– Centered education (compared
to instructor-centered education)
Not advocating abandonment of
Learner should be actively involved in the education process ŕ Active Learning
Improved student understanding
Provides more feedback to
More motivating to students
Accommodates different learning
Shallow learning encouraged by:
DEEP learning encouraged by:
Excessive amount of material in
Relatively high class contact hours
Excessive amount of course material
Lack of opportunity to pursue subjects
Lack of choice over subjects and
methods of study
Threatening and anxiety provoking
Student perception that deep learning
Interaction with others
Well-structured knowledge base
"Active Learning" is anything
students do in a classroom other than merely passive listening
to an instructor's lecture.
covers the subset of active learning activities which students do as groups of
three or more
"Collaborative learning" refers
to those classroom strategies which have the instructor and the students placed
on an equal footing working together in, for example, designing assignments,
choosing texts, and presenting material to the class.
TECHNIQUES OF ACTIVE
Exercises for Individual
Because these techniques are aimed at individual
students, they can very easily be used without interrupting the flow of the
class. These exercises are particularly useful in providing the instructor with
feedback concerning student understanding and retention of material. Some (numbers
3 and 4, in particular) are especially designed to encourage students'
exploration of their own attitudes and values. Many (especially numbers 4 - 6)
are designed to increase retention of material presented in lectures and texts.
"One Minute Paper" - This is a highly effective technique
for checking student progress, both in understanding the material and in
reacting to course material. Ask students to take out a blank sheet of
paper, pose a question (either specific or open-ended), and give them one
(or perhaps two - but not many more) minute(s) to respond. Some sample
questions include: "How does John Hospers define "free
will"?", "What is "scientific realism"?",
"What is the activation energy for a chemical reaction?",
"What is the difference between replication and transcription?", and so on. Another good use of the minute paper
is to ask questions like "What was the main point of today’s class material?" This tells you whether
or not the students are viewing the material in the way you envisioned.
(or Clearest) Point - This is a variation on the one-minute paper,
though you may wish to give students a slightly longer time period to
answer the question. Here you ask (at the end of a class period, or at a
natural break in the presentation), "What was the "muddiest
point" in today's lecture?" or, perhaps, you might be more
specific, asking, for example: "What (if anything) do you find
unclear about the concept of 'personal identity' ('inertia', 'natural
Response - Again, this is similar to the above exercises, but here you
are asking students to report their reactions to some facet of the
course material - i.e., to provide an emotional or valuative
response to the material. Obviously, this approach is limited to those
subject areas in which such questions are appropriate (one should not, for
instance, inquire into students’ affective responses to vertebrate
taxonomy). However, it can be quite a useful starting point for courses
such as applied ethics, particularly as a precursor to theoretical
analysis. For example, you might ask students what they think of Dr. Jack
Kevorkian's activities, before presenting what various moral theorists
would make of them. By having several views "on the table" before
theory is presented, you can help students to see the material in context
and to explore their own beliefs. It is also a good way to begin a
discussion of evolutionary theory or any other scientific area where the
general public often has views contrary to current scientific thinking,
such as paper vs. plastic packaging or nuclear power generation.
Journal - This combines the advantages of the above three techniques,
and allows for more in-depth discussion of or reaction to course material.
You may set aside class time for students to complete their journal
entries, or assign this as homework. The only disadvantage to this
approach is that the feedback will not be as "instant" as with
the one-minute paper (and other assignments which you collect the day of
the relevant lecture). But with this approach (particularly if entries are
assigned for homework), you may ask more complex questions, such as,
"Do you think that determinism is correct, or that humans have free
will? Explain your answer.", or "Do you think that Dr.
Kevorkian's actions are morally right? What would John Stuart Mill
say?" and so on. Or you might have students find and discuss reports
of scientific studies in popular media on topics relevant to course
material, such as global warming, the ozone layer, and so forth.
Quiz - Clearly, this is one way to coerce students to read assigned
material! Active learning depends upon students coming to class prepared.
The reading quiz can also be used as an effective measure of student
comprehension of the readings (so that you may gauge their level of
sophistication as readers). Further, by asking the same sorts of
questions on several reading quizzes, you will give students guidance as
to what to look for when reading assigned text. If you ask questions like
"What color were Esmerelda's eyes?"
