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Active Learning

Active learning can take many forms and does not have to be complicated. For example, Bonwell and Eison (1991) define active learning as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing” (p. 5).  

Active learning can be used in any class.

  • You can be creative and tailor active learning tasks to shape the nature of your subject, the dynamics of your class and the amount of time that you have with students.
  • Active learning can take place face-to-face or online.

Active learning can be used for teaching or for assessment and evaluation

  • Active learning can be graded or un-graded. It can be helpful to have a participation component of the course grade that can help promote engagement in class activities, even if that accounts for a very small portion of final grades.
  • Keep active learning activities brief (Felder & Brent, 2009). Giving students up to a few minutes to work on a small task together can help keep them motivated and focused on the task.
  • Warn students to be prepared to share when the time is up. This can be beneficial for students who may become anxious if they are called on without warning and to keep groups on-track. An online timer can be useful when using active learning tasks in class. There are a few free online stopwatches available through Google search.
  • There may be students who are uncomfortable moving into a less passive role in the classroom for a variety of reasons. It is a good practice to acknowledge this and thank students for being open enough to give these activities a try. Varying the strategies that are used and allowing options for students to express their ideas can be helpful. With time, resistant students may become more comfortable playing an active role in your classes.

Examples

Brainstorm

This strategy can be used as a way to activate prior knowledge on a given topic that will be explored in class, help students to focus their attention at the start of a session, or to encourage students to generate ideas without being too concerned about getting the right answer. This is a good strategy to use when there may be many possible solutions or ideas to explore.  

Ideas generated through a brainstorming session might be recorded by the instructor or a student on the board or digitally, using a collaborative document or slide. Students can brainstorm in groups using chart paper or online collaborative tools such as a Google Docs or the Adobe Connect whiteboard.

Think-Pair-Share

There are three phases to the think-pair-share method.  

  1. A question is posed to the class and students are given a short period of time to think through their ideas on their own.  
  2. Then, students are given time to discuss the question or problem with a peer.  
  3. Finally, the whole class regroups and pairs are asked to share their findings.

All pairs are not required to respond. This strategy may be coupled with the use of an student response system

Discussion

Engaging students in dialogue, either in face-to-face settings or online, is a popular active learning strategy. Choosing which questions to ask and facilitating a class discussion can be challenging. Closed-ended questions invite a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response and can limit the amount of dialogue that occurs. Open-ended questions allow for more than one response and can be helpful in promoting discussion. 

It is useful to be mindful of the thinking skills that are being promoted in your class discussions. Consulting a resource on question stems according to the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy can be helpful when preparing for discussions.

Jigsaw

This strategy is used to facilitate student engagement with aspects of a broad topic using an element of peer instruction.

  1. Students are first placed in a ‘home group’ and are numbered off based on the number of related topics to explore.
  2. Then students are split up (based on the number or topic they have been assigned) into ‘expert groups’ where they learn about their topic with the focus of being able to teach what they have learned.  
  3. Finally, all students return to their ‘home groups’ where they teach their peers about the topics they explored. In some cases, students are provided resource packages to guide their learning of the topics they have been assigned to teach their peers.  This could be coordinated using digital or print resources.

Student Response Systems

Student response systems or polling systems allow you to pose questions which students can respond to in real-time during class, using their smartphones, laptops or tablets. This can allow you to engage more of the class at a given time and can help you to 'hear' from students who are less likely to speak up in class.

TurningPoint is an example of a tool that is available by request at UOIT and works as an add-on to PowerPoint. The Teaching and Learning Centre provides training on this tool. There are also free audience response and polling tools available online.

Minute Paper

Students are given one minute to write out what they believe to be the key points of the session. This can be done on paper or electronically, through the learning management system or a Google form, as a few examples. This provides students the opportunity to solidify their ideas at the end of class and can provide you with insight on the concepts that stood out to students. The exercise can be modified using a more specific guiding question related to the session and can be used at another point in time that fits well with your session.

Exit tickets or 'tickets out the door' are similar in that they require students to briefly jot down their ideas at the end of class. This might include providing a few brief questions for students to consider. Examples include: 

  • What was the clearest point from today's session?
  • What was the 'muddiest' (least clear) point from today's session?
  • What are your remaining questions?

Question and Answer

Providing students the opportunity to ask questions in class is beneficial but can also be challenging to implement. There may be periods of silence before students become comfortable asking questions. Getting into the habit of using clarification pauses, to provide students a chance to skim through their notes and ask questions, is one strategy that can be used.

Rather than ask ‘Do you have any questions?’, which invites a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, consider choosing another way to elicit questions from students. Asking ‘What are some of your questions?’ is one alternative you can try. You might also mention that you are going to wait to give students time to formulate their questions.

It is important to be honest, if you do not know the answer to a question that comes up.  It can be helpful to keep a list of questions for follow-up and encourage classmates to seek answers and share what they find.

A new feature within Google Slides (available through G Suite) called Q & A is now available. In presentation mode, presenters can activate the Q & A feature. Students can then access a web page where they can post questions related to the presentation. Students can vote on questions that they would like to have answered and the presenter can select a question to focus on that will be displayed on the full screen.

Additional Resources

References

Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1., Washington: DC: George Washington University. Retrieved from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2009). Active learning: An introduction. ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4), 1-5. Retrieved from: http://macwmys.org/Upload/active-learning-an-introduction-felder.pdf

Help and Support

For additional teaching strategy support, contact the Teaching and Learning Centre at teachingandlearning@uoit.ca

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