Teaching Essentials

Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

  • Active learning involves engaging learners in the learning process through a variety of active instructional techniques such as role play, problem solving, and case studies. The techniques used are designed and planned to actively and/or experientially involve learners to interact with the course material by doing and thinking about what they are learning.
  • These activities may range in length from a couple of minutes to whole class sessions or may take place over multiple class sessions.
  • The techniques most often used involve helping students develop and practice higher order skills such as analysis, evaluation, and creation but other strategies support lower order skills like remembering, understanding, applying.
  • While active learning places a greater degree of responsibility on students, instructors play a significant role in its facilitation.
  • As an instructor you may realize that you are already incorporating many of these strategies in your course. Queens University

In a traditional class, the instructor lectures and learners sit passively and listen. This is known as the “sage on the stage” or teacher-centered learning. In active learning classes, the instructor shifts to become the “guide on the side” by using their skills to facilitate student-centered learning and guide learners using engaging techniques.

Watch this short video about Active Learning from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Educational Innovation.

Active learning is possible in any classroom and can be used in any delivery mode. The strategies you use to actively engage your learners will vary based on whether your class is online, blended, or face-to-face. When active learning is used, it helps you to create an engaging learning environment where students feel connected to their instructors and peers.

Why incorporate Active Learning in your classroom?

The evidence presented from courses in a wide range of different disciplines is that active learning works Huggett & Jeffries, 2021. It increases student retention (see chart) and engagement and develops critical thinking skills Freeman et al., 2014. Using active learning strategies helps to foster an overall positive learning environment, and it also has been demonstrated to improve the overall well-being of both students and instructors Venton & Pompano, 2021, Theobald et al., 2020, Maarek, 2018.

Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. Jossey-Bass pg. 139.


The evidence also has described other benefits including a more balanced involvement of women in STEM classes Aguillon et al., 2020, and how members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community felt safer when active learning strategies were used Cooper & Brownell, 2017. Other advantages include a sense of community and connectedness, an increased level of satisfaction with the course, and being flexible with changing situations (an increased comfort level for change) Allsop et al., 2020. Introverts benefit in an active learning class because their voice is heard Flanagan & Addy, 2019. Using active learning strategies can be reflective of Indigenous methods of pedagogy and has been demonstrated to be successful Papp, 2019.

RRC Polytech is incorporating Flexible Online Delivery. Flexible Online Delivery means that online learning experiences will be part of all program delivery methods, including face-to-face (in-person) delivery. Active Learning also supports the institution’s 2022-2026 Strategic Plan by providing opportunities for students to engage with their instructors and peers to build community and connections in the classroom. This type of teaching will involve the use of a variety of instructional methods to present course content in innovative and engaging ways. Incorporating active learning strategies in your teaching and in the classroom is one way to actively engage your students in the learning process, creating an inclusive learning environment. On a broader level, when used effectively, active learning strategies can help students meet several RRC Polytech College Wide Learning Outcomes including Communication, Critical Thinking, Innovation, Teamwork, and Leadership.

Instructors also benefit when active learning strategies are used. In the classroom, the strategies develop collaborative skills and encourages risk-taking in a brave space. Active learning requires student preparation which in turn facilitates engagement and retention in the classroom. The strategies will improve critical thinking skills, which, in turn, promotes deep learning. Active learning sparks creative thinking which fosters real problem-solving. Many instructors employing these techniques find them thought-provoking and inspiring. This is what will keep the College in front of what’s ahead!

For more information, watch this video from the University of Minnesota on why you should use Active Learning.

Considerations for active learning

When implementing active learning in your course, be intentional about the strategies you select. Remember, not every strategy will work for every class.

Here are some important things to consider:

  • Physical learning space – What does your classroom look like?
  • Class size – Which activities would work best with the number of students in your class?
  • Course learning outcomes – How does the active learning strategy you are selecting connect to what students need to learn in your course?
  • Technology is not required for active learning to happen. Educational technologies can be used, but active learning is not dependent on the use of technology.
  • Active learning strategies can be implemented in any course, at any level, in any discipline, and can be used to meet any level of learning outcome.

What are some examples of active learning strategies?

Think-Pair-Share

How to do it: Have students work individually on a content-related problem or reflect on a passage. Students then compare their responses with a someone sitting next to them (or nearby) and synthesize a joint solution to share with the entire class.