(as my high school literature teacher liked to do), you are telling the
student that it is the details that count, whereas questions like
"What reason did Esmerelda give, for
murdering Sebastian?" highlight issues of justification. If your goal
is to instruct (and not merely to coerce), carefully choose questions
which will both identify who has read the material (for your sake) and
identify what is important in the reading (for their sake).
Pauses - This is a simple technique aimed at fostering "active
listening". Throughout a lecture, particularly after stating an
important point or defining a key concept, stop, let it sink in, and then
(after waiting a bit!) ask if anyone needs to have it clarified. You can
also circulate around the room during these pauses to look at student
notes, answer questions, etc. Students who would never ask a question in
front of the whole class will ask questions during a clarification pause
as you move about the room.
to a demonstration or other teacher centered activity - The students
are asked to write a paragraph that begins with: I was surprised that ...
I learned that ... I wonder about ... This allows the students to reflect
on what they actually got out of the teachers’ presentation. It also helps
students realize that the activity was designed for more than just
Questions and Answers
While most of us use questions as a way of
prodding students and instantly testing comprehension, there are simple ways of
tweaking our questioning techniques which increase student involvement and
comprehension. Though some of the techniques listed here are "obvious",
we will proceed on the principle that the obvious sometimes bears repeating (a
useful pedagogical principle, to be sure!).
Taking its namesake from the
most famous gadfly in history, this technique in its original format involved
instructors "testing" student knowledge (of reading assignments,
lectures, or perhaps applications of course material to a wider context) by
asking questions during the course of a lecture. Typically, the instructor
chooses a particular student, presents her with a question, and expects an
answer forthwith; if the "chosen" student cannot answer the question
presented, the instructor chooses another (and another) until the desired
answer is received. This method has come under criticism, based on claims that
it singles out students (potentially embarrassing them), and/or that it favors
only a small segment of the class (i.e., that small percentage of the class who
can answer any question thrown at them). In addition, once a student has
answered a question they may not pay much attention as it will be a long time
before the teacher returns to them for a second question. In spite of these
criticisms, we feel that the Socratic method is an
important and useful one; the following techniques suggest variations which
enhance this method, avoiding some of these pitfalls.
- Wait Time - Rather than choosing the
student who will answer the question presented, this variation has the
instructor WAITING before calling on someone to answer it. The wait
time will generally be short (15 seconds or so) - but it may seem
interminable in the classroom. It is important to insist that no one raise
his hand (or shout out the answer) before you give the OK, in order to
discourage the typical scenario in which the five students in the front
row all immediately volunteer to answer the question, and everyone else
sighs in relief. Waiting forces every student to think about the question,
rather than passively relying on those students who are fastest out of the
gate to answer every question. When the wait time is up, the instructor
asks for volunteers or randomly picks a student to answer the question.
Once students are in the habit of waiting after questions are asked, more
will get involved in the process.
Summary of Another Student's Answer - In order to promote active listening,
after one student has volunteered an answer to your question, ask another
student to summarize the first student's response. Many students hear
little of what their classmates have to say, waiting instead for the
instructor to either correct or repeat the answer. Having students
summarize or repeat each others' contributions to the course both fosters
active participation by all students and promotes the idea that learning
is a shared enterprise. Given the possibility of being asked to repeat a classmates' comments, most students will listen more
attentively to each other.
Fish Bowl - Students are given index cards, and asked to write down
one question concerning the course material. They should be directed to
ask a question of clarification regarding some aspect of the material
which they do not fully understand; or, perhaps you may allow questions
concerning the application of course material to practical contexts. At
the end of the class period (or, at the beginning of the next class
meeting if the question is assigned for homework), students deposit their
questions in a fish bowl. The instructor then draws several questions out
of the bowl and answers them for the class or asks the class to answer
them. This technique can be combined with others (e.g., #8-9 above, and
Questions - Here students are asked to become actively involved in
creating quizzes and tests by constructing some (or all) of the questions
for the exams. This exercise may be assigned for homework and itself evaluated (perhaps for extra credit points). In
asking students to think up exam questions, we encourage them to think
more deeply about the course material and to explore major themes,
comparison of views presented, applications, and other higher-order
thinking skills. Once suggested questions are collected, the instructor
may use them as the basis of review sessions, and/or to model the most
effective questions. Further, you may ask students to discuss the merits
of a sample of questions submitted; in discussing questions, they will
significantly increase their engagement of the material to supply answers.
