Active Learning

36 Practical Active Learning Ideas for Smaller Classes

3-modesA Observe & Consider

“Learning To Draw”: Active Learning from the Learner’s Perspective

In last week’s discussion, I [Steel] said that I wanted to learn how to draw during this coming year. Well, I was eating lunch with Bill Costello, one of Learning Support Services student workers, and he mentioned that as a fifth year senior he had a few extra spots for electives this year and had decided to take a drawing class. I got excited, and asked if he’d take some time to make a short film with me discussing active learning from an undergraduate learner’s perspective and give me a short drawing lesson so I could get started on my own learning goal. He did, and thanks to David Macasaet, our resident filmmaker and media production guru, we made this short film, “Learning to Draw.” Enjoy!


3-modesA Observe & Consider

Last week, we devoted an entire section to Active Learning models and approaches, suggesting that many approaches to active learning could fit into 4 broad categories. This week, we wanted to provide specific instances from among these broad categories that have been successfully applied to small classes as a way of helping you to think about strategies that might work in the courses with which you are involved.

Ask Better Questions

Here are some ideas:

  • Encourage divergent responses: To encourage dialogue, pose questions that might elicit differing opinions and allow multiple students to respond before weighing in or redirecting the conversation.
  • Reverse the paradigm: Give students some responsibility in asking good questions by establishing a framework that guides student generated questions. Giving students input can help students take ownership in the class discussion.
  • Follow up: Ask students to describe how they arrived at an answer.
  • Get comfortable with silence: there’s a broad base of research that shows that if you waiting briefly before calling on someone to answer, more students feel like they have time to think about a question, ensuring a higher quality of discussion.
  • Consider Bloom’s Taxomony: Align the question with the goal for your activity. Know whether your question seeks an answer that demonstrates knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation.

Write and Reflect in Class

Planned writing and reflection activities, from low- to high-stakes, and from formal to informal, offer a great way of increasing student engagement and triggering meaningful learning. We’ll look more at writing as active learning in week 4, but for now here are a few ideas for implementing writing and reflection in smaller classes:

  • Assign a rhetorical model: Ask students to follow a pattern or a template for a written assignment (compare and contrast, definition, film or book review, analysis, exemplification, etc.), provide opportunities for peer review or other revision, and provide them feedback.
  • Three-Minute Papers: At the end of a class session, invite students write for three minutes in response to a specific question (it could be as open-ended as “What’s the most important thing you learned today?” or “Which concept or idea from today’s class was the most difficult for you to understand?” or “What was the most confusing part of today’s class?”).
  • Concept Evaluation: Make a handout with several likely student questions on your topic for that day and ask students to circle the ones they don’t yet know the answers to and turn in the paper. A variation of this activity could be to distribute a 3×5 card to each student with a statement related to content knowledge written on it. Half should feature true statements, and half should make false claims. Students must decide if their card’s statement is true or false, using any available means and must group themselves on one side of the room or the other. After grouping, the whole class works through the claims, discussing their accuracy and reviewing the ideas on each card.
  • Letter of Advice: Near the end of a course ask student to write a letter of advice to future students on how best to succeed in your course.
  • Conceptual Haiku: After students have been introduced to a new topic or concept, ask each of them to write a haiku (a three-line poem which follows a simple syllabic pattern, 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables) on that topic and share their writing with a classmate or small group.
  • Directed Paraphrasing: Ask students to paraphrase part of a lesson for a specific audience and a specific purpose (when possible, try to make this activity useful by giving it a real-world connection).
  • Word Journal: In a similar assignment, ask students first to summarize an entire topic with a single word. Then give them 5 minutes to produce a paragraph which explains their word choice
  • Focused Reflection: After an in-class experience/activity, ask students to reflect on “what” they learned, “so what” (why is it important and what are the implications), and “now what” (how to apply it or do things differently)

Solve Problems

Posing meaningful problems with a direct connection to your academic discipline, course content, or subject area and inviting students to develop creative solutions is a fantastic way to catalyze meaningful learning. Here are some ideas:

  • Case studies: Immerse students in an authentic context using case studies that illustrate how course concepts map to the real world. See more about how the UW Engage program is helping instructors develop interactive case scenarios.
  • Decision making model: Present a problem and have students use John Dewey’s decision making model in groups. This model follows this basic structure: (1) Diagnose several possible causes, (2) search for alternate solutions, and (3) evaluate alternatives to choose the best solution.