MIT video explanation: https://youtu.be/fqrOxeL-fwk

Group size: Any class size; students work in pairs or triads

Time required: 5 minutes

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

Think-Pair-Share is ideal when students are considering or applying new content.

This activity allows them to check their knowledge with a peer and identify misconceptions. Sharing solutions as a group can increase engagement of students who may be uncomfortable sharing individual ideas with the class.

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Think-Pair-Share– Pen and paper– TEAMS shared document
– Whiteboard in TEAMS
– WebEx meeting
– TEAMS shared document
– Whiteboard in TEAMS
– WebEx meeting
– LEARN Discussion tool

Polling/Survey or Thumbs Up/Down/Sideways

How to do it: The instructor projects a multiple-choice question onto the classroom’s screen.

Without consulting a peer, students respond to the question or statement. They can use thumbs up/down/sideways to express agreement/disagreement/neutrality in response to the question.

Another option is to use online tools to poll or survey students, which will display responses in a bar graph: how many chose “A,” how many chose “B,” and so on. The instructor projects the bar chart onto the screen for the students to consider.

The instructor asks the same question again and projects it on the screen, but this time asks students to discuss it in small groups for a few minutes.

The students use the same method as before to respond to the question. Students may decide to change their original response.

The instructor projects the new bar graph and explains what the correct response is and why.

Group size: Any class size

Time required: 5-7 minutes/question

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

Polls and surveys are a great way for instructors to check student understanding generally, which is particularly useful in larger classes. When students have to explain their reasoning to each other and learn from their peers, it supports student learning.

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Polling/Survey or Thumbs Up/Down/Sideways– Show of hands
– Clickers
– Mobile app clicker software
– Kahoot
– Polling feature in WebEx/TEAMS
– Clicker apps
– Kahoot
– Polling feature in WebEx/TEAMS
– Clicker apps
– Kahoot

Brainstorming

How to do it: In this activity, students are asked to create a free flow of ideas focused on a certain topic, category or question while the instructor facilitates and records the answers on the whiteboard. Encourage students to draw on prior knowledge and experiences. It is important to acknowledge all contributions and accept them without criticism or judgement during this idea generation period, as the aim is to come up with as many ideas as possible. Once ideas have been collected, the strongest and most effective ones are determined through a class discussion.

Group size: Brainstorming can work with small or large classes.

Time required: 5-10 minutes

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

Brainstorming creates an opportunity for students to share ideas. By listening to what others say, students can expand on their existing knowledge by considering the ideas and opinions of their peers. It can also help students process new information and expand on the contributions of others.

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Brainstorming– Whiteboards
– Post-It Notes
– Index cards
– TEAMS shared document
– Whiteboard in TEAMS
– WebEx meeting breakout
– TEAMS shared document
– Whiteboard in TEAMS
– WebEx meeting breakout
– TEAMS shared document
– Whiteboard in TEAMS/ WebEx meeting
– Ideaflip

Muddiest Point

How to do it: Ask students to write an informal response to one question: “What was the muddiest point in …?” The focus could be a lecture, a discussion, homework, or a video. (Angelo & Cross, 1993) When introducing this strategy, take time to explain that a ‘muddy’ point is a concept from the class content that students are struggling to understand clearly.

The instructor quickly reads through at least half of the responses, looking for common types of muddy points and sorting them by affinity. Determine which ones to deal with in the next class.

This video from MIT shows a modification of ‘muddiest point’ done with index cards, called “Mud cards”.

Group size: Works equally well with small or large classes.

Time required: 5 minutes

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

This exercise gives students an opportunity for self-reflection and prompts them to review their notes as they check their understanding. Helping students monitor their own understanding has been shown to improve their recall when they are tested. (Gross Davis, 2009, p.267)

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Muddiest Point– Pen and Paper
– Word Document submitted via LEARN
– Word Document submitted via LEARN
– LEARN Discussion tool
– TEAMS shared document
– LEARN Discussion tool
– LEARN Discussion tool
– Submit written response to Dropbox

Directed Paraphrasing

How to do it: Students write a “translation” of a complex concept they have just learned into simpler language that will be understood by a specified individual, or audience, or for a specific purpose.   

The instructor reviews the paraphrased content to determine student understanding of key concepts and identify potential knowledge gaps. 

Advice: You may want to point out the difference between paraphrasing and summarizing. 