Students might be asked to discuss several aspects of two different questions
on the same material including degree of difficulty, effectiveness in
assessing their learning, proper scope of questions, and so forth.
These techniques are designed to
give the instructor some indication of student understanding of the material
presented during the lecture itself. These activities provide formative
assessment rather than summative assessment of student understanding, Formative
assessment is evaluation of the class as a whole in order to provide
information for the benefit of the students and the instructor, but the
information is not used as part of the course grade; summative assessment is
any evaluation of student performance which becomes part of the course grade.
For each feedback method, the instructor stops at appropriate points to give
quick tests of the material; in this way, she can adjust the lecture
mid-course, slowing down to spend more time on the concepts students are having
difficulty with or moving more quickly to applications of concepts of which
students have a good understanding.
Signals - This method provides instructors with a means of testing
student comprehension without the waiting period or the grading time
required for written quizzes. Students are asked questions and instructed
to signal their answers by holding up the appropriate number of fingers
immediately in front of their torsos (this makes it impossible for
students to "copy", thus committing them to answer each question
on their own). For example, the instructor might say "one finger for
'yes', two for 'no'", and then ask questions such as "Do all
organic compounds contain carbon [hydrogen, etc.]?".
Or, the instructor might have multiple choice questions prepared for the
overhead projector and have the answers numbered (1) through (5), asking
students to answer with finger signals. In very large classes the students
can use a set of large cardboard signs with numbers written on them. This method
allows instructors to assess student knowledge literally at a glance.
Cards - A variation of the Finger Signals approach, this method tests
students’ comprehension through their response to flash cards held by the
instructor. This is particularly useful in disciplines which utilize
models or other visual stimuli, such as chemistry, physics or biology. For
example, the instructor might flash the diagram of a chemical compound and
ask "Does this compound react with H2O?".
This can be combined with finger signals.
- This is a particularly useful method of testing student understanding
when they are learning to read texts and identify an author's viewpoint
and arguments. After students have read a representative advocate of each
of several opposing theories or schools of thought, and the relevant
concepts have been defined and discussed in class, put on the overhead
projector a quotation by an author whom they have not read in the assigned
materials, and ask them to figure out what position that person advocates.
In addition to testing comprehension of the material presented in lecture,
this exercise develops critical thinking and analysis skills. This would
be very useful, for example, in discussing the various aspects of evolutionary
Sometimes it is helpful to get
students involved in discussion of or thinking about course material either before
any theory is presented in lecture or after several conflicting theories have
been presented. The idea in the first case is to generate data or questions
prior to mapping out the theoretical landscape; in the second case, the
students learn to assess the relative merits of several approaches.
Pre-Theoretic Intuitions Quiz - Students often dutifully record
everything the instructor says during a lecture and then ask at the end of
the day or the course "what use is any of this?", or
"what good will philosophy [organic chemistry, etc.] do for
us?". To avoid such questions, and to get
students interested in a topic before lectures begin, an instructor can
give a quiz aimed at getting students to both identify and to assess their
own views. An example of this is a long "True or False"
questionnaire designed to start students thinking about moral theory (to
be administered on the first or second day of an introductory ethics
course), which includes statements such as "There are really no
correct answers to moral questions" and "Whatever a society
holds to be morally right is in fact morally right". After students
have responded to the questions individually, have them compare answers in
pairs or small groups and discuss the ones on which they disagree. This
technique may also be used to assess student knowledge of the subject
matter in a pre-/post-lecture comparison. The well-known "Force
Concept Inventory" developed by Hestenes to
measure understanding of force and motion is another good example of this.
- One of the most useful means of ferreting out students' intuitions on a
given topic is to present them with a paradox or a puzzle involving the
concept(s) at issue, and to have them struggle towards a solution. By forcing
the students to "work it out" without some authority's solution,
you increase the likelihood that they will be able to critically assess
theories when they are presented later. For example, students in a course
on theories of truth might be asked to assess the infamous "Liar
Paradox" (with instances such as 'This sentence is false'), and to
suggest ways in which such paradoxes can be avoided. Introductory logic
students might be presented with complex logic puzzles as a way of
motivating truth tables, and so forth. In scientific fields you can
present experimental data which seems to contradict parts of the theory
just presented or use examples which seem to have features which support
two opposing theories.
