Active Learning For The College Classroom

R. Paulson

Chemistry and Biochemistry

California State University, L.A.

5151 State University Drive

Los Angeles, CA 90032

L. Faust

Department of Philosophy

California State University, L.A.

5151 State University Drive

Los Angeles, CA 90032


The past decade has seen an explosion
of interest among college faculty in the teaching methods variously grouped
under the terms 'active learning' and 'cooperative learning'. However,
even with this interest, there remains much misunderstanding of and mistrust
of the pedagogical "movement" behind the words. The majority of all college
faculty still teach their classes in the traditional lecture mode. Some
of the criticism and hesitation seems to originate in the idea that techniques
of active and cooperative learning are genuine alternatives to,
rather than enhancements of, professors' lectures. We provide below a survey
of a wide variety of active learning techniques which can be used to supplement
rather than replace lectures. We are not advocating complete abandonment
of lecturing, as both of us still lecture about half of the class period.
The lecture is a very efficient way to present information but use of the
lecture as the only mode of instruction presents problems for both the
instructor and the students. There is a large amount of research attesting
to the benefits of active learning.

"Active Learning" is, in short, anything
that students do in a classroom other than merely passively listening to
an instructor's lecture. This includes everything from listening practices
which help the students to absorb what they hear, to short writing exercises
in which students react to lecture material, to complex group exercises
in which students apply course material to "real life" situations and/or
to new problems. The term "cooperative learning" covers the subset of active
learning activities which students do as groups of three or more, rather
than alone or in pairs; generally, cooperative learning techniques employ
more formally structured groups of students assigned complex tasks, such
as multiple-step exercises, research projects, or presentations. Cooperative
learning is to be distinguished from another now well-defined term of art,
"collaborative learning", which 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. Clearly, collaborative learning is a more radical
departure from tradition than merely utilizing techniques aimed at enhancing
student retention of material presented by the instructor; we will limit
our examples to the "less radical" active and cooperative learning techniques.
"Techniques of active learning", then, are those activities which an instructor
incorporates into the classroom to foster active learning.


for Individual Students

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.

  1. The "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.


  3. Muddiest (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 selection',


  5. Affective 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.


  7. Daily 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.


  9. Reading 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).


  11. Clarification 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.


  13. Response 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 entertainment.
  14. Questions and

    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!).

    The "Socratic Method"

    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.


  15. 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.


  17. Student Summary of Another Student's
    - 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.


  19. The 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 #2).


  21. Quiz/Test 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.

  22. Immediate Feedback

    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.


  23. Finger 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.


  25. Flash 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.


  27. Quotations - 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 theory.

  28. Critical
    Thinking Motivators

    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.


  29. The 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.


  31. Puzzles/Paradoxes - 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.

  32. Share/Pair

    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.


  33. Discussion - 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".


  35. Note 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.


  37. Evaluation 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.

  38. Cooperative Learning

    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.


  39. Cooperative 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.)


  41. Active 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 solutions proposed.


  43. 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.


  45. Concept 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.


  47. Visual 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.


  49. Jigsaw 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.


  51. Role 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 cross-examination.


  53. Panel 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 so forth.


  55. Debates - 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).


  57. Games - 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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