Group size: Students can work individually or in pairs

Time required: 15-30 minutes + de-brief

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

Paraphrasing is a way for students to demonstrate comprehension and recall content. The more frequently students restate key concepts, the better they will be able to remember those concepts.

The process of translating complicated concepts into simpler, straightforward, language helps students remember what they have learned longer. Paraphrasing also gives students practice restating their knowledge into a form that a specific audience can understand (for example, patients, clients, or customers), a skill that is essential for success in many professions. (Barkley, 2009, p.286)

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Direct paraphrasing– Pen and Paper
– Word Document submitted via LEARN
– Word Document submitted via LEARN
– LEARN Discussion tool
– Word Document submitted via LEARN
– TEAMS shared document
– LEARN Discussion tool
– Word Document submitted via LEARN
– TEAMS shared document
– LEARN Discussion tool

Dotmocracy or Value Line

How to do it: Students are given 5 (or so) sticky dots that they put next to the value statements or perspectives that are posted in the classroom. Students allocate their dots according to how strongly they support the statement.

Students then visually assess the distribution of sticky dots, which represents the collective opinion of the class. This can be used as a prompt for further class discussion or to determine which perspectives will be covered further in class.

Value Line alternative: The instructor states a perspective and students stand up and situate themselves in a line based on how strongly they agree or disagree, with opposing corners of the room identified as ‘agree’ and ‘disagree’.

A word of caution: Depending upon the topic being discussed, students may be less comfortable with the Value Line activity since it offers less anonymity than the Dotmocracy exercise.

Group size: N/A, students work individually

Time required: 10 minutes

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

This activity encourages students to think critically by evaluating ideas and creates an opportunity to listen carefully to others’ points of view.

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Dotmocracy or Value Line– Flip chart and Coloured sticky dots– TEAMS shared document e.g., PowerPoint
– Microsoft Whiteboard in Teams or Desktop App
– TEAMS shared document e.g., PowerPoint
– Microsoft Whiteboard in Teams or Desktop App
– Shared Document
– LEARN Discussion tool

Gallery Walk

How to do it: The Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College provides detailed step-by-step instructions for conducting Gallery Walk in the classroom. The process has been summarized here:

  1. The instructor creates six questions or prompts relating to a course topic or concept. Images, documents, problems, or quotes may also be used. Each prompt is written on chart paper or a white board that is hung in various places throughout the classroom, creating stations. Students are placed in groups of 3-5. Each group begins at a different station.
  2. At their first station, groups will read what is posted and a recorder writes the group’s responses on the chart paper or white board.
  3. For individual student accountability, you may also have the students record the responses on a worksheet so they have a copy they can refer to in their class notes.
  4. After three to five minutes, have the groups rotate to the next station. Students read and discuss the previous group’s response and add content of their own. Repeat until all groups have visited each station. To involve all group members, you can have groups switch recorders at each station.
  5. The instructor facilitates group discussion, if needed, by clarifying or provide hints if students don’t understand or misinterpret what is posted at their station.
  6. Students end the activity by returning to their first station to read all that was added to their first response. Bring the class back together to discuss what was learned and make final conclusions about what they saw and discussed.

SERC also provides Gallery Walk examples, suggestions for assessment, and approaches for addressing possible challenges instructors may encounter. https://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/gallerywalk/what.html

Edutopia provides five additional ways you can use Gallery Walk in the classroom: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/enliven-class-discussion-with-gallery-walks-rebecca-alber

This video also shows Gallery Walk in action.

Group size: greater than 3 stations so you have groups of 3-5 students

Time required: 45-60 minutes

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

Gallery Walk provides students an opportunity to share ideas and consider the perspective of others. This contributes to critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration.

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Gallery Walk– Whiteboard
– Flipchart
– TEAMS/WebEx breakout rooms with shared documents– TEAMS/WebEx breakout rooms with shared documents– Shared Document
– LEARN Discussion tool

Jigsaw

How to do it: The Jigsaw method is a research-based cooperative learning strategy where each student is responsible for teaching one piece of content to the other members of their group. As students teach their pieces of knowledge to one another, they complete a concept.

It should be noted that each piece must be understandable to a student without knowledge of the other pieces distributed. Jigsaw is not an effective method for introducing new content, but works best when students have already acquired the skills they need to understand the content.

