Student Engagement

This Guide provides resources and practical examples for designing engaging and active learning opportunities in different learning environments.

Active learning looks different across disciplines and contexts; however a common element is students being at the centre of their own learning. Students take more responsibility for their learning, thoughtfully engage with the course content, apply their learning in new ways, or apply problem solving and reflective practices. Elements of active learning can be woven into lectures, seminars and labs or can be designed as larger elements of a course.

Indigenous cultures, both globally and locally - here in our places and spaces within Kingston/Katarokwi area, namely the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples - have been learning by doing since time immemorial. Learning by doing in connection and relation with the land and all of Creation is at the root of Indigenous pedagogies. These pedagogies, Ways of Knowing, believing, thinking, and feeling are deeply rooted in the societal and cultural norms and customs of a nomadic lifestyle. They represent strong spiritual ties and gratitude for all of the gifts of Creation and their ability to help save us and preserve our lives - not only for us here presently, but as they have done for the Ancestors in the past, and also in going forward for future generations to come. 

  • Select activities and opportunities for student engagement that are purposeful and help achieve the course learning outcomes.
  • Discuss with students the goals of the activity and any expectations and deliverables. Be clear about how and why you expect student to engage.
  • Debrief the activity and reflect upon what students have achieved.
  • Use a variety of strategies and create opportunities for students to engage in different ways.
  • For more tips on getting started with active learning check out the Active Learning Guide from Vanderbilt University, including their Cheat Sheet – 10 Steps for Getting Started with Active Learning

Active Learning Strategies

Strategies are organized into different contexts such as lecture-based settings through to group work and alternate settings such as labs. However, it's important to note that this organization is a bit arbitrary - strategies presented for one context can easily be applied to another. All strategies could be considered in finding the right fit for your course.

Have you heard of a think-pair-share or one-minute paper activities? These types of activities are quick ways to engage students that are adaptable to many learning environments. Active learning takes many forms – from short independent activities that may take only a few minutes to large group or team-based activities that can hours or continue for more than a single session. Active learning tasks can be integrated into lectures of all sizes, learning environments, and both synchronous and asynchronous methods of delivery.

Syllabus Scavenger Hunts

Consider designing a scavenger hunt for students to familiarize themselves with your course and the learning management system.
A scavenger hunt activity can prompt students to explore elements of your course (syllabus, assignment deadlines, discussion boards, course FAQ), including the onQ site, as well as provide opportunities to build community among students. Part of your scavenger hunt might be asking students to find a welcome discussion board where students make a post to introduce themselves to the class!

To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

  • Consider which elements of the syllabus you would introduce to students on the first day of class.
  • Think about designing a quiz using the quiz function in onQ that focuses on the elements of your syllabus and onQ site that would be most important for students to remember.


In this activity the instructor poses a question to the students, allow them time to think independently and write a short response before turning to a peer to compare ideas/responses.
After a short time, pairs can share with the larger group. A Think-Pair-Share activity can encourage students to share their ideas among a small group of peers.

Ideas for facilitating this in an asynchronous environment:

  • Use Office 365 OneDrive or OneNote or an onQ Discussion board to create a space online for students to share their ideas about a question, prompt, or problem.
  • In groups or as a class, ask students to comment on the posts made by their peers.
  • Once they have had time to share and connect with peers, an instructor or TA can add to the discussion, share a video, or bridge their discussion to another course activity.

One-Minute Paper or Exit-Tickets

A one-minute paper or exit-ticket is an activity that can be used to check a student’s progress in understanding the course material and provide feedback about what areas of the content that students find most interesting or challenging to understand.
Activities of student engagement can also be an independent activity; consider how you can use independent writing as a form of active learning.

In a lecture, ask students to write down their “muddiest” point in the lecture - something that remains unclear or confusing. They would then hand in this paper to you as they exit the lecture. If your course has weekly readings you might also consider asking students to reflect on readings by submitting questions, comments, or areas that need clarification. This encourages students to reflect on their own learning while also helping to inform what areas students might be struggling.

