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Planning For Active Learning Strategies

By: Todd Zakrajsek, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Key Statement: Research is clear that combining lecture and active learning results in the best learning outcomes. This paper proposes four strategies for how to plan and implement this effective combination.


Keywords: Active Learning, Planning, Course Planning, Success


Active Learning: The “Why?”


An extraordinary amount of research shows clearly that augmenting lectures with some form of active learning enhances student learning. In a meta-analysis of 225 studies, Freeman and his colleagues (2014) at the University of Washington found the average score on exams to be 6% higher when active learning was included in the course. The researchers also found that students were 1.5 times more likely to fail when faculty members lectured nearly all the time. More recently, Theobald and colleagues (2020), also at the University of Washington, noted that adding active learning exercises into a STEM course narrowed gaps in passing rates between majority and underrepresented minority students by 45%.

Although there is a plethora of research on types of active learning, we need more work on developing and delivering effective active learning teaching strategies. In this paper, we will look at four foundational approaches for implementing active learning effectively.


Active Learning: The “How?”


Identifying Outcomes. The first step in planning for any class period is to identify the anticipated learning outcomes. What two to three things should your students know or be able to do by the end of the class period? The focus here is not on the content you will cover or what you will do, but on what students are to achieve. As preparation, write two or three outcomes, such as, “By the end of Monday’s class, students will be able to calculate a correlation and explain the result in statistical and practical terms.” Once identified, consider the best way to reach those outcomes. We know reaching positive learning outcomes is best accomplished through a combination of lectures and active learning, but pairings are not interchangeable, and not all active learning strategies are equally valuable to various student populations (Eddy & Hogan, 2014; Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017; Major et al., 2021). For two examples of mismatches, consider that a fishbowl activity is likely not the best fit for a lab class, and a jigsaw may not work well in a large lecture class. Mesh activity type with desired outcomes.


Photo by Owen Michael Grech, Unsplash


Facilitating Activities. Although many individuals quote Allison King’s (1993) article, From Sage on the State to Guide on the Side, most faculty members have not been trained as or think specifically as effective discussion facilitators. Lecturing and facilitating discussions are very different skill sets. Facilitating requires you to get students to participate, listen carefully, respond on the fly, and summarize major points. Facilitating an effective active learning exercise is often more challenging than lecturing, particularly since, even though you need the content knowledge used for a lecture, you don’t know where the discussion will go.

One of the essential skills a facilitator must possess is to listen rather than talk. Ask good questions, but not just for the sake of asking questions. Listen carefully to students talk and plan how to bring groups together at the end so you can summarize or gently correct misconceptions. That is where you, as an expert, can shine. One general rule is not to start talking to the group until everyone is paying attention. Finally, be ready for unexpected, off-the-wall, rude, or even inflammatory comments. One strategy is to reply with, “That is interesting, could you tell me more….?” Or, “That is interesting, that would be a good conversation for us to have during an office hour.” Facilitation, as with any skill, improves with practice and effortful learning. A quick web search will provide many resources for continual work on improving facilitation skills.


Wrapping an Activity. Regardless of the active learning strategy implemented, bringing closure to the activity is very important. Every activity's educational purpose should be as informative to students as a well-constructed lecture. Listen carefully throughout the activity. Walk around the room to better understand how students approach the task and what they are learning. Not all groups need to report everything they have accomplished. It is sufficient to ask each group to provide a single point learned, or ask a few individuals to report everything they found or discussed. When activity wrap-up is complete, signpost for the students what they have learned. If learning is not pointed out, students may perceive the activity as wasted class time. At times, let them know what you learned in the process. Frequently, when facilitating active learning exercises, I realize a new perspective based on what was discussed. I point that out to the learners to show that anyone can learn when multiple perspectives address an issue.


How Much Active Learning and When. Determine the minimum amount of course time needed for lecture. Lectures should explain key concepts, foundational terms, and model professional disciplinary thinking. Keeping it short does not mean making lecture less impactful. Every minute of a lecture is important, and, if designed well, 10–12 minutes may be all that students can process before maxing out their cognitive load. At that point, shift to an activity to help solidify the major ideas and processes. If done well, from there, students have a solid foundation to read the remaining material on their own or to learn from the next mini-lecture. Once you identify the amount of time you need to lecture in a given session, you will know the time left to employ an active learning strategy.

Active learning strategies have significant variations in time requirements, both for preparation and execution. A pair-share activity requires a very short amount of preparation as all that is needed is an excellent prompt. It can also be completed in 3 to 5 minutes, including having a few pairs report out. Having students engage using a jigsaw, Reacting to the Past exercise, or gallery walk takes considerable preparation time and may require from 30 minutes to multiple class periods to complete. More complex activities will allow deeper processing, so the time is well spent, provided you have time on your own to develop the activity.

A final, nested consideration in terms of time is how long it will take to process the resulting paperwork. If you have students complete a pair-share or jigsaw, there may be no work to read or grade. However, if you have students complete a WebQuest and write out a finding, you need to digest and respond to their work prior to the next class. Keeping in mind the time needed to prepare the activity, implement the activity, and process any resulting work will help you keep the active learning component of the course manageable.


Active Learning: The “What Next?”


Some students resent using class time for active learning strategies and learning from peers. Help them understand that the research is very clear that learning through a combination of lecture and active learning results in the best learning outcomes. It is almost always helpful to point out what has been learned after an activity, mainly as it helps students understand the discipline's complexities. That is, the activity may make learning the material in the course much easier, thereby saving them time while they get a richer experience. Keep in mind that the more you use active learning strategies, and work on important aspects of the process, the better you will get at this teaching approach.


Discussion Questions

  1. What active learning strategy has worked well for you in the past? What do you like most about this strategy? How might you augment the strategy in some way to create a better learning opportunity for your students?

  2. What is your best facilitation skill? What areas of facilitation might you learn more about or strategically practice to become an even better facilitator?

  3. What do you see as the best way to get buy-in from your students? In what ways might you involve them in the process of an active learning strategy?



References


Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing

course structure work? Life Science Education, 13(3), 453–468.

https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M.

P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and

mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 111, 8410–8415.

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.full.pdf+html


Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to

enhance lecture effectiveness. Stylus.


King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41(1), 30–35.

http://www.jstor.org/stable/27558571


Major, C., Harris, M., & Zakrajsek, T. (2021). Teaching for learning: 101 intentionally designed

educational activities to put students on the path to success (2nd ed.). Routledge.


Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., Chambwe, N., Cintrón,

D. L., Cooper, J. D., Dunster, G., Grummer, J. A., Hennessey, K., Hsiao, J., Iranon, N., Jones,

L., Jordt, H., Keller, M., Lacey, M. E., Littlefield, C. E., Lowe, A., Newman, S., …, Freeman, S.

(2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in

undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the

National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476–6483.

https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1916903117


Additional Resource:

This platform, The Scholarly Teacher, has infographics on several active learning strategies that contain the basics of how to implement the strategy, suggestions to “level up” the activity, and suggestions for using active learning strategies in online courses.

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