11 Instantly Usable Active Learning Strategies for Your Classroom!

This small collection of active learning techniques will help keep your students engaged...

Some easily employable active learning techniques are collected below for your convenience. They vary in difficulty and complexity, but you are bound to find some that will fit your teaching situation/material, regardless of the level you are teaching at. Keep in mind that not only is active learning very effective at improving students' understanding of the material and overall grades, but it will also improve student satisfaction, when compared to traditional teaching methods. Be sure to give them a try, and stay tuned for a second article containing more such learning techniques!

1. The Pause Method

Pause for about two minutes every ~15 minutes. Ask students to discuss what was taught and update/compare/restructure notes in pairs or small groups. This instructional strategy will let students contrast their understanding to that of peers, as well as stimulate them to better organize the information and not passively consume it. Clarification questions may also arise from this activity, thus lowering the chance of leaving the classroom with misunderstood information.

2. The Minute Paper

After a significant yet appropriate (i.e., this would greatly depend on the material and the intensity of teaching – could be in the middle or at the end) amount of material has been covered in a lecture, ask students to pull out a piece of paper and summarize, from memory, all they’ve learned from the lecture, or even to draw a mind-map of the information they’ve received. This active learning strategy will ensure that students will think back on the lecture, thus better structuring the information in their minds, and it might also reveal misunderstandings or points which require further discussion.

3. Focused Listing

Before class, have students focus for ~5 minutes on focusing all of the concepts and ideas they know that relate to some central theme, topic or concept. This will help them make links between various strands of past knowledge and the topic at hand, thus creating a richer mental context for the fresh information to be presented in. The gathered information could be used as a starting point for group discussions, revealing differences and similarities between students, thus enriching their perspectives, as well as priming them to better pay attention later on in class, to see how all of the discussed themes actually connect to the presented material. This active learning technique could also be done at the end of class for concepts to be presented at a later time, thus piquing students’ curiosity in advance.

4. TPS (Think Pair Share)

Ask students a question which involves the need for deep mental engagement with a concept, such as analyzing it or employing comparison, critique or appraisal. Let students do this for a few minutes, depending on the difficulty of the task, and then ask them to discuss the results of their work with a peer or within a small group. Emphasize the need for critical thinking when assessing the work of oneself and others, perhaps drawing up some pros and cons of each approach. Finally, ask them to reach a relative agreement by discussing and understanding differences in their responses. This active learning strategy will make students reflect critically upon their own and other’s work, as well as applying time pressure, which should lead to better synthesis of the topic.

5. Jigsaw Discussions

Split the topic of a lesson in several separate but related concepts. Write then down on notes and give each individual student one of them. Ask them to read about their assigned topic (either in-depth, if meant as homework, or to a reasonable extent for the time assigned, if the exercise is performed in class) so they become knowledgeable enough to explain it to others. Then, in groups large enough to fit all topics related to some concept, have the students take turns in explaining and teaching others what they’ve learned, and to try and find out and explain how it all connects on a deeper level. This instructional strategy leads to familiarization with topics, employs peer/social learning, and makes students think about the implications and interconnections of what they’re learning.

6. Interactive Lecture

Once or even multiple times per lecture, depending on the structure, material and length, take ~10 minute pauses, and place some questions or problems for all to see. Ask the students to answer these or solve the problems individually or in small groups, and then have a group discussion of the answers, getting everyone to share their knowledge/solutions, while debating reasons for differences. This active learning technique will get students to focus on the material and learning from their peers, while making the lecture more memorable.

7. Concept Maps

Concept maps are graphical, schematic representations that show the various components/ideas in behind a concept, and the relationships between them. To have students create one, either give them the terms in advance and let them think of how to best arrange them, or instead have them read a lesson and then try their best to synthesize the system they read about in such a map. The first will elicit more predictable results, the emphasis being on the relationship between terms, while the second will give you deeper insight into your students’ understanding of the material and learning process. Both can then be discussed in groups to add an element of debate and peer learning. This learning strategy will make the students actively think of the concept they are studying, and how its components really relate, eventually also increasing their attention during their lesson, as they'll have a personal theory to (dis)confirm.

8. Inquiry-based Learning

This method encourages students to really explore the concepts they need to learn, by instructing them to think about them like scientists would. To start, have a topic ready, and present it to the students. Ask them to come up with research questions/hypotheses related to aspects of this topic, then to develop rigorous experimental designs to test these. You could then assign the task of following through with the investigation as homework, and ask them to present their findings and observations briefly during the start of your next class. Have students do the task in pairs to increase engagement and, again, enable peer learning. Depending on the concept and approach, this active learning strategy can be quite complex and challenging for the students, but ensures that they will truly engage with the topic, as well as they will have to employ their creative and critical thinking skills to succeed. After the results are presented, for even deeper learning, you could also ask students to collectively reflect on their process (i.e., what went well, what did not, how their little experiment could have been improved).

9. 3-2-1 Technique

Students can be asked to reflect on a lecture more in depth by employing the 3-2-1 technique. This implies asking them to list 3 new things they’ve learned and describe them in moderate detail, then list 2 things that they’ve found particularly interesting during the lecture, and finally, 1 thing that is still unclear or unresolved in their mind. This learning technique ensures that the lecture is put in perspective, while also lowering the knowledge gaps students sometimes leave the classroom with.

10. Brainstorming

Come up with a problem, thematic, or question, and present it to the students, asking for their input. Let them write down some ideas, and then transcribe them on e.g., the blackboard for all to see. As soon as this is done, create a group discussion on the feasibility/validity of the various approaches. Let the discussion occur freely (do encourage creative, out-of-the-box solutions), and then ask for a second round of answers. The discussion should have brought fresh information to everyone’s minds, getting them to think more expansively. This active learning strategy empowers students to learn from their peers and also think creatively.

11. Prediction

When presenting experiments or systems which start from some basic components that then have to be combined in some unknown way, ask students to observe the initial conditions and predict how the demonstration will evolve and turn out. This can be done individually or in small groups. This active learning technique will help students better understand the system: No matter if they get it right or fail, their attention for the outcome will be greatly enhanced.