Reflections Newsletter

Incorporating Active Learning into Your Lectures, Spring 1997

by Colin Baird and Karen Edge
The University of Western Ontario
Number 36, June 1997

Are you disturbed by the apparent passivity of students during your lectures? Do you find their attention wandering after you've been speaking to them for 15 or 20 minutes? If so, you might want to incorporate some short active learning components into your lectures. These are activities lasting 5 minutes or so in which the students switch from listening to you to actively engaging your material in some type of structured exercise involving thinking. Experts tell us that not only do they learn a lot during that 5 minutes, but their attention level is significantly increased for the rest of your lecture.

What might these active learning activities be that you can use during your classes? Perhaps the most obvious type are exercises that students do on their own, such as trying to solve a problem based upon a concept or theory from the lecture material just presented. In recent years, many university lecturers have found that discussion-based activities, accomplished in small groups of students sitting near each other, are even more effective in promoting learning. The act of speaking out loud about a concept serves to clarify it in their minds, as does the feedback that they receive from other members of their mini-group. Students not only develop their own skills during such exercises, but also see the thought processes by which other students approach a problem. In addition, it encourages participation by all students rather than just the assertive few who usually respond to questions that you pose to the class as a whole.

The discussion groups can be as small as two students sitting together, or three of them seated in a line with the two end members turning to face the one in the middle, or groups of four formed by two adjacent students in a row turning to the two in the row behind or in front of them. (Those instructors lucky enough to have classrooms with moveable furniture can easily form temporary groups by having the students form small circles of chairs.) It is best to vary the formats of these activities to some extent from lecture to lecture. By introducing the method of 5-minute activities gradually, you can learn what works best for your course and class, and what can or cannot be accomplished in a short time. Be sure to explain to your students the rationale and purpose for each activity.

Examples of the types of activities that can be used in the 5-minute discussion format are listed below. Clearly, some exercises can be accomplished by students individually, without group discussion, but studies show that it is more effective to include the interactive dimension whenever possible.

At the end of this article, we discuss short participatory activities that can be used at the beginning and at the end of the lecture hour.

EXAMPLES of 5-minute Activities for Small Groups

Ask the students to do one of the following:

Using Numerical Data or Theoretical Concepts or Experimental Evidence Presented in the Lecture:

  1. Find and explain trends in a set of data, then discuss your results with the other members of the group.
  2. Predict the outcome of an experiment, then discuss with the group.
  3. Explain the significance of an experiment you describe, and compare your conclusions with the group.
  4. As a group, brainstorm possible explanations for a phenomenon or experiment.
  5. Solve a short problem (shown on the overhead) based on a principle just described, then compare solutions with the group.
  6. As a group, brainstorm a list of possibilities, e.g. applications or examples of a concept.
  7. Exam Questions

  8. Compose a hypothetical exam question on material just lectured upon, and have the other members of the group answer it.
  9. Answer an exam question individually based on material just lectured upon, then try to convince the other students in the group the answer is correct, or have another student mark and comment on each other's answers based upon the answer shown on the overhead.
  10. Putting the Pieces Together

  11. Compose a short summary of the main points about a topic just lectured upon, then compare summaries with the rest of the group.
  12. Write a short note to the instructor stating what was the most confusing aspect of the explanation of a point in the lecture segment, or explain where he/she is "stuck" in the understanding of a concept, and then see if other members of the group can help resolve the problems.
  13. Using Writing and Assigned Readings

  14. Write their reaction to, or analysis of, an in-class handout (a quotation or poem or short case or passage from a text), then have them read their writing to the group.
  15. As a group, discuss questions based upon assigned readings.
  16. Write out a request for more information on some aspect of the current topic, then see if others in the group are interested.
  17. Paraphrase a passage, then share their thoughts on it.
  18. Have students highlight (with a marker) a written passage for the important points, then compare their highlighted points with those chosen by others in the group.
  19. Students as Teachers

  20. Explain a concept (incorporating an example) to the other members of a group.
  21. Share and critique essay outlines, and brainstorm ideas for new topics.
  22. Mapping Concepts

  23. Draw a conceptual diagram for a topic just discussed, then compare diagrams.
  24. Draw a schematic web of words associated with a topic, then compare.
  25. Controversy

  26. As a group, brainstorm all points on one side of an issue, or from one point of view on the issue, as in preparing for a debate.
  27. As a group, brainstorm all the arguments that could be used to defend a particular decision.
  28. Miscellaneous

  29. As a group, brainstorm the possible consequences of instituting a particular policy.
  30. Exchange notes for the lecture with another student to see what each other has missed.
  31. As a group, devise a list of questions they hope to be answered in the lecture.
  32. Longer Exercises

  33. Spontaneous Debate: Divide the classroom into pro and con sections, and in pairs or small groups, have them discuss points that would support their side. Then have the class actually debate the issue.
  34. Prepared Debate: State topic of debate for an upcoming class, and have students choose their side by where they sit in class on debate day. Then ask for points from each side.

Some instructors employ active learning activities at the beginning of their lecture. These start-up activities can be based upon readings assigned for the day, or a review of the previous class, or can consist of brainstorming about what the class collectively already knows about today's topic.

An activity which many instructors employ at the end of some of their lectures is the one-minute paper. Students are given a few minutes to write some comments on one sheet of paper concerning the lecture just concluding; these sheets are handed in and informally reviewed by the instructor as valuable feedback useful as part of his/her preparation for the next class. Usually the comments are not free form, but respond to a question asked by the instructor, such as "what was the most important or interesting or most novel point in today's lecture?" or "what is one thing you still don't understand from the presentation?" Some instructors give students a small problem to be solved, or ask them for feