Queen's Active Learning Classrooms


Active Learning Classrooms

Active Learning Classrooms

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What are other instructors doing in the Active Learning Classrooms?

Each year, we will ask instructors to share their favourite activities from the active learning classrooms, so everyone in the Queen's community might benefit. 

While not all activities will suit your particular learning outcomes, many can be modified to get students doing the things that you want them to be able to do in your class.

See the list below for activities you can adapt and implement. Many ideas are transferrable from classroom to classroom, so don't hesitate to browse beyond your assigned active learning space!

"Playbook" of Active Learning Classroom Activities used at Queen's

High-tech, team-based learning

Case Study Jigsaw Activity (Ellis Hall 333)
History of Institutional Research Ethics
Heather Castleden, Department of Geography & Planning

Number of students involved: 40-50 students, 5-7 per Pod

Length of time needed: 45 min


  1. Short lecture (10 minutes on the TCPS2—Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans)
  2. Each Pod is given a “Case” to investigate/research using their internet resources and prepare a Visual presentation to deliver to the group. (15 minutes to do the research and prepare)
  3. Each Pod volunteers a presenter who reports what the Case is about (what happened, how it shaped our understanding of ethical/unethical research conduct), using imagery or video. (3-5 min per Case).

Each Pod was responsible for a different Case, thus when the presentations were delivered, the students had an opportunity to be an active learner from, and an active teacher to, their peers. Before I ran the exercise in class, I confirmed that the students would be able to find sufficient and accurate information online with relative ease and efficiency using google. Each Pod also had an opportunity to ‘play’ with the room’s technology.

Mindmapping Activity (Ellis Hall 321)
Catherine Donnelly, School of Rehabilitation Therapy

Number of students involved: 73

Length of time needed: 30 minutes


I have students working in teams of 5-6 create a mind map to articulate/present the features of a 1) Novice Clinician and 2) Expert Clinician.  Half the class is assigned to “Novice Clinician” half to “Expert Clinician”.  I use the surrounding wipe boards for them to work on with markers (low tech). I often will take photos of the mindmaps and post them on the learning platform. 

I choose sample teams from each of the assigned groups to present their Mind Maps to the larger group and have the class walk around the room to see what their classmates have drawn.  I have this activity at the start of the class and we build on the information the students presented as the class unfolds.  I also leave the visuals up so they can continually refer to this throughout the class, which is 3 hours and run like a workshop format. 

NOTE: This activity works well in any class with extensive whiteboards, and can also be adapted for the smartboards in Ellis Hall 333

Animal Rescue (Ellis Hall 321)
Anya Hageman, Economics

Number of students involved: 80

Length of time needed: 30 minutes


Students divided into 8 groups. 6 groups were wildlife rehabilitation centres, 1 group was an elephant rescue group, and 1 group was a chimp rescue group. Each of the two rescue groups had 10 animals to find homes for. They also received 10 playing cards (red cards for chimps; black cards for elephants) and 10 animal tokens. The playing cards represented the marginal benefit to society for each successive animal rescued. For example, if your highest playing card is 8 that means the marginal benefit to society of finding a home for your first animal is 8 (dollars or thousand dollars or whatever). 

Meanwhile the wildlife rehab centres each received 10 red playing cards, showing the centre's marginal cost of housing chimps, and 10 black playing cards, showing the same thing for elephants. So if a centre's lowest black card is a 2, that means that the marginal cost of housing its first elephant is 2. 

Rescuers were instructed to find homes for their animals at the lowest price. They had to offer their highest playing card for placing the first animal, second highest for the second animal etc. because that's how marginal benefits work. The first animal rescued is more important than the 10th. Of course some students did not follow this instruction, and the animals were misallocated, but that became a teaching opportunity. 

Wildlife centres were instructed to hold up their lowest black and red cards, so that rescuers could easily see where the best price was. Once an animal was placed at a wildlife centre, the two playing cards (marginal cost and marginal benefit) were retired and placed under the animal token which was given by the rescuers to the wildlife centre.  

At the end of trading, we compared the results (number of animals of each species rescued, prices paid, where they were placed) to what theory predicts. I had graphically illustrated the marginal rescue cost curve for all the wildlife centres taken together. We talked about the equimarginal principle, and how to minimize costs by allocating animals to the lowest cost wildlife centres. (Rather than by forcing each wildlife centre to take the same number of animals, for example). 


Flexible learning spaces

Small Group Video Analysis (Theological Hall 203/209)
Caroline-Isabelle Caron, Department of History

Number of students involved: 22 (in four groups)

Length of time needed: 2.5h to 3h


The point of this analyses was to have the students examine four short and mid-length informative videos (20 to 60 minutes) that purport to be documentaries during four separate classes. They would watch them in class during the first hour.  During the second hours, as small groups, they would analyse both the textual and visual vocabulary of the videos, to suss out their many layers of meaning, links to that week’s theme and readings. After careful discussion, and with my input when needed, the small-groups would then report on their findings during the third hour. 

