Addressing Active Learning Challenges

Active learning strategies can pose problems for instructors who are new to using them and for students who have had negative experiences with them prior to your class. What follows are common issues you may experience and some suggested solutions.


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Challenge 1 - Students are resistant to engaging in the activities

Students are resistant to engaging in the activities

  • Begin using active learning strategies early in the term. Introduce the concept on the first day of class, and let students know that they will be expected to participate in such activities throughout the course.

  • Use active learning frequently–at least once a class period initially. Vary the active learning strategies you use. After the first several sessions, students will understand that you're serious about active learning and will accept their role as participants more readily.

  • Give clear instructions. State the goal students should meet, how much time they have for the activity, what procedures they should follow, and with whom they should partner (i.e., "turn to the person next to you" or "form groups of four with the people nearest you.")  Put directions for in-class activities on a PowerPoint slide so that students have something to refer to as they begin the activity.

  • Explain to students why you're using active learning and the benefits they can expect from it.

  • Be committed to your choice to use active learning and communicate that confidently to students. Students will be put at ease if they understand that you're in charge and have good reasons for what you're doing.

  • Start small and simple. Use low-impact strategies such as think-pair-share or in-class writing exercises. These strategies are only a few minutes, and are "low stakes" for students who may be unsure or uncomfortable. As you and your students gain experience, you may decide to graduate to more involved activities.

Challenge 2 - Activities take too much time

Activities take too much time

  • Use strategies to efficiently reconvene the large group at the end of active learning activities. For example, you might ring a bell or flash the lights to gain students' attention.
  • Consider your learning objectives carefully. Based on them, what content is most important for students to master? Remove non-essential content so you can spend more time on activities that lead to better student learning.

  • Consider what content you must cover in class and what content students can cover outside of class by themselves. It may be necessary to create assignments, activities, or other support to help students master material on their own.

  • Attempt to use one or two brief active learning strategies during your lectures. Space the activities throughout the lecture to break it up and keep students engaged.

  • Attempt to use Classroom Assessment Techniques to determine what students are learning and what is confusing them. These can help you decide when (and whether) you need to spend more time working with particular material.

  • Avoid racing through material to finish it all by the end of the period. This is almost always counterproductive. Students tend to become overwhelmed and discouraged.

  • Remember that just because you say it doesn't mean they learn it. Resolve to spend more time on less material.

Challenge 3 - Students don’t want to work together

Students don’t want to work together

  • As part of your activity instructions, tell students to get into groups and first introduce each other. This sets the expectation that they may be working with others whom they do not know and allows them space to build rapport.

  • Consider whether your activity is challenging enough to require two or more people to work on it. Does the task require that group members have differing perspectives, experiences, or knowledge? Design activities where there is genuine value in working together.

  • At the beginning of the semester, approach people who are working alone and either encourage them to work with a nearby group or ask the group to invite the individual to join them. Do this everyday so students know that you expect them to work together.

  • Consider assigning students to a single group so students know who they are accountable to all semester.