These videos walk you through how to set up a Jigsaw activity:
Durham College Video
Cult of Pedagogy

Group size: Group size is determined by the number of pieces of content you have. Usually, 4-6 groups of 3-5 students works well.

Time required: More than 1 hour.

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

Jigsaw reinforced student-centered learning as the instructor functions as a facilitator and shares in the learning process with the students rather than being the source of knowledge. Students learn from one another and by teaching their peers, they gain a deeper understanding of the concept. Each student has an essential contribution to make and shares equal responsibility for their learning. Students must work together to learn the material completely.

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Jigsaw– Word
– PowerPoint
– TEAMS document
– TEAMS or WebEx shared document e.g., MS Word, PowerPoint– TEAMS or WebEx shared document e.g., MS Word, PowerPoint– TEAMS or WebEx shared document e.g., MS Word, PowerPoint

Send or Pass-a-Problem

How to do it: Students work in groups, and each group is given an envelope with a problem, issue, or case study written on the front of it. The group brainstorms effective solutions or responses for the problem and records them on a piece of paper. After ~15 min. (or whatever pre-determined amount of time is appropriate based on the complexity of the issues) the group put their solution(s) in the envelope and pass it to the next group.

The second group, without looking at the ideas already generated, creates their own list of solutions or responses, and repeats the process, passing the envelope on to a third group.

The third group looks at the two sets of responses in the envelope, include any additional solutions they come up with, synthesizes the responses and reports the best solution to the class.

This strategy works best when the problems are complex and do not have a single right answer.

Group size: 4-6 students.

Time required: 45 minutes.

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

This activity creates opportunities for students to practice problem solving and recognize the thinking skills required for developing solutions. The synthesis of responses at the end helps students learn to compare and evaluate multiple solutions.

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Send or Pass-a-Problem– Pen and Paper with folders or envelopes– TEAMS/WebEx meeting
LEARN Discussion tool
– TEAMS/WebEx meeting
– LEARN Discussion tool
– TEAMS/WebEx
LEARN Discussion tool

Case Studies

How to do it: Present students with scenarios based on real-life problems. Ask students to conduct an analysis of the situation, drawing from their work or home experience, and their classroom knowledge. Students should assess the situation, identify issues that may be present, and make appropriate decisions toward resolving the situation. (Fenwick & Parsons, 2009)

The University of Waterloo outlines the steps for using case studies as follows:

  1. Get source material (short story, news articles, account of a decision or procedure, video, role-play script, etc.) to use as the basis for the case study.
  2. Provide students with a focus or framework to use in doing their analysis.
  3. Give students time to analyze the case individually or in groups, and to write down their analysis.
  4. Begin a discussion of students’ analyses.
  5. Act as a mediator of the discussion. Don’t offer your own opinion except to provide guidance on the process (remind students of the framework if discussion becomes unfocused).
  6. After analysis has been completed, show how the case study illustrates application of theoretical or background concepts in course material.

Group size: 3-5 students.

Time required: Depends upon the complexity of the case(s) used.

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

Case studies are an excellent way to demonstrate the relevance of course content. They create opportunities for students to learn in a way that reflects how knowledge is obtained and applied in real-world situations.

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Case Studies– Pen and Paper
– Whiteboards
– Flipchart
– TEAMS or WebEx shared document e.g., MS Word
– Flipgrid
– TEAMS or WebEx shared document e.g., MS Word
– Flipgrid
– TEAMS or WebEx shared document e.g., MS Word
– Flipgrid

Demonstration or Experiment

How to do it: Demonstrations and experiments can be particularly engaging if student participation is required throughout the process. Before you begin, discuss the purpose of the demo or experiment, and ask students to predict what will happen. Talk about the theories or principles involved that can help them to understand what happens during the demo. Once the demo is complete, ask students to compare their observations to predictions, rather than simply passively watching a demonstration.

Group size: Students work individually (groups not required).

Time required: 10-15 minutes.

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

Demonstrations are an effective way to generate interest in a topic and help students visualize concepts. Providing visual supports can help students to “see” concepts that may otherwise seem abstract. This strategy can result in a more efficient use of class time as it can reduce the amount of time spent discussing a topic.

