After an active learning activity, work with students to summarize what they learned from the activity and how they can use it in their assignments/papers/careers after graduation. This step is called “transferring learning to another context.”
You can also collect evidence of student learning, provide (formative) feedback back to students, and change your instructional approach given the evidence collected. Ask students about the learning experience — what worked, what didn’t work. Incorporating their feedback will help them feel engaged in the learning experience and will also give you feedback on the value of the particular activity. This is especially valuable when trying new active learning strategies.
How do I evaluate active learning?
Make sure that the active learning activity you select helps students progress towards your learning outcomes.
Check for student understanding of key concepts and issues using classroom assessment techniques (Angelo & Cross, 1995), such as a 1-Minute Paper.
Students will perform better if they need to produce something as part of active learning and are accountable for their work (for example, ask students to hand in a solution to a problem, submit three questions about a topic for the exam, create a model for X and draw it, share examples they discussed in their group, or post their group solution online).