A small number of students are disciplined enough to actively engage their brains during class regardless of pedagogical techniques. They take notes, process information, make connections and ask questions. These elite students will likely be successful in any class regardless of intentional pedagogy. Most students, however, for a myriad of reasons, benefit from a classroom structure that includes planned and purposeful opportunities to engage with the content and each other. The following list includes some of the many considerations when planning for active learning:
- Chunking class time into 10-15 minute segments with processing time after each segment to increase learning and retention.
- Giving students time and guidance to reflect about content, metacognitive processes, or study techniques. Increasing wait-time to improve student the quality and depth of student responses.
- Individual processing activities
- Partner work
- Small group activities
- Self-reflection and metacognition
- Discussion techniques – small group, discussion protocols (Brookfield and Preskill)
When integrating active learning into your class, you will need to plan and practice more classroom management, figure out how to best utilize your classroom's physical space, and consider whether or not you will want to integrate teaching assistants or learning assistants into your teaching practice.
Active Learning in the Online Classroom
While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.
Not everything in your online course needs to be active. Readings and short lectures have their uses. But strategically including some active learning helps increase student motivation, and, in turn can improve students' understanding. For example, you might intersperse readings and short lectures with games, activities and short assignments.
A common fear is that the online classroom doesn't lend itself to active learning in the same way that the RI classroom does. While it may look a little different or be asynchronous, you can use active learning in your online course just as you would in your RI course. A few ways to incorporate active learning in the online classroom are included below, but the list goes on. In short, you can do nearly everything online that you can in the classroom—you just might have to make a few tweaks to get there!
- Short lectures interspersed with quizzes
- Case studies
- Role plays
- Authentic assignments (See SOWK 511: Joni and Tim video [15:00]. In this video, the instructor and a helper play the roles of therapist and client. Students are asked to critique the therapist's strengths and areas for improvement in a discussion forum.)
- Portfolios, projects and presentations
- Writing and research assignments
- Peer reviews
- Games and simulations
- It's important to keep in mind that many students take online classes because they have full-time jobs or military or family obligations that prevent them from being available at certain times. While much group work can take place asynchronously, some tools-like chats or Web conferences-are synchronous and can be more difficult to manage across the different time zones of your students. This isn't to say you should never incorporate synchronous learning online, but be considerate of the reasons that students take online courses. Use this type of learning sparingly, communicate any requirements well in advance and be prepared to offer alternatives to students who do not have flexible schedules.
Brookfield, Stephen D. & Preskill, Stephen (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Research and Resources
Active learning is a proven strategy enhances learning and effectively addresses student engagement. (Freeman et al., 2014; Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011; Prince, 2004). Students not only report higher levels of satisfaction and engagement in active learning classrooms(Armbruster 2009), they also show increased academic performance and persistence (Freeman 2014). This is especially true with students from historically underrepresented groups (Haak 2011).
Active learning techniques such as chunking content and providing students adequate time to reflect on course content and class materials produces responses that demonstrate a depth of thought and learning not seen in traditional lecture classrooms.(Rowe 1974). Leveraging active learning in this way teaches self-regulated learning and helps students develop and use metacognitive skills that increase learning and retention (Fountain 2012, Nilson 2014).
You can design your course to promote mastery learning, which involves internalizing key concepts and skills through practice, recognizing when to apply such knowledge, and (eventually) applying this knowledge without conscious effort (Ambrose et al., 2010). While typically mastery takes longer than a semester to achieve, you can structure students' effort so that they're working toward it. The approaches used intersect with those suggested in the tabs on Student Engagement and Active Learning Techniques. For instance, as you introduce a new concept, complex relationship, problem type, or skill, ask students to example a variety of cases and to identify key similarities and differences or provide students with a series of worked example problems, decreasing the proportion of the answer provided with each new example and asking students to complete the missing steps. Diagrams and images that demonstrate complex processes aid in understanding when concepts may be difficult to grasp through words alone. Likewise, use visuals to organize hierarchical content in a systematic manner with specific examples that demonstrate the application (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019).
After introducing new material, provide multiple opportunities for students to practice. Eventually, provide students with practice in identifying when to apply knowledge they've been using (Ambrose et al., 2010; National Research Council, 2000). Some forms of practice produce greater learning per study hour invested when compared with other approaches often more commonly used. For instance, rereading and highlighting offer little gain in recall or conceptual understanding, in contrast with two other methods that offer significant gains: spaced practice, in which the learner spaces out shorter practice sessions over time (ideally with sleep in between sessions) and interleaved practice, in which the learner alternates between topics or problem types (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019). See the linked resources for information and instructor toolkits on spaced practice and interleaved practice. For additional information and video resources, please see TILT's science of learning page. By explaining to students what each of these approaches is and how it will help them learn more effectively and efficiently, you can motivate students to invest the added effort required to use these approaches.
You can also structure homework or in-class assignments that require students to use the above approaches and others shown to be effective. For example, self-testing substantially improves recall, especially when the learner must produce answers rather than select a multiple choice option. You might ask students to create challenging short-answer quizzes and to then take their own or peers' quizzes. Because using delay to monitor one's learning provides a more accurate assessment of what's internalized and what isn't, you might ask students to spend two minutes at the beginning of class testing their recall of facts or concepts introduced earlier in the course. You can help students use study time most effectively and efficiently by requiring them to use the syllabus or other information you've provided to Identify specific facts, concepts, theories, or skills to be tested (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019).
You can also help students to deepen their understanding of concepts, relationships, or systems. For instance, you might use think-pair-share activities that ask students to explain the material to themselves or others (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019). Because making connections between new concepts and prior knowledge improves recall and understanding, you can ask students to explain how material you've just introduced relates to material covered earlier in the course or in a prerequisite course (Lang, 2016). Challenge students to expand on their knowledge and elaborate on specific concepts. Encourage deep engagement rather than superficial thinking. Greater depth and breadth of study will create greater gains in learning, understanding and retention (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019). In the classroom, increase wait times for student responses to encourage more thoughtful responses (Rowe 1974).
Active Learning: A Practical Guide for College Faculty, Magna Publications 2017
Ambrose, S.A., Brides, M.W., Lovett, M.C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fountain S. B., Doyle K. E. (2012) Learning by chunking. In Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H.,& Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111
Haak, D. C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., & Freeman, S. (2011). Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology. Science, 332(6034), 1213–1216. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1204820
Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Expanded edition. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.
Nilson, L. (2014). Creating Self-Regulated Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223–231.https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2004.tb00809.x
Quaye, S., & Harper, S. (2015). Student Engagement in Higher Education (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Rhodes, M.G., Cleary, A.M.,& Delosh, E.L. (2019). A guide to effective studying and learning: Practical strategies from the science of learning. Oxford, 2019.
Rowe, M (1986), Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be a Way of Speeding Up!, Journal of Teacher Education.
Tanner, K. D. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 322–331. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-06-0115
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