8 Active Learning Strategies and Examples [+ Downloadable List]All Posts
Written by Justin Raudys
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As a teacher, one of your biggest challenges is to plan lessons that inspire your students to stay actively involved in the learning process.
But you’ve probably noticed that traditional, teacher-centered learning plans aren’t always conducive to achieving that inspiration.
That’s where active learning strategies come into play. You can use them to empower, engage, and stimulate a classroom by putting students at the center of the learning process.
Get inspired by these 8 strategies that will help students talk more openly, think more creatively and -- ultimately -- become more engaged in the process of learning.
This article is accompanied by a downloadable list of active learning strategies to keep at your desk for quick reference.
Active Learning Strategies
1. Reciprocal questioning
Use reciprocal questioning to encourage an open dialogue in which students take on the role of the teacher and create their own questions about a topic, reading section, or lesson.
After covering a topic of your choice in class -- or after assigning a reading selection -- divide the class into pairs or small groups and have students come up with a few questions for discussion with the rest of the class. To facilitate the process, you can provide students with “question stems,” which provide a foundation for a question but still require students to think critically about a lesson, text, or other section of material by completing the query. Consider the examples below.
Comprehension Question Stems
Describe x in your own words. What does y mean? Why is z important? How could x be used to y?
Connector Question Stems
Explain how x and why z. In what ways are x and y similar? In what ways are x and y different? How does x tie in with that we learned before?
Use these question stems to anchor and explore concepts in course material, helping students investigate a range of new topics and points of view associated with your lesson.
Much like student-generated test questions -- a type of of experiential learning activity -- reciprocal questioning involves students in the learning process to help build their comprehension of course material.
Reciprocal questioning can be particularly useful when:
- Preparing for tests or exams
- Introducing a new topic or section of course content
- Discussing reading or writing materials in greater detail
2. Three step interviews
A cooperative learning strategy, the three step interview encourages students to develop active listening skills by quizzing one another, sharing their thoughts, and taking notes.
To use the three step interview process, divide students into groups of three, and assign three roles: interviewer, interviewee, and notetaker.
After also assigning a theme or topic of discussion, have students participate in a five to 10 minute interview to discuss what they found to be the key information relating to the topic.
After each interview, have students rotate roles. Depending on factors including the grade level of your students and their experience with the strategy, you may adjust the length of the time for each interview.
One interpretation of the three-step interview process. Feel free to experiment with the duration and number of students involved in these steps. Image courtesy: Kagan Publishing
Before using the strategy, you may find it useful to have students explore the types of questions reporters ask in interviews and at what point in an interview they ask them. You may also want to provide recording sheets to use when they are assigned the “reporter” role.
The three-step interview confers benefits including:
- Helping students learn and apply different questioning strategies
- Strengthening students’ connection with course material in a creative and engaging way
- Producing a sense of accountability, with students working together to complete a task and grasp a lesson
3. The pause procedure
Use the pause procedure to intersperse strategic pauses into your class lectures and enhance student understanding of teaching materials.
To use the pause procedure, arrange for pauses of two to three minutes between every 10 to 15 minutes of lecture time.
During these brief breaks, encourage students to discuss or rework their notes in pairs to clarify key points covered, raise questions, and solve problems posed by the instructor.
Alternatively, students can work together to write a paragraph that connects or highlights key ideas set out in their partner’s notes.
A 2014 study concluded that breaking a lecture into brief pauses can increase student attention and learning outcomes. The pause procedure, the study determined, is “a good active learning strategy which helps students review their notes, reflect on them, discuss and explain the key ideas with their partners.”
The use of the pause procedure involves a minimal amount of extra time, but can confer significant benefits in comparison to lectures that continue without breaks.
4. The muddiest point technique
The muddiest point technique involves asking students to write notes on the most unclear or most confusing element of a given homework assignment, lecture, or class discussion.
The Muddiest Point: Sample Phrasing What have you found to be the muddiest point so far in this assignment? What topic do you find to be the least clear?
Asking students to write down what they find to be the least clear is a powerful exercise because it compels them to grade or rate their own knowledge of a topic.
In short, the exercise helps students reflect on the lesson and identify concepts needing further examination or study.
Example of a "muddiest point" handout to issue to students. Image source: TeachersPayTeachers.
From your perspective, the activity can serve as an insightful source of feedback.
For example, if more than a quarter of the class mentions the same “muddiest point,” you may wish to schedule a further time to discuss that topic, or create a new lesson plan or assignment to tackle it.
5. The devil's advocate approach
The devil's advocate approach asks one or more students to take the opposing side of a predominant argument or point of view being discussed during a lesson.
Once you have completed an assignment or lesson plan, select a topic that is suitable for discussion and debate. The topic should serve as an appropriate subject for providing arguments from both sides.
The activity is flexible and should be tailored to suit your students' grade level. In its simplest form, divide the class into two sections and coordinate a class-wide debate based on a selected topic. Alternatively, you may have students annotate reading texts and respond to contentions by creating counterarguments. Then, have students debate the proposals discussed during a mock town hall meeting.
While this approach can be used across a number of grade levels and subjects, consider this list of thematic claims used as primers for a devil’s advocate activity in a secondary ELA class.
Image source: Bespoke Classroom.
This approach can help cultivate active learning in the classroom by encouraging students to:
- Think more critically, challenging participants to expand their understanding of the perspectives surrounding an issue and to view it through a different lens
- Become more engaged, fostering involvement by drawing out opinions to explore the complexity of an issue being studied
- Produce a deeper understanding of topics or issues, using rigorous analysis to collectively clarify, probe, and pose alternatives to problems being discussed
According to a study published in the Journal of Theory, Research and Action in Urban Education, the devil’s advocate approach can help students become “more familiar with a...topic and its multifaceted viewpoints.” The same study concludes that a classroom using this strategy can:
“provide students with multiple perspectives, and challenge students with tough questions. In such a classroom, students will become more engaged and students’ critical thinking and writing skills will be enriched.”
