Active Learning Activities

The strategies below are examples of ways faculty can incorporate active learning with students in any course. Click to expand each strategy for an overview, preparation/implementation information, and additional resources. Options for larger classes with fixed seating are marked with an asterisk. 

Concept/Mind Map*
Concept maps ask students (individually or in groups) to physically draw the relationships among various concepts (ideas, theories, applications, etc.) presented in the course.

Overview:  

Concept maps ask students (individually or in groups) to physically draw the relationships among various concepts (ideas, theories, applications, etc.) presented in the course. This can be done before students learn the material, to assess students’ background knowledge and possible misconceptions. It can be done during or after learning to provide students and faculty with a sense of their development. Students benefit by creating their own mental schema and coding system, which aids the transfer of knowledge into their long-term memory. Faculty benefit by seeing a visual representation of students’ thinking at various points in the learning process.

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. Select the concept you want students to map. It should be important to the course and rich enough for students to make significant connections.
  2. Ask students (individually, in pairs or small groups) to brainstorm words and phrases related to the concept. (Just a list.) 
  3. Have students draw the map based on the brainstorming and any ideas they have of ways to represent the big ideas and the connections between them. Providing students with some materials (colored markers, different color and sizes of sticky notes) might help them develop a robust organization schema. (You can model this first if you choose.) 
  4. Have students share their maps with you (either presented to the class or privately.) 
  5. Debrief by focusing not only on the concepts on the map but their relationships to other ideas. 

Watch a video about concept and mind mapping.

Documented Problem Solving*
This is a good technique to use in quantitative courses.

Overview: 

This is a good technique to use in quantitative courses. It assesses how students solve problems and how well they can describe their problem-solving methods. The primary emphasis is on documenting their process of making connections, not whether the solution to the problem is correct. Because this is a time-consuming and challenging task, it’s recommended to give students credit for their effort. 

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. Provide students with complex, quantitative problems. (Or another type of structured problem.) (It’s recommended to do this with easy, medium, and challenging problems.) 
  2. Solve the problems yourself, writing down all the steps you take and noting how long they take you to solve.
  3. Have students divide their paper into 2 sections. On the left, they solve the problem. On the right, they document their process next to the appropriate step. Assume it will take students at least twice as long as it took you.
  4. 4. Review their solutions, focusing more on the steps than the result.

Everyday Ethical Dilemmas*
Students receive an abbreviated case study that poses an ethical problem.

Overview:

After a lesson that presents a topic of concern, students receive an abbreviated case study that poses an ethical problem and are asked to provide anonymous responses about how they’d respond.

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. Choose one ethical dilemma to focus on.
  2. Provide students with a short case (one paragraph) that spotlights the dilemma.
  3. Write a few questions that force students to take a position and have them write short, honest, anonymous responses. (This can be done in class or as a take home exercise.)
  4. To debrief, provide students with a sense of how the class responded and let them discuss it.

Four Corners
This activity forces students to take a position on a specific statement: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree.

Overview:

This activity forces students to take a position on a specific statement: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree. This can be a good way for faculty and students to assess preconceived notions and opinions about a particular topic before instruction, or as a way to reflect on their thoughts and justify their positions as a follow-up to instruction. Faculty can encourage students to use evidence to back up their positions and allow students to change their positions based on the arguments and evidence provided by their peers.

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. Designate the areas of your classroom to represent the positions: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree.
  2. Prepare the statements. Good statements usually don’t have an obvious correct answer and provoke nuanced discussion.
  3. Give students the statements and have them record their positions and rationale individually in writing.
  4. Read the statements out loud and have the students move to the corner of the room that reflects their opinion. Facilitate a discussion as appropriate. Encourage students to move if their opinion changes based on the discussion.
  5. Debrief as needed, either individually in writing or as a class discussion.

Watch a video about Four Corners

 

Human Tableau or Class Modeling
This is a very physical activity in which groups of students use their bodies to create “living” scenes or to model complex processes.

Overview:

This is a very physical activity in which groups of students use their bodies to create “living” scenes or to model complex processes. One faculty member asked students to perform a representation of the human visual system. Students played the different parts (cones, rods, brain, etc.) and acted out the process. Another teacher had students portray how data moves around a computer. While this activity can be time-consuming and require some logistical planning, it can improve comprehension of complex subjects.