Icebreaker Exercise (Ellis Hall 319)
Symbolic Objects
Bren Melles, Department of Public Health Sciences

Number of students involved: 30 (but could be as small or large a group as you want, so long as you have enough space for people to mingle around and to lay out objects)

Length of time needed: 10 – 20 mins

Advance Prep: Gather a variety of everyday and useful objects – gather at least as many objects as participants, with a handful of extras. I usually just walk through my house and pick up regular objects including things like: clothespin, flashlight, oven mitt, ball, pen, candle, magazine, book, skipping rope, fork, hat etc.

Seating: I usually have people begin in a very large circle, with their rolling chairs/desks backed up to the wall/window.

Setup: I spread the objects out on the floor in the middle of the room.

Instructions to learners:

  1. Get out of your seat and select a found object that symbolizes why you have chosen to pursue studies in public health. (Note, insert whatever you want for “public health”. In my case, I’m working with Master of Public Health Students)
  2. In pairs, share your name and how your object symbolizes why you have chosen to study public health. When you are finished sharing in one pair, find someone else and share again.
  3. We’ll hear a sample

Value of the Exercise: I have found this to be a great introductory warm up exercise. It taps into people’s kinesthetic needs by getting them to move, it engages them creatively, it brings to light their motivation/values, and it reveals what they think “public health” is about. You can then pick up on their content to bridge into subsequent learning tasks.

NOTE: You can run this activity with students again at the end of term and ask them to reflect on whether and how their responses may have changed   

Thesis-Building Carousel (Theological Hall 203/209)
Michael Murphy, Department of Political Studies

Number of students involved: 20-25

Length of time needed: 40 minutes


The thesis-building carousel takes place in four steps.  Over the first three, students work in groups to prepare a working thesis, before presenting this to the rest of the tutorial group to discuss strengths and room for improvement in the fourth step.  This opportunity to work through thesis development collaboratively is unique (at least in political theory), because, unlike the classic term paper, the students can learn from one another instead of working all alone.

The tutorial group is broken up into four or more groups, and each one approaches the nearest whiteboard with a marker.  At this first stage, the group is allotted time to write a theme relevant to the class discussion on their whiteboard.  After all groups have written their theme on their whiteboard, the TA can instruct all groups to move to the next board.

When each group arrives at their second station, the board will already have a theme from that week’s reading on the board.  The groups are now given time to write a question related to that theme on the board.  If groups were uncertain what exactly their question should look like, I encouraged the groups to think of their upcoming exam, and what kind of question they would want to write an essay response for.  What question would they want to see about “class struggle” in Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto? Again, after all groups have finished writing, they move on to the next station.

Once they reach the third step, each group takes time to discuss the theme and the question left by prior groups, and to develop a one- or two-sentence long answer.  This station often took longer to complete, given that the conversation’s ice has been broken over the previous two discussions, and students feel more welcome to engage in their group discussions.  At this point, we have reached a “working thesis” for a hypothetical paper responding to the assigned reading.  While students did not actually write this paper, the practice of developing a thesis from a reading is an important skill to develop for essay writing throughout undergraduate courses in political theory.

The final station is a presentation station.  Each group presents the question and answer to the class, and discusses strengths of the argument, including possible supporting arguments, as well as room for improvement.  Given that the groups have worked collaboratively on these panels, no one student’s work is singled out by the feedback process.  The floor is also open for other students to offer feedback to the answers and questions. This kind of crowdsourcing empowers students to share their strengths and insights, to build confidence and comfort with the material covered in the class, and prepares students to peer-review work.  At the end of the class, I took pictures of the work produced by the students, and emailed it out for to assist with review before term papers and exams.

See also: Murphy, Michael P. A. "Using Active-Learning Pedagogy to Develop Essay Writing Skills in Introductory Political Theory Tutorials." Journal of Political Science Education DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2017.1328683

Talking Circle and Grounding Exercise (Theological Hall 203/209)
Laura Murray, Department of English, Language, and Literature

Number of students involved: +/- 25


My course Settler and Indigenous Stories of Kingston/Cataraqui was held in Theological Hall B209 and the room was very important to the success of the course.

The most important thing we did is arrange ourselves in a circle every class. I can’t say it’s very fancy, but it was necessary and effective. And of course we were free to arrange ourselves in smaller clusters as needed.

Another important exercise the room permitted I did on the opening day. I asked all the students to stand up and face south. Well, they had to think about that a bit, but the room has two gorgeous tall windows facing KGH so they figured it out. I asked them what lay south of us, near, farther, and farther. Then I asked them to face North, West, and East, each time asking them what lay in that direction (even with no windows facing). It was not that easy a task for them. Along with the smudge and opening that Mary Ann Spencer did for the course this was an important grounding exercise – for us to orient ourselves and place ourselves in space, a key embodied element of the decolonizing ambitions of the course.


Active Learning at Queen's

The Queen's Senate Academic Planning Task Force highlighted the importance of active learning in the first of 19 recommendations in their April 2013 reportQueen's should promote active learning approaches because they are generally more successful in engaging students in the learning process than are passive approaches.

In the Faculty of Arts and Science the Blended Learning Initiative is transforming large introductory lecture-based courses into blended models that integrate in-class, face-to-face learning with online learning in a purposeful and complementary way (Garrison and Vaughn 2008). By focusing on active and collaborative learning in the classroom, particularly through small group learning activities, blended courses strive to enhance student engagement and to improve student learning outcomes.

A recent HEQCO funded report was published on transforming a first year course to enhance student engagement.