Successful Active Learning Implementation

There are strategies you can use to implement active learning successfully in your class:

  • Choose meaningful activities or questions
  • Explain your rationale to students
  • Develop a facilitation approach
  • Gather and record feedback

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Choose meaningful activities or questions

One of the most important aspects of active learning is choosing the activities or questions you’re going to use in class. When deciding what to ask or what to have students do, ask yourself:

  • What are the most important things students should learn from this class session?
  • What misconceptions or difficulty do students commonly have as it relates to this content?
  • What kind of practice can students do that will help them prepare for an upcoming assignment or assessment?

"Students from first generation or from underrepresented minorities benefit the most from active learning."

- Abdi Warfa, Assistant Professor, Biology (UMTC)

Use the answers to these questions to choose activities and questions which will give students opportunities to meaningfully engage with the material. You want to have students engage in work that gives them feedback on how well they are understanding the material and practice in using the skills important for succeeding in your course. Classroom Assessment Techniques are one type of activity that works particularly well as you are getting started with active learning. Using these strategies, or variations on them, can help you hold your students’ attention and help them better retain and transfer knowledge and skills from your course.

"Students are not stupid and they're perfectly aware of when we are using meaningless, time-sucking activities in class."

Sehoya Cotner, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences (UMN Twin Cities)

Explain your rationale to students

At the beginning of the semester and before you begin your first (few) activities, tell students why you’re having them engaged in activities during class. This is particularly important if active learning is not common in your discipline.

This explanation doesn’t need to be long or involved and can be as simple as, “In this course, I’d like you to be successful approaching your homework and exams, so we’re going to be doing in-class practice that I hope will make these easier for you. You’ll often be working in pairs or groups so you can bounce ideas off of each other and ask each other questions.”

Develop a facilitation approach

How you choose to facilitate active learning will be influenced by the context of your course (e.g. the number of students, the type of furniture in your class, time available) and the type of activity. Students can work individually, in pairs, or in small groups. These groups can be predetermined by the instructor or determined in the moment based on proximity.

One of the most effective approaches is to give students a short period of time to think on their own (30-90 seconds is often enough) and then have them work in pairs or small groups. If you are in a classroom with fixed seats, it is still possible for students to work together, but you may need to encourage students to move themselves to get into groups. If you have a student sitting alone, it is often easier and more effective to ask a group to invite an individual to join them rather than direct that individual to join a nearby group.

Keep students on task

One of the most important elements of successful active learning is students feeling a sense of accountability for participating in the assigned activity. If they don’t, they can easily get off task or choose not to do what you have asked. One of the most common questions instructors have is, “Do I have to grade all of this in-class work?” The short answer is no. You can choose to grade in class work, but it isn’t necessary as a way to hold students accountable.

For example, accountability can be established by notifying students before they start working on the activity that everyone should be prepared to share when the large group reconvenes. Then, when you reconvene the large group, randomly call on an individual or group to share what they discussed or how they approached the problem. You can also listen in on small group conversations and if you hear a particularly common or interesting question, call on that group to share their question to begin a larger discussion. Another way is to use clicker devices or paper clickers as a way for students to report their response.

"Don't feel you have to control everything and don't think you have to know everything ahead of time. Let it run and see what happens."

-Sheryl Breen, Associate Professor, Political Science (UMN Morris)

Students also tend to stay on task when they feel the value and relevance of the task they’ve been asked to complete. When tasks are similar or clearly related to upcoming assignments or assessments, students are intrinsically motivated to practice in order to prepare for that graded work.

Finally, keep activities short. Give students a clear goal or task, rather than a general  instruction like “discuss your answer”. Tell students you’re going to give them a limited and specified time to work. If they end up needing more time, provide it if possible.

Wrap-up activities

After students have worked in small groups, take time to provide a conclusion to the activity. This wrap-up is often where the most important learning takes place.

You can ask one group of students to share their reasoning or ask others if they had alternative ideas or approaches. If a response reflects a common misunderstanding, invite other students to help explain why this line of reasoning is incorrect. You can also not just correct the response, but help them to understand how experts approach the problem.

You can also highlight the ways that the activity reflects how they will be asked to use the information on an upcoming assignment. For example, you might say “We just walked through an analysis of this journal article, first looking at the methods and data tables, then critiquing the conclusions and argument. This is the same approach you’ll be asked to use as you read articles on your own and is the kind of reasoning I’ll expect on the paper due next week.”

Start how you wish to continue

If you plan to use active learning strategies in your course, make sure to use them consistently throughout the semester, starting the first week. Students quickly get into habits about how to behave in class, so set expectations early about participating and engaging in class. If students are resistant at first, keep encouraging them so you establish norms for their participation.

"If you try using group work for the first time on the fourth week or the eighth week - it's gonna crash. But if you do it on the first day, on the first activity? They'll listen to you."

- Murray Jensen, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences (UMN Twin Cities)

Gather and record feedback

Especially when trying new activities, develop a habit of recording and collecting feedback about how activities go. Save space in your notes, either paper or electronic, to record your thoughts about an activity after you’ve done it. This might be as simple as noting when a question or activity confused students or how long an activity took.

In order to refine your activities or facilitation, ask students for feedback. They can tell you if the activities are too long or short, too easy or too hard, and whether they are finding them valuable. Besides giving you helpful feedback, this can also provide an opportunity to reiterate why you’re doing active learning if you have a group of resistant students.