Don’t try to implement too many activities or anything complicated the first couple of times. Start with simple, low-stakes techniques that are easy to implement (i.e. Think-Pair-Share, Buzz Groups). Once you feel confident, you can move on to more complex activities that require more steps and advance preparation.
Explain why you are doing it
Explain to students the benefits of active learning and that you are implementing it in order to deepen their learning. Tell them that students in classes that use this approach tend to get better grades – this should make them perk up in their seats! Students are sometimes reluctant to participate in these techniques for two main reasons: 1) some students believe they are paying good money for the expert (you) to tell them all the important knowledge, and that it will be transferred to them via the lecture, and 2) they are used to being passive in the classroom, and an active approach will force them to take on new roles. However, others will be familiar and engage happily; they can be your change ambassadors!
Design activities that have a clear task
Make sure students have a goal to work towards. They need something to keep them focused whether they have to come up with a solution, come to consensus or generate a list to ensure there is a clear purpose to their activity.
Consider how you will form groups
If you plan to use groups, determine in advance how groups will be formed to save time. Do not be afraid to ask students to change places. However, if you have a large class, it may be easier simply to assign groups by clusters of seats or by numbering off students. Randomly assigning members to groups will make the groups more diverse and more productive, and less likely to cluster groups of friends (which can be more of a distraction). You may choose to design a system so that students are switching groups. This can help compensate for dominant and/or non-compliant students.
If you plan to do a lot of group work throughout the term, you may want to consider permanent groups. If you decide to have permanent groups, you can assign members based on certain criteria (i.e. knowledge of the topic, year of study, special skill, etc.) so they are balanced. In such groups, roles can be alternated weekly and students can keep a folder of their work (which you can collect and grade/check if you would like). You can also ask group members to grade each other’s contributions as part of a participation grade for the course. JMSB has a peer evaluation tool that is easy to use.
Prepare Clear Instructions
Instructions are crucial for students to succeed in a task. If instructions are not clear, many will sit around asking each other “what are we supposed to be doing?” and wasting precious class time on a logistical rather than a conceptual question. Writing clear instructions can be challenging; you should know in advance how exactly you plan to implement an activity. A good practice is to write down the instructions on a PowerPoint slide or in your notes. Written instructions are best so students can refer back to them throughout the activity, particularly if there are multiple steps. Even if it’s just one question for discussion, write it on a slide or the board so students can refer to it as they think.
You should also provide clear parameters for the activity in your instructions. For example, what resources can they consult and how much time do they have. You may want to start a timer on your computer to project so students can always see how much time they have left.
Very often it takes extra time for students to get organized before an activity and return to the plenary at the end of an activity. For this reason, you should plan for an extra few minutes of padding in your lesson around such activities.
Plan for transitions
It is also helpful to establish a signal that indicates that students should wrap up their discussions and turn their attention back to you. A simple gesture can be extremely helpful in managing chaos. This could be: ringing a bell or making another sound, holding your hand in the air, or turning the lights off and on again.
Plan for mishaps
Think about what could go wrong in the implementation. While it’s impossible to think and plan for everything, some things are more likely. For example, if you are relying on technology, develop an alternative plan in the event the technology fails.
Use your time wisely
As the expert, this is your chance to check in with groups and interact with students on a smaller scale. Use this time to float around the room and listen to students. Probe them to get them to dig deeper and help them unravel difficult concepts and make connections. This is your chance to get a glimpse into students’ thinking and provide immediate and relevant feedback.
As you are implementing the activity, you might notice that it takes more time than anticipated or that the procedure needs to be tweaked slightly by adding a step. Don’t be afraid to go “off-script.” Follow your instincts and make a note for next time to avoid the same pitfall.
Don’t give up if it does not go how you planned
If an activity fails or does not go as planned, do not give up on the technique altogether. Reflect on the implementation and consider what could be tweaked to improve or adapt it in the future.
Resources & Further Reading
1 Adapted from: Howard, M., & Persky, A. M. (2015). Helpful tips for new users of active learning. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 79(4).