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. Choose a process that is of particular importance in your course.
  2. Ask yourself if there are other, more traditional assessments that would demonstrate the same learning. Also ask if students could reasonably, with limited time and supplies, create a process that meets your expectations.
  3. Decide when the students will “perform” and how you’ll assess them.
  4. Create a list of instructions explaining to the students the purpose of the activity, and the key points of the process that students must include.
  5. Make sure the students have enough time to plan and practice.
  6. Debriefs can include a discussion of how different groups presented the same concept, what was effective, what was still unclear, etc.

Watch a video about Human Tableau

Invented Dialogue*
Students create carefully crafted conversations between theorists, historical figures, or other “parties” relevant to your discipline.

Overview:

Students create carefully crafted conversations between theorists, historical figures, or other “parties” relevant to your discipline. (For example, students might invent a dialogue between two parts of a cell, or between a vaccine and a virus.) Students can be restricted to using only primary sources in their dialogue or invent realistic statements. This activity assesses students’ ability to synthesize information and capture other people’s ways of speaking or idea systems.

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. Select issues, theories, or personalities that are important to your learning outcomes and lend themselves to dialogue.
  2. Write a dialogue to use as an example. Dialogues should be short—only 10-20 exchanges long. Note how long it takes you to complete this task.
  3. Provide students with relevant sources and detailed instructions and your criteria for a successful dialogue. Let them know how much they can invent and how much should come from primary sources.

Watch a video about invented dialogue

Memory Matrix*
Faculty provide students with a table that has the headers pre-populated.

Overview:

Faculty provide students with a table that has the headers pre-populated. Students work to fill in the empty cells with what they know about the topic. It assesses their recall of important content and their ability to organize it based on categories provided by the instructor. It can also be used to check their knowledge before a lesson.

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. Generate a table with headers outlining key concepts with empty table cells ready to fill.

Watch a video about the memory matrix

Quick Draw*
Quickdraws allows students to activate their creative, non-linear thinking skills to create any type of drawing in response to an instructor prompt.

Overview:

Quickdraws allows students to activate their creative, non-linear thinking skills to create any type of drawing in response to an instructor prompt. The instructor can ask students to draw a representation of a concept, define a vocabulary word in a drawing, draw a way they see the information being useful in the future, anything the instructor would like the students to process in a visual way. The point is not the quality of the drawing but on the thought process involved in creating it.

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. Tell the students what they will be drawing and how long they have to complete their drawing.
  2. Have the students reflect on their drawing, either in a journal entry, with a partner, or in front of the class.
  3. The instructor might make comparisons between students’ drawings to draw out key points.

The Jigsaw*
This is a method that divides students into groups to become “experts” on a topic and then redistributes those groups so the expertise is shared among members from different expert groups.

Overview:

This is a method that divides students into groups to become “experts” on a topic and then redistributes those groups so the expertise is shared among members from different expert groups. The method works best when the mastery of one group’s content does not hinge on understanding the content of a separate group. (For example, as a whole class, students learn about the role of state government in public health. Then, students break up into groups to become experts on how the public health system works in Texas, Maryland, and Iowa.)

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. Students are presented with an overview of the goals of the activity, and then are broken into “expert groups.” (Expert groups may have been given prework prior to the start of the activity.)
  2. Together, expert groups complete activities to ensure mastery of content and make a plan to inform others about their content. (Note: instructors can give members of expert groups individual assessments to ensure mastery of content before moving to the next step.)
  3. Students are redistributed so that members of each expert group form a new group.
  4. Students share the information gained from their time in the expert group with the new group and use that combined expertise to complete a task or activity.

Watch a video about the Jigsaw

Think-Pair-Share*
This method provides students a moment during a content-rich lesson to pause, think about the answer to a question, share their response with a partner, and then have some of the partner groups report back to the whole class.

Overview:

This method provides students a moment during a content-rich lesson to pause, think about the answer to a question, share their response with a partner, and then have some of the partner groups report back to the whole class. The questions work best when they are deeper than content retrieval. For example, questions that ask students to formulate an opinion or belief about the material, apply the material in a new context, or predict upcoming material based on what they have learned can all work well.

Preparation/Implementation:
  1. After a content-heavy portion of a lesson, stop the presentation and provide students with a guiding question.
  2. Give students a sufficient about of time to formulate an individual response. (Don’t rush this part!)
  3. Ask students to turn to their partners and discuss their responses.
  4. Have some partner groups share their responses with the whole class, noting similarities and differences in the responses.

Watch a video about Think-Pair-Share