Part 8: Fall 2018 Labs

149 Active Learning vs. Gimmicks – 12.14.2018

If students equate active learning to busywork, we’re doing it wrong! When can best intentions for active learning turn into a superfluous misuse of time? At the December 14, 2018 Active Teaching Lab, participants discussed how to ensure active learning is truly engaging and meaningful. Attendees examined active teaching practices and reflected on how the array of tools for active learning are best employed to promote meaningful learning.


  • Promote deeper learning by implementing activities and tasks that prompt students to independently and collaboratively build upon content with their own experiences, expertise, and inquiry.
  • Instead of trying to predict what might be relevant to students’ lives, structure assignments so that there are multiple avenues for students to find personal meaning in the work.
  • Set the context for a learning activity, both in the scope of the course/program and in the real world. Students often invest more in tasks that have immediate, real-world effects.
  • Use the castle top model of activity flow to balance pre-, in-, and post-class tasks. Emphasize that students won’t be able to participate in class if they haven’t done the prep work, and use low-stakes but still value-holding assessments or accountability measures to promote student completion of prep work.
  • Assign roles for debates and discussions of articles or controversial topics in class. Author advocate, devil’s advocate, mediator, and troll are fun and purposeful positions for students to assume.
  • Make an orientation module (Module 0) in Canvas to show students how the course maps out, set them up for success, and shift “syllabus day” to the online space so you can use in-class time more productively. Templates for orientation modules are available from DoIT. View the templates here and see the KnowledgeBase document on templates to learn how to use them in your course. 
  • Record students from previous semesters giving advice on how to succeed in class as a peer-to-peer resource; return to this advice after the first exam and provide time for reflection and goal revisiting before moving forward. 
  • Intersperse group quizzes with individual quizzes to allow social construction of knowledge and let students gauge how they’re doing in comparison to peers.
  • Be intentional with group formation. Try CATME for automated group formation based on selected student characteristics, such as schedule, major, interests, or existing skill sets.

For more tips on active learning, visit the session’s activity sheet.


The Active Teaching Lab is a Faculty Engagement program with sessions held on Thursdays from 1:00-2:00pm (room 302) and Fridays from 8:30-9:45am (room 120) in the Middleton Building (1305 Linden Dr.) during fall 2018. Check out upcoming Labs or read the recaps from past Labs. We build interdisciplinary conversations that are more emergent than a presenter and more dynamic than a panel — a conversation with colleagues sharing challenges, solutions, and experiments on topics selected by a variety of stakeholders.

Sign up for regular Lab announcements by sending an email to


Active Teaching Lab eJournal Copyright © 2016 by DoIT Academic Technology and the UW-Madison Teaching Academy; Jennifer Hornbaker; John Martin; Julie Johnson; Karin Spader; Margaret Merrill; Margaret Murphy; and Jeffrey Thomas. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book