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Demonstration or Experiment– Students view in person
– Students may perform experiment if in a lab
– Camera and microphone to project to class and to online participants via TEAMS or WebEx– Camera and microphone to project to class and to online participants via TEAMS or WebEx– Camera and microphone to record video of demonstration or experiment and post to LEARN

Concept Mapping

How to do it: A concept map is a visual way to organize thoughts and make connections between terms, ideas, or concepts. Students work in groups to identify concepts, or nodes, and connect them with lines, or vectors. The lines are labelled to indicate the relationship between the concepts. When needed, the instructor can provide clues about the connections.

When done correctly, a concept map should read like a series of sentences. A detailed explanation of concept mapping along with examples used in research and in teaching is provided here: https://youtu.be/e4Fay6l2GSQ

Alternatively, you could also ask students to create a different type of concept organizational tool, mind maps. The University of Guelph outlines seven steps for making a mind map here: https://youtu.be/sZJj6DwCqSU

Barkley (2009, p.219) provides these directions for teaching students how to use a variety of types of concept organizers in the classroom:

  1. Choose a concept, procedure, or process for students to map that is important to your course and that is rich in associations and connections.
  2. Brainstorm for a few minutes, writing down terms and short phrases that represent the most important components of the concept.
  3. Choose a graphic image that you believe best captures the relationships of the concept (for example, a spoked wheel, a flowchart, a network tree, or a fishbone) and map the concept yourself so that you can uncover potential problems. Your own diagram can also serve as a model against which to assess group work.
  4. Map a parallel concept to demonstrate the process to students.
  5. Decide what to use as a shared writing space (for example, flip charts, large pieces of paper, the whiteboard) and bring it and colored markers or crayons to class.
  6. Describe and demonstrate the process to students.
  7. Form teams, distribute paper and markers, and present the central concept that you want students to graph.
  8. Have students sketch out a diagram starting with the central idea or first step in a process and adding words, phrases, or images connected by lines or arrows.

Tip: This technique is most effective when students are able to interact synchronously.

Group size: 3-5 students.

Time required: 45-60 minutes (more time may be needed, depending upon the complexity of the topic).

Why do it/how it helps students learn?

Creating a concept map requires students to identify and organize information and to establish connections between pieces of information. Research has shown that students using concept maps retain information longer. Concept maps can help clarify research and simplify concepts that students may find particularly challenging.
From Tools for Teaching by Gross Davis. Source: Fox and Morrison, 2005; Nakhleh and Saglam, 2005; Romance and Vitale, 1999; Santhanam et al., 1998

The following are a few examples of tools that you can use to facilitate the active learning activity in your classes whether face-to-face, blended or online.

Face-to-Face classroom deliveryBlended/Flexible deliveryOnline SynchronousOnline Asynchronous
Concept Mapping– Whiteboard, Stickies
– Index Cards
– TEAMS/WebEx meeting whiteboards
– MS Word
– PowerPoint
– MindJet Mind Manager
– TEAMS/WebEx meeting whiteboards
– MS Word
– PowerPoint
– MindJet MindManager
– MS Word
– PowerPoint
– MindJet – MindManager

Red River College Polytechnic Teaching and Learning Pages

RRC Polytech has several resource pages available to support you in your teaching. Visit the pages below to learn more about resources and tools available at RRC Polytech.

Winter 2022 Program Delivery

For the Winter 2022 term, RRC Polytech will be employing a Flexible Learning Model that includes three delivery methods: Face-to-Face, Blended, and Online learning.

Learn more about program delivery methods for Winter 2022.

Flexible Online Delivery

Learn more about Flexible Online Delivery at RRC Polytech. This page includes an FAQ section.

Flexible Online Delivery Model (FODM)

The Flexible Online Delivery Model (FODM) outlines how to develop and deliver RRC Polytech programs and courses following the goals, guiding principles, and standards required going forward.

RRC Polytech Learning Technology Selection Guide

This guide is designed to support Instructors by outlining the educational technology tools recommended for use at RRC Polytech.

E-Book Available through RRC Polytech Libraries

Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Want to learn more about active learning? Check out these links:

Institutional Websites

References

View References

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  • Allsop, J., Young, S. J., Nelson, E. J., Piatt, J., & Knapp, D. (2020). Examining the Benefits Associated with Implementing an Active Learning Classroom among Undergraduate Students. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 32(3), 418–426.
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  • Queens University. (n.d.). Active learning. Teaching and Learning in Higher Education – Active Learning. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from https://www.queensu.ca/teachingandlearning/modules/active/index.html
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