Grouping students in pairs
allows many of the advantages of group work students
have the opportunity to state their own views, to hear from others, to hone
their argumentative skills, and so forth without the administrative
"costs" of group work (time spent assigning people to groups, class
time used just for "getting in groups", and so on). Further, pairs
make it virtually impossible for students to avoid participating thus making
each person accountable.
- Students are asked to pair off and to respond to a question either in
turn or as a pair. This can easily be combined with other techniques such
as those under "Questions and Answers" or "Critical
Thinking Motivators" above. For example, after students have
responded to statements, such as "Whatever a society holds to be
morally right is in fact morally right" with 'true' or 'false', they
can be asked to compare answers to a limited number of questions and to
discuss the statements on which they differed. In science classes students
can be asked to explain some experimental data that supports a theory just
discussed by the lecturer. Generally, this works best when students are
given explicit directions, such as "Tell each other why you
chose the answer you did".
Comparison/Sharing - One reason that some students perform poorly in
classes is that they often do not have good note-taking skills. That is,
while they might listen attentively, students do not always know what to
write down, or they may have gaps in their notes which will leave them
bewildered when they go back to the notes to study or to write a paper.
One way to avoid some of these pitfalls and to have students
model good note-taking is to have them occasionally compare notes. The
instructor might stop lecturing immediately after covering a crucial
concept and have students read each others' notes, filling in the gaps in
their own note-taking. This is especially useful in introductory courses
or in courses designed for non-majors or special admissions students. Once
students see the value of supplementing their own note-taking with
others', they are likely to continue the practice outside of class time.
of Another Student's Work - Students are asked to complete an
individual homework assignment or short paper. On the day the assignment
is due, students submit one copy to the instructor to be graded and one
copy to their partner. These may be assigned that day, or students may be
assigned partners to work with throughout the term. Each student then
takes their partner's work and depending on the nature of the assignment
gives critical feedback, standardizes or assesses the arguments, corrects
mistakes in problem-solving or grammar, and so forth. This is a particularly
effective way to improve student writing.
For more complex projects, where
many heads are better than one or two, you may want to have students work in
groups of three or more. As the term "cooperative learning" suggests,
students working in groups will help each other to learn. Generally, it is
better to form heterogeneous groups (with regard to gender, ethnicity, and academic
performance), particularly when the groups will be working together over time
or on complex projects; however, some of these techniques work well with
spontaneously formed groups. Cooperative groups encourage discussion of problem
solving techniques ("Should we try this?",
etc.), and avoid the embarrassment of students who have not yet mastered all of
the skills required.
Groups in Class - Pose a question to be worked on in each cooperative
group and then circulate around the room answering questions, asking
further questions, keeping the groups on task, and so forth.. After an appropriate time for group discussion,
students are asked to share their discussion points with the rest of the
class. (The ensuing discussion can be guided according to the "Questions
and Answers" techniques outlined above.)
Review Sessions - In the traditional class review session the students
ask questions and the instructor answers them. Students spend their time
copying down answers rather than thinking about the material. In an active
review session the instructor posses questions
and the students work on them in groups. Then students are asked to show
their solutions to the whole group and discuss any differences among
- Work at
the Blackboard - In many problem solving courses (e.g., logic or
critical thinking), instructors tend to review homework or teach problem
solving techniques by solving the problems themselves. Because students
learn more by doing, rather than watching, this is probably not the
optimal scenario. Rather than illustrating problem solving, have students
work out the problems themselves, by asking them to go to the blackboard
in small groups to solve problems. If there is insufficient blackboard
space, students can still work out problems as a group, using paper and
pencil or computers if appropriate software is available.
Mapping - A concept map is a way of illustrating the connections that
exist between terms or concepts covered in course material; students
construct concept maps by connecting individual terms by lines which
indicate the relationship between each set of connected terms. Most of the
terms in a concept map have multiple connections. Developing a concept map
requires the students to identify and organize information and to
establish meaningful relationships between the pieces of information.