6. Peer teaching activities
Some popular options include:
- Reading buddies — A cooperative learning strategy that pairs two students who work together to read an assigned text.
- Cross-age peer tutoring — A peer learning strategy involving students in different grades, wherein which one student instructs another on the material in which the first student is advanced and the second student is a novice.
- Role play — A group of students is split into smaller groups and given a specific task to complete, like in small group work. However, in addition to working on a specific task, the members of each group are asked to play a certain “role”. Unlike in traditional role-play, all members of one group play the same role, not individually assigned roles.
Peer teaching activities help boost vital skills and behaviors including student interaction, accountability, group processing.
7. Game-based learning platforms
Game-based learning platforms and depth and differentiation to the educational process and allow students to work with their instructors to achieve their learning objectives.
Eric Sheninger, a principal, author, and Senior Fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), writes passionately about the use of technology as an active learning tool. In his article "Shifting From Passive to Active Learning," he writes:
It is really about how students use devices to create artifacts of learning that demonstrate conceptual mastery through relevant application and evaluation...Give kids challenging problems to solve that have more than one right answer and let them use technology to show that they understand. This is the epitome of active learning...
Math games and websites are at the forefront of delivering active learning through technology. One example is Prodigy, a platform that constantly adjusts questions to tackle student trouble spots and delivers math problems with words, charts pictures, and numbers. Better yet, educational content is free to access and aligned with curricula for grades 1 to 8 teachers.
8. Rotating chair group discussions
Rotating chair group discussions encourage students to actively listen to selected speakers who follow a pattern of guiding class discussion and summarizing previous points. Students lead and stimulate class discussion as they “rotate” roles, repeatedly selecting the following speaker.
To use this strategy effectively, ensure that students adhere to the following pattern:
- When a student wishes to participate, they must raise their hand
- The student who is speaking calls on the next speaker, ideally someone who has not yet contributed
- The student who has been called upon briefly summarizes what the previous student said before developing the idea further
This process can be repeated across a variety of topics, with your guidance to stay on track and help stuck students.
The benefits of rotating chair group discussions are not only limited to the speakers. Knowing that they may be called upon to summarize the previous topic, all students are engaged in attentive listening, frequently jotting down notes and ideas to stay on track in the spaces between speaking.
Moreover, students are put into a scenario where they learn from their colleagues’ ideas, sparking new considerations of material in an active and engaging way.
This strategy is rewarding for students because it encourages powerful and direct engagement with course material.
The Teacher’s Role in the Active Learning Classroom
While active learning places an emphasis on the student’s role in the learning experience, there is no doubt that the success of any active learning strategy starts with the thought and planning of a conscientious instructor.
"Overall," a 2011 study found, "teachers play an influential role in increasing students' situational interest in the active-learning classroom," while factors like a teacher's social connection with students and subject matter expertise "significantly influence the level of students' situational interest in the active learning classroom."
And, critically, the benefits of active learning go both ways, helping teachers as well as students.
As active learning advocate James Ballencia writes,
With the goal of teaching mindful learners who actively pursue knowledge, teachers become more actively engaged in how they teach the curriculum and how they develop each student's learning potential. They mix and match a variety of ... tactics to ensure that students not only learn more, better, and faster -- they also learn smarter.
As many of the techniques above are open-ended, the active learning strategies underpinning them may differentiate for different types of learners. Be sure to consider how you can differentiate instruction while still enjoying the benefits of these active learning strategies.
Active Learning Techniques: Key Questions
To help the success of these strategies, put yourself in your students’ position and imagine how they might experience it. This will help you get a feel for the lesson.
When applying any of these strategies for your course, be sure to ask yourself:
- Will this be engaging and exciting for my students?
- Can this activity deploy formative assessment strategies?
- Is the student placed at the center of this learning strategy?
- Will this encourage my students to discuss a topic with one another?
- Am I giving students the opportunity to reflect on the learning process?
- Is this activity getting my students to think deeply and critically about a topic or lesson or is it simply a comprehension exercise?
Making Space for Active Learning Strategies
While all of the active learning strategies outlined above can be deployed in traditional, lecture-oriented classrooms, the physical arrangement of your room and the number of students in the class can make some of them difficult to perform easily.
While a flexible seating classroom arrangement may ease this challenge, such a solution is not always possible. Plan these exercises with the limitations of your physical space carefully, being mindful of the environmental constraints posed by the unique arrangements of some of the strategies above.
Final Thoughts on Active Learning Strategies
Active learning plainly puts the focus on the learner: what the learner does, what the learner thinks, and how the learner behaves.
But, crucially, active learning doesn't simply happen with a few simple instructions: it occurs in the classroom where the teacher is committed to a learning environment that makes active learning possible.
Ultimately, these active learning strategies will help build understanding rather than memorization of facts, giving students the confidence to apply learning to different problems and contexts and achieve greater autonomy over their learning.
And, after all, that’s exactly makes active learning “active”: putting students at the center of the learning process as they take the initiative to learn.
Downloadable List of the 8 Active Learning Strategies
Click here to download the list of strategies to print and keep at your desk.
Create or log in to your teacher account on Prodigy -- a game-based learning platform that assesses student progress and performance as they play. Aligned with a growing list of curricula across the world, over 800,000 teachers and 30 million students have signed up to Prodigy Math Game.