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In brief:

  • There is a wide variety of active learning techniques that help develop different levels of knowledge and skills.
  • Many of these techniques can be used with large classes and without much-advanced planning.

Common Active Learning Techniques

What do active learning techniques look like logistically and what procedures and steps are needed to prepare your students and the classroom?  The following videos illustrate six popular active learning techniques to help get you adopt more student-centered activities in the classroom. These activities are based on descriptions in Collaborative Learning Techniques: A handbook for college faculty. 1

Selecting the Appropriate Technique for your Needs

Not only are the active learning techniques listed above applicable in any discipline, many of them require little to no advance preparation. If we consider some of the main features of these techniques, you can see in the table below that they are very versatile, and most can be adapted to nearly any style of class or task.

Level of thinking / skill focus: Any

Students take time on their own to consider a question, then their thoughts with a partner and after, optionally with the entire class.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: introduction, presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand

Students take turns sharing notes with a partner at intervals in a lecture.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: any

Students brainstorm or discuss a question or problem in small groups.

  • Suitable for all phases of instruction

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: any

Students brainstorm or discuss a question or problem in small groups.

  • Suitable for all phases of instruction

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

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Level of thinking / skill focus: apply, problem solving

In pairs, students take turns listening while the other explains their solution and reasoning to a given problem.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: practice application

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

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Level of thinking / skill focus: remember, understand, apply, analyze

Students master content in small “expert” groups then reform into new groups and teach each other what they learned in their previous groups.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation

  • This technique requires students to work in small groups, so it will depend on your classroom configuration. See the lecture hall buzz group diagram to use small groups in a lecture hall.

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand, note-taking

Instructors provide a kind of template for taking lecture/reading notes to help them organize their notes and help them focus on big ideas and connections between them.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand, note-taking

Instructors provide a set of partially-completed notes that students complete while listening to help them focus on big ideas.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand

Instructors pause at regular intervals in a lecture and ask a student to explain the previous segment in “plain English” to their classmates.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: analyze

Students are put into groups, and each member is assigned a role. Each role is a component of a complete analysis (i.e. Arguments for, arguments against, examples, opinions, etc.)

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • This technique requires students to work in small groups, so it will depend on your classroom configuration. See the lecture hall buzz group diagram to use small groups in a lecture hall.

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand

Students create a visual representation of lecture content.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand, self-regulated learning

Students use response system (i.e. clickers) to answer questions. After voting, they explain their answer to a partner then vote again. Typically, the second round of voting sees better results as students learn from their peers.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand, apply

Students use response system (i.e. clickers) to answer questions. After voting, they explain their answer to a partner then vote again. Typically, the second round of voting sees better results as students learn from their peers.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand

Students fill in an instructor-generated graphic organizer based on reading and/or lecture that shows the relationship between ideas.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

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Level of thinking / skill focus: critical thinking

Students identify what is fact and what is opinion from a reading or lecture.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand, apply, critical thinking

In response to a lecture or reading, students: explain Insights they’ve gained, identify an additional resource that has similar themes, and write how the reading applies to their own personal experience.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand

Students classify concepts, ideas & theories based on specific criteria.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • This technique requires students to work in small groups, so it will depend on your classroom configuration. See the lecture hall buzz group diagram to use small groups in a lecture hall.

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

Level of thinking / skill focus: analyze, problem-solving

Students write a 1-2 page analysis of a problem/issue to a stakeholder.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: application

  • Suitable for large classes

  • This technique requires students to work in small groups, so it will depend on your classroom configuration. See the lecture hall buzz group diagram to use small groups in a lecture hall.

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

Level of thinking / skill focus: understand

Students sort course concepts into categories into an instructor-generated grid.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation

  • This technique requires students to work in small groups, so it will depend on your classroom configuration. See the lecture hall buzz group diagram to use small groups in a lecture hall.

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

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Level of thinking / skill focus: evaluate, critical thinking

Students present a concise three-minute argument with supporting evidence on a designated course topic.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: practice, presentation

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand, note-taking

Instructors provide a kind of template for taking lecture/reading notes to help them organize their notes and help them focus on big ideas and connections between them.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: analyze, critical thinking

Students write dialogues between different characters (real or fictionalized depending on your topic) on controversial theories and issues.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: application

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: problem-solving, self-regulated learning

Students keep track of the steps they take as they solve a problem.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: practice, application

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

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Level of thinking / skill focus: apply, analyze, problem-solving

Students work in teams to use a specific process to solve a complex problem.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: practice, application

  • Suitable for large classes

  • This technique requires students to work in small groups, so it will depend on your classroom configuration. See the lecture hall buzz group diagram to use small groups in a lecture hall.

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance

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Level of thinking / skill focus: apply, analyze, evaluation

Students analyze an authentic scenario and apply course ideas to provide a solution.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: application

  • Suitable for large classes

  • This technique requires students to work in small groups, so it will depend on your classroom configuration. See the lecture hall buzz group diagram to use small groups in a lecture hall.

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance.

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Level of thinking / skill focus: apply, analyze, critical thinking

Students keep a journal where they connect course information to current news or their own lives.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: practice, application

  • Suitable for large classes

  • This technique requires students to work in small groups, so it will depend on your classroom configuration. See the lecture hall buzz group diagram to use small groups in a lecture hall.

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance.

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Level of thinking / skill focus: apply, analyze, evaluation

Students pass around envelopes with a problem or scenario written on the front. Groups discuss and put their solution into the envelope and pass it to the next group. This group provides their own solution without looking at the previous group’s answer. Once a problem is in the third or fourth round, students remove the solutions and evaluate each and decide which is best and why.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: practice, application

  • Suitable for large classes

  • This technique requires students to work in small groups, so it will depend on your classroom configuration. See the lecture hall buzz group diagram to use small groups in a lecture hall.

  • Preparation of task and/or materials required in advance.

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Level of thinking / skill focus: understand, apply, evaluation

Students put the answer to a question on a post-it note then stick it to a designated surface where it can be organized in a variety of ways.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: introduction, presentation, practice

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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Level of thinking / skill focus: self-regulated learning

The instructor pauses throughout the lecture and students reflect on what they were doing and why.

  • Suitable phases of instruction: presentation

  • Suitable for large classes

  • Appropriate for traditional classrooms

  • Little to no preparation

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The next section will:

  • describe how to get started implementing active learning in your classes.