To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

  • Consider using the survey tool in onQ if you would like to collect anonymous responses from students
  • If you would like student to discuss their ideas with their peers, you might use an onQ discussion forum.
  • Be clear with students when they can respond to the exit ticket (ie. at the end of each session or each week) and how you will use their comments. For example you might address the muddiest points in the next week.

Case Studies

Case studies use a written description of a problem or real-world example to engage students with course materials.
You might consider how your lecture content could be presented as part of a case study that tells a story or describes a current issue that would be of interest to students. Students are tasked with analyzing the case, either independently or as a small group, with the instructor acting to facilitate the learning activity.

To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

  • Provide students with a case that includes all relevant background and context.
  • Provide guidelines on how you expect students to engage with the case and what questions they will need to answer.
  • Use onQ to set up groups if this is a group activity, and an assignment folder for students to submit any deliverable.

For more on using case studies in your course see the CTLs website on case-based learning.

Question of the Day

Pose a challenging question at the start, middle or end your lecture session.
To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

  • You might post a weekly question or problem set in onQ, or a specific question about the day’s topic before an online session.
  • Students can independently draft a response or solution to the problem.
  • Considering posting the solution in an onQ discussion forum or as a video in the content section of the course.

Guided Lecture

In a guided lecture, students are instructed not to take notes during the presentation, however right after the presentation, students take 5-10 minutes of active writing time to note what they have learned or remembered from the presentation.

To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

  • Consider breaking your lecture in a series of shorter video or audio recorded presentations (10-20 minutes).
  • Ask students to watch and listen to the presentation, saving their note taking for after the presentation is over.
  • As a class you can then discuss what key elements students took away from the presentation, elaborating on areas that need clarification using an onQ discussion board, a Microsoft Teams virtual meeting, or a Zoom session.


Gamification can be a fun way to review themes, topics, questions, areas of confusion or “muddy” points within your courses.
You can easily find templates or create your own Jeopardy style boards in Microsoft Sway, PowerPoint, or Word, and have the questions either be student generated, or instructor chosen from each week’s lecture.

To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

  • You might play a Jeopardy or Quiz game using:
    • A synchronous session using Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
    • In an asynchronous environment, asking students to design a game board and questions that they can share with a peer or group in onQ.

Many seminars and tutorials use discussion as a means to facilitate the exchange of ideas, explore content in more depth, solve problem sets, and encourage students to work together in a small group settings. How can we encourage student engagement through discussion?

Consider these recommendations:

  • Build and support a community amongst students. Think about creating ways for students to introduce themselves and get to know each other. Using onQ, this might happen through discussion forums that allow students to post a bio, a photo, or video that they wish to share about themselves.
  • Create group guidelines for discussions – As one example, here is Lindsay Brant’s (Educational Developer Indigenous Pedagogies and Ways of Knowing) standard grounding rules and guiding principles for her workshops and webinars
  • Consider priming students for the discussion by providing questions ahead of time.


Jigsaw Discussion Groups

Gallery Walks


A fishbowl encourages full student participation, reflection and depth of knowledge.
Students take turns "in the bowl" and "out of the bowl". Students in the bowl participate in a lively discussion, often about opposing views or controversial topics, Students outside of the bowl listen and reflect on the alternative viewpoints. And then...they switch!

To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

Organize students into teams. Create a discussion forum for the class. Select a discussion question for your fishbowl topic. Provide the question to each team and allow students some time to prepare their thoughts. Provide the rules and expectations for all the "in the bowl" and "out of the bowl" groups. The "in the bowl" students" lead the online discussion forum. The "out of the bowl" students read the posts and evaluate the discussion. Once the discussion period is over students might post their thoughts on the activity. The groups can switch or the instructor can debrief the class.

Jigsaw Discussion Groups

A jigsaw discussion is a fun and active group organization model that supports peer teaching and cooperative learning.
Each student studies the topic materials. Then, they work in groups to share ideas, debate different views and teach each other.