Lists - Here students are asked to make a list--on paper or on the
blackboard; by working in groups, students typically can generate more
comprehensive lists than they might if working alone. This method is
particularly effective when students are asked to compare views or
to list pros and cons of a position. One technique which works well with such
comparisons is to have students draw a
"T" and to label the left- and right-hand sides of the cross bar
with the opposing positions (or 'Pro' and 'Con'). They then list
everything they can think of which supports these positions on the
relevant side of the vertical line. Once they have generated as thorough a
list as they can, ask them to analyze the lists with questions appropriate
to the exercise. For example, when discussing Utilitarianism (a theory
which claims that an action is morally right whenever it results in more
benefits than harms) students can use the "T" method to list all
of the (potential) benefits and harms of an action, and then discuss which
side is more heavily "weighted". Often having the list before
them helps to determine the ultimate utility of the action, and the
requirement to fill in the "T" generally results in a more
thorough accounting of the consequences of the action in question. In
science classes this would work well with such topics as massive
vaccination programs, nuclear power, eliminating chlorofluorocarbons,
reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and so forth.
Group Projects - In jigsaw projects, each member of a group is asked
to complete some discrete part of an assignment; when every member has
completed his assigned task, the pieces can be joined together to form a
finished project. For example, students in a course in African geography
might be grouped and each assigned a country; individual students in the
group could then be assigned to research the economy, political structure,
ethnic makeup, terrain and climate, or folklore of the assigned country.
When each student has completed his research, the group then reforms to
complete a comprehensive report. In a chemistry course each student group
could research a different form of power generation (nuclear, fossil fuel,
hydroelectric, etc.). Then the groups are reformed so that each group has
an expert in one form of power generation. They then tackle the difficult
problem of how much emphasis should be placed on each method.
Playing - Here students are asked to "act out" a part. In
doing so, they get a better idea of the concepts and theories being
discussed. Role-playing exercises can range from the simple (e.g.,
"What would you do if a Nazi came to your door, and you were hiding a
Jewish family in the attic?") to the complex. Complex role playing
might take the form of a play (depending on time and resources); for
example, students studying ancient philosophy might be asked to recreate
the trial of Socrates. Using various sources (e.g., Plato's dialogues,
Stone's The Trial of Socrates, and Aristophanes' The Clouds),
student teams can prepare the prosecution and defense of Socrates on the
charges of corruption of youth and treason; each team may present
witnesses (limited to characters which appear in the Dialogues, for
instance) to construct their case, and prepare questions for
Discussions - Panel discussions are especially useful when students
are asked to give class presentations or reports as a way of including the
entire class in the presentation. Student groups are assigned a topic to
research and asked to prepare presentations (note that this may readily be
combined with the jigsaw method outlined above). Each panelist is then
expected to make a very short presentation, before the floor is opened to
questions from "the audience". The key to success is to choose
topics carefully and to give students sufficient direction to ensure that
they are well-prepared for their presentations. You might also want to
prepare the "audience", by assigning them various roles. For
example, if students are presenting the results of their research into
several forms of energy, you might have some of the other students role play
as concerned environmentalists, transportation officials, commuters, and
- Actually a variation of #27, formal debates provide an efficient
structure for class presentations when the subject matter easily divides
into opposing views or ‘Pro’/‘Con’ considerations. Students are assigned
to debate teams, given a position to defend, and then asked to present
arguments in support of their position on the presentation day. The
opposing team should be given an opportunity to rebut the argument(s) and,
time permitting, the original presenters asked to respond to the rebuttal.
This format is particularly useful in developing argumentation skills (in
addition to teaching content).
- Many will scoff at the idea that one would literally play games in a
university setting, but occasionally there is no better instructional
tool. In particular, there are some concepts or theories which are more
easily illustrated than discussed and in these cases, a well-conceived
game may convey the idea more readily. For example, when students are
introduced to the concepts of "laws of nature" and "the
scientific method", it is hard to convey through lectures the nature
of scientific work and the fallibility of inductive hypotheses. Instead,
students play a couple rounds of the Induction Game, in which playing
cards are turned up and either added to a running series or discarded
according to the dealer’s pre-conceived
"law of nature". Students are asked to "discover" the
natural law, by formulating and testing hypotheses as the game proceeds.
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