21 Active Learning Strategies You Must Try

Active learning has been shown to improve student success, particularly in STEM courses. Faculty who struggle to adopt active learning techniques most often cite a lack of time and resources as barriers. One of the most common requests we get from faculty at Auburn is for low-risk, high-reward active learning ideas, i.e. activities that can be easily integrated into a course they are already teaching without having to alter the course schedule.

This “menu” contains specific activities, instructions, and suggestions to help you incorporate more active learning in your classes without having to redesign your syllabus. Although most can be assessed, all are designed around tasks with inherent value. In other words, these are designed to get students doing more of the important work of learning, not the instructor.

Starters

“Starters” are designed for the beginning of class. Their key ingredients are knowledge transfer from previous lessons or outside homework and mindset development to help students create the internal environment that is most conducive to focus, attention, and the mindset necessary for learning.

  • Focused Listing – This one minute writing task is designed to allow students to concentrate on the key ideas or concepts from a previous class or assigned homework. It primes the pump for learning by giving an opportunity for quiet focus and to recall previous class content. The value is in the doing, but you can also opt to have students submit their lists to quickly assess how much they retained or what the muddy points are.
  • Misconception/Preconception Check – A simple technique for gathering information on what students perceive they already know about a topic. Pairs well with difficult conversations, first-day activities, and explaining scientific principles that underlie or relate to familiar phenomena.
  • Think/Pair/Share – Students write a short individual response or reflect silently and use an iClicker to respond to a prompt or question then they share the discuss briefly with a peer; finally, pairs are asked to share distilled idea with the larger group or to respond to the question again using the iClicker. Use this technique to pace your teaching with student learning by assessing responses to determine whether to move on or if more time is needed on a question or idea.
  • Flipped Reading Quiz – Students (alone, in pairs, or small teams) generate a question based on the assigned homework they were asked to complete before class. These questions are traded and feedback is given by peers after they attempt to answer or solve it. For formative quizzes, process (i.e. participation) is graded rather than the product (i.e. right/wrong answers) making it ideal for large classes. Questions can be collected and used on future quizzes or tests, but let students know if this is the plan as the possibility of future value will improve their effort on the activity at hand.
  • Picture Prompt – Show students an image with no explanation and asked them a) to identify/explain/connect it with course related ideas or concept and justify their answers; or b) to label its parts using course terminology to name the processes and concepts shown. Do not give the “answer” until they have explored all options first. Using abstract or novel visual imagery complements a range of learning processes, particularly those related to recall.

Entrees

“Entrees” are for the meaty-middle parts of class. Their key ingredient is complex cognitive tasks that ask students to apply new knowledge and skills in meaningful ways. Often, though not always, collaborative, these activities challenge students to perform and offer formal and informal means of assessing their performance.