If you’re planning to introduce problem-solving activities to your class, consider these means-tested approaches and advice adapted from AJ Romiszowski’s “The development of physical skills: instruction in the psychomotor domain.” in Instructional-Design Theories and Models: a New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, Volume 2 (1999).

  1. Model the problem-solving process for students.
    • Let the student observe a sequential action pattern before attempting to do it.
    • Demonstrate a task from the viewpoint of the performer.
  2. Setting specific goals can lead to more rapid mastery of a skilled activity.
    • Involve students in producing a shared definition of what constitutes success.
    • Ensure that students have a clear understanding of what it means to solve different kinds of problems.
  3. In general, ‘learning feedback’ (results information) promotes learning, and ‘action feedback’ (control information) does not.
    • Letting students complete the problem-solving task before receiving feedback about their success promotes learning better than offering comments at each step in the solution.
    • In general, feedback is more effective in promoting learning when it transmits more complete information. Students learning to solve problems need more than a simple assessment of whether their answer was correct or not.
  4. Transfer and retention of skills and abilities are improved by what educational researchers call ‘overlearning.’
    • The more problems students solve (with appropriate feedback), the more readily they will be able to solve novel problems, a defining characteristic of meaningful learning.
    • Avoid too fast a progression to more difficult tasks. Present students with a sequence of problems that moves from easy to hard as their performance improves.

Collaborate and Cooperate

Successful collaborative or cooperative learning activities generally accomplish two things: they enhance student learning and autonomy and they develop social skills like decision making, role development, conflict management, and effective communication. Research into effective collaborative learning in the college classroom has found that there are three simple, often-overlooked components which enormously improve the quality of small-group work:

  1. Students should receive clear, explicit instructions about the tasks they are expected to perform
  2. An appropriate amount of time must be allotted for the activity and agreed upon in advance
  3. Students in the groups should agree upon their roles within the group. In most cases one student from the group should be assigned as a recorder/reporter and be charged with providing feedback when the group reports back to the larger class.

Here are some ideas for cooperative activities:

  • Peer teaching: Form a group assingment that requires students to lead a class (or portion of a class). Require more than just a presentation.
  • Role play: Organize a discussion where students assume the role of characters in a hypothetical situation. Shedding their real identity provides learners freedom to disagree and consider alternate perspectives.
  • Scenarios: Build activities around realistic scenarios (perhaps current events) to give an opportunity to apply abstract concepts.
  • Create healthy competition: Develop competitive exercises (games) that allow learners to challenge and motivate one another (Game-based learning).

3-modesC Practice & Apply

Let’s put some of these ideas into practice. Use either your own course or one of the two mock course scenarios below as a template. Picture how a typical class day in this course might go: What are the activities? How is the hour structured? How is a lecture delivered? Are the students engaged with the material, and if so, how exactly? Now choose a short segement of this class (10 to 15 minutes) and reimagine that segement as a short active learning mini-module. Use our session notes, discussions, and ideas above to help guide you and to help you construct your active learning mini-module. Remember, active learning can be applied to your course design slowly and in small chunks; it does not have to be as dauting as sitting down to redesign your entire semester-long course all at once! Let this activity encourage and inspire you, and perhaps you might even incorporate the mini-module that you reinvent here into your course sometime soon!

Sample Scenarios:

  • A mid-sized History lecture course (about 50 students). The course is mostly lecture-based, and while the students seem interested in the material, they aren’t quite as engaged as they could be. It is still early in the semester, so some community-building activities couldn’t hurt to help to encourage a more cohesive group. The course meets twice per week for 75 minutes each time. The course is currently only face-to-face with no online or blended course components.
  • A small, intensive, upper-level literature course (about 18 students). The students are very familiar with the course materials but don’t seem to grasp entirely the current analytical approach that you’re discussing in class. The course meets four times per week for 50 minutes. The course does include some blended and online elements for out-of-class practice and a few assignments.

Media Attributions

  • 3-modesB

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Practical Active Learning Ideas for Smaller Classes by Steel Wagstaff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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