To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

Divide the class into “home” groups of 3-5. Divide the lesson (readings, videos, or presentations) into 3-5 segments. If possible, match the number of segments to the number of students in the home groups. Assign each lesson segment to one student per home group. Ask your students to first study the material on their own.
Next, organize students into new groups based on each segment – the expert groups. They'll work together to identify key points in the material. Students might connect with others in their expert groups through discussion posts to check in with one another and clarify key points of learning. Once students have become experts, they’ll rejoin their home groups. In their home group, students take turns sharing their new expertise by presenting their segments. Sharing might be done by asynchronous or synchronous means, such as a live group meeting.

Gallery Walks

Stations or posters invite brainstorming, contributions, and collaborations on various prompts.
Traditionally, this strategy is facilitated by posting stations around the room. Each station displays a prompt. Students rotate through stations, moving through individualized thought, record, sharing, discussion, consolidation, and sharing. For example, students might casually tour the different stations, adding their individual thoughts to posters before re-touring stations in groups to discuss, consolidate, and analyze what was recorded. Groups might then share a summary back to the larger group.

To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

Set up stations in a digital whiteboard or by creating separate collaborative documents as posters. Set up a schedule for individual contributions and conversation. Students might prepare and record a video to present their summarized findings.

If your course requires students to brainstorm, design, collaborate, or solve problem as a group, consider how you might facilitate student-to-student interaction in different learning environments. Here are some guiding principles:

  • Ensure that there is a goal for the group activity and make the intentions and goals of the activity transparent to students.  
  • Provide students will clear guidelines of what the activity entails, expectations for any deliverables, and how groups might communicate and collaborate together.
  • Kick off group work by having groups develop their own rubric that outlines how the group will measure their own success (what does effective group work look like to us?). This rubric will help them set their own expectations for guiding engagement.
  • Rather than prescribing a specific tool for group communication, recommend that student groups use asynchronous tools will allow them to collaborate (for example, Microsoft Teams).

For more on inclusive pedagogies and group work, see our Inclusive Community Guide.

A great way to engage students and gather timely feedback during a teaching session is by asking questions and collecting student responses.


Poll students and provide feedback on their responses.
Student response technologies and online platforms (such as Qlicker) can be used in synchronous environments both in-person and in virtual environment.

To do this in an online asynchronous environment:

Use the survey tool in onQ as a method of collecting anonymous student responses. (see this video for a guide on setting up an anonymous survey). Embed existing surveys (that can be as simple as 1 question!) in the weekly course content; quick surveys could be used as readiness assessments at the start of a week, question prompts for discussion, or as an exit survey at the end of the week.

Flexible instruction for laboratory sessions or laboratory focused courses can be more challenging to coordinate, however you can start by thinking about the following questions:

  • Lab sessions are intended for students to achieve which learning outcomes?
  • Can any of the learning outcomes be achieved in other ways?
    • Can some aspects of the lab be accomplished if students watch them, rather than do them? If so, considering asking students to watch video demonstrations.  
    • Can students analyze or design an experimental protocol instead of just following one?
    • If data analysis is an important skill for students to achieve? If a key outcome of the lab can be related to data analysis, share a data set with students then ask them to analyze then submit via OnQ
  • Can labs or other hand-on activities be completed using simulated or virtual sessions?

Resources and References

"Focus on Active Learning cover"Queen’s University Centre for Teaching and Learning – Active Learning Strategies

Queen’s University Centre for Teaching and Learning – Focus on Active Learning Handbook (PDF, 656KB)

Queen’s University Centre for Teaching and Learning – Pedagogy of Peace

Teaching and Learning in Higher Education – Module 3 Active Learning

Association of College and University Educators. Online Teaching Toolkit

Brame, C., (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Fostaty Young, S. (2013) Focus on Active Learning: Active Learning Strategies (PDF, 656KB), Centre for Teaching and Learning, Queen’s University (2013)

Vanderbilt University – Active Learning Guide


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The Transforming Teaching Toolkit by the Centre for Teaching & Learning, Queen’s University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.