  • Fishbone Diagram – Use this analysis tool to help students break down the causes that lead to a given effect. The “head” of the fish is the effect (e.x. U.S. housing crisis in 2008). The “spine” represents a continuum while “ribs” break down the problems according to logical categorizations, i.e. timeline, who, what, where (e.x. Key federal policy decisions that led to the crisis). It is a great tool to analyze complex phenomena (readings, events, ideas) to help separate cause and effect from correlation, or to teach systems thinking.
  • Midterm SWOT – SWOT is a tool for analyzing an ongoing situation both internally (Strengths and Weaknesses) and externally (Opportunities and Threats). Have students complete a SWOT analysis of their performance to conclude course units and major assessments (tests, essays, midterms, etc.) ant o prep students for improvement in the rest of the course. S: What are your strengths as a learner of this material? W: With what aspects of the course are you struggling? O: Are there resources on campus to help you improve or maintain your performance in the second half of the course? T: In what ways might you be standing in your own way of achieving your learning goals?
  • Role Playing – Creating a Team Based Learning (i.e. group work) activity. Before explaining the task, break students into team and give each teammate a role to play as they work on the learning activity. Roles give status and can help teams overcome social awkwardness or cultural barriers. Teams perform learning tasks better when they have a structure for working together. Try de Bono’s six roles: Information Specialist, Optimist, Judge, Voice of Intuition, Creative and Enforder. Adjust roles to team size by eliminating, doubling up, or creating new roles.
  • Defining Features Matrix – Identify 2 course concepts that have several similarities (World War I vs. World War II, types of metamorphic rocks, diseases with similar symptoms, etc.). List the important characteristics of both. Generate a matrix of two columns and have students put a +/- to indicate whether the characteristic applies to either, neither, or both. This task helps students categorize and prioritize information which aids in content retention and recall.
  • Slow-Motion Debate – A student-led, highly structured exploration of complex, concepts, data, beliefs, values, this activity asks students to listen, repeat, and build. Sides take turns sharing ideas but before a new point can be made, the team (or speaker) must restate the point just made by the previous side, and then state how they new point connects, contradicts, or augments the previous one. A mediator takes notes on the board to document to argument and provide a map of the conservation for future study or review. Pace is slow and deliberate.
  • Concept Maps – Replace reading comprehension quizzes by having students draw a diagram of assigned readings with central claims or thesis at the top followed by sub claims and specific examples of evidence. By reverse-engineering the argument, students gain confidence in reading comprehension skills of participate value on early, complex reading assignments. Add a technology skill component by using mind-mapping apps like Popplet or MindMeister. Visual assignments help students solidify learning while faculty benefit from the easily assesable “snapshot” of learning they provide.
  • Gallery Walk – This discussion technique allows students to be actively engages as they walk in team throughout the classroom. They work together in small groups to share ideas and respond to meaningful questions, documents, images, problem-solving situations or texts. In EASL rooms, gallery walks are usually preceded by a group discussion and documentation activity. The gallery walk then allows teams to use the glassboards to present ideas, give feedback (using different color markers), ask follow up questions, etc. In non-EASL rooms, paper or poster can be taped or arranged around the outer walls or groups of desks can be arranged to form landing stataions.
  • Diagnosis: Murder – You, the instructor, have died as a consequence of something related to course content. Teams must work to solve the mystery using knowledge and skills gained in the class. To prepare, use backward design. Identify 3-5 key skills or concepts you want to emphasize. Integrate them into a story with you as the protagonist: you wanted something, you misapplied a concept or skill from the course, you died as a consequence. Create a clue list of plot points. (Idea credit: Dr. Ameya Kolarkar)
  • Jigsaw – Team-based activity in which groups become subject matter experts in one of four (or more) topics related to the course during the first half of the activity. During the second half, teams switch members so that one person from each of the original groups is now in a mixed group. Each member takes turns teaching their subject matter. Example: groups are assigned different countries (Brazil, Ethiopia, Croatia, Iceland) and told the generate information about that country’s food, art, governance, and economy. Next, students from each group are swapped out to form groups with one person from each country. New groups have a topic focus (art, food, etc.) and experts from each country. Experts teach the others (take turns) and groups report out on their topic using the countries as examples of a global trend or pattern.
  • Forum Theater – A technique pioneers by Brazilian radical Augusto Boal wherein a play or scene is shown twice. During the replay, any member of the audience is allowed to shout “Stop!”, step forward and take the place of one of the oppressed characters, showing how they could change the situation to enable a different outcome. Several alternatives may be explored by different spectators. The other actors remain in character, improvising their responses.

Desserts

“Desserts” are to be served up at the end of class. Their key ingredients are reflection, because it is only in looking back on one’s performance, or reviewing new knowledge and skills, that the learning become aware of their progress and what next steps are necessary, and connection because asking students to connect new to old has been shown to greatly increase retention, e.g. you are more likely to remember new content (these active learning strategies) when you are able to connect it to something familiar.

  • Concept Mapping – Students write keywords onto sticky notes and then organize them into a flowchart. Could be less structured by having students simply draw the connections they make between concepts.
  • Categorizing Grid – Students are presented with the 2-3 most important concepts or skills learned during the class period along with a scramble of subordinate terms, images, or other aspects of the 203 key concepts. Students have to organize the subordinate items by filling them under the appropriate key concept heading.
  • Syllabus Scramble – An application of the Categorizing Grid and perfect substitute for the common, humdrum first day practice of reading the syllabus aloud to the class. Instead, use headings from the syllabus as superordinate categories -course policies, goals and outcomes, evaluation and assessments, etc. and put into the scramble the most important things students need to be aware of. Have groups organize, present, and compare. The value of this activity is it helps the faculty identify and highlight mission critical course information while building the learning environment by having students meet each other through a low-stakes, game-based task.
  • One Minute Paper – Short writing reflection activity in which students reflect on the most important ideas from the day, document lingering questions, and connect new learning to something meaningful to them outside of the class.
  • Course Wrapper – Write the Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) on posters or glassboards around the room. Put students into team and assign each team one of the outcomes. Then have teams reflect on what they did over the course of the semester and make a list of specific actions they took, knowledge they gained, or skills they learned that helped them achieve that outcome. This activity pairs well with student evaluations because students have the opportunity to think about the semester holistically and the work they have (or have not) done to meet course goals. In other words, students are better qualified to evaluate the course following this holistic reflection. Faculty benefit from more thoughtful feedback when they give students time to reflect on their own learning.
  • Bumper Sticker – Ask students to reflect on what they will remember from a specific class, unit or semester ten years from now and boil it down into the form of a bumper sticker (10 words or less). Have students share their bumper stickers on a Canvas discussion board so all can remember, reflect, and enjoy.

 
These activities can be paired or served a la carte. Substitutions are allowed and encouraged. We offer not a prix-fixe or set menu of things you must do, but rather an enticing selection of activities you can use to spice up your teaching. We encourage you to steal our recipes and add some of your own.