Active learning (AL) is the means of implementing various strategies to increase engagement. Though AL may be initially viewed as another pedagogical trend, chances are you may already be using AL in instruction. In other words, AL includes a wide range of practical methods designed to engage learners’ skills of writing, discussing, etc. (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Prince, 2004). AL enhances learning by requiring learners to do something and then to think about what they are doing (Bonwell & Elson, 1991), thereby constructing knowledge (Carr, Palmer & Hagel, 2015).
Prince (2004) conducted a meta-analysis of hundreds of active learning strategies, concluding that learners learn best with:
- Strategies introducing learner activity into the lecture
- Strategies promoting learner engagement
- Collaborative and cooperative learning and
- Problem-based learning.
Before introducing AL to your class, consider the layout of your teaching space. Whether in a physical classroom or online, rearrange your space to support pairs, groups, teams, or discussions as possible. Encourage learners in physical classrooms to seat themselves near the front and center section of the room to promote increased participation/engagement. Encourage learners in online classrooms to make effective use of discussion boards, wikis, self-enrolled groups, etc.
AL works best with buy-in from the learners, so explain the benefits of AL on the first day of class. Select a variety of AL strategies to implement that align with the course or session learning objectives. Refer to the Apply portion of this article for samples that also serve as quick, formative, classroom assessment techniques to inform teaching and learner progress.
There are tens of thousands of AL techniques available through a web search. Here, we refer to several strategies from an article by Paulson and Faust (2013), who described AL techniques focused on promoting learner engagement, developing effective questions and answers, obtaining formative feedback, motivating critical thinking, and encouraging collaborative learning:
Individual learner engagement
- The “One Minute” Paper. Pose a question (either specific or open-ended) and give learners one (or perhaps two —but not many more) minute(s) to respond. For example, “What was the main point of today’s class material?” This can be done on a blank sheet of paper, as a simple Blackboard assignment or posting, or in a collaborative online document.
- Affective Response. Like the “One Minute” Paper, ask learners to report their reactions to some facet of course material (i.e., to provide an emotional/evaluative response to the material).
Developing effective questions and answers
- Wait Time. Rather than choosing the learner to answer the question presented, intentionally wait 15 seconds or so before calling on someone to answer it.
- The Fish Bowl. Learners are asked to write down one question concerning the course material. They should be directed to ask a question of clarification regarding some aspect of the material which they do not fully understand; or, perhaps you may allow questions concerning the application of course material to practical contexts. At the end of the class period (or, at the beginning of the next class meeting if the question is assigned for homework), learners deposit their questions physically or online for the educator to select several questions to answer for the class or to which to ask the class to respond.
Motivating critical thinking
- Pre-Theoretic Intuitions Quiz. An educator can give a quiz aimed at getting learners to both identify and assess their views. After learners have responded to the questions individually, have them compare answers in pairs or small groups and discuss the ones on which they disagree. This technique may also be used to assess learner knowledge of the subject matter in a pre-/post-lecture comparison.
- Cooperative Groups. Pose a question to be worked on in each cooperative group and then circulate around answering questions, asking further questions, keeping groups on task, etc. After group discussion, learners are asked to share discussion points with the rest of the class.
- Active Review Sessions. In the traditional class review session, the learners ask questions, and the educator answers them; likewise, in an online session, an educator can hold a synchronous session via WebEx. In either setting, learners spend their time copying down answers rather than thinking about the material. In an active review session, the educator poses questions and the learners work on them in groups. Then learners are asked to show their solutions to the whole group and discuss any differences among the solutions proposed.
Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC. Higher Education Report 1. Washington, DC: George Washington University.
Carr, R., Palmer, S., and Hagel, P. (2015). Active learning: the importance of developing a comprehensive measure. Active Learning in Higher Education 16. pp.173-186.
Paulson, D. R., & Faust, J. L. (2013). Active learning for the college classroom. California State University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Retrieved from https://www.calstatela.edu/dept/chem/chem2/Active/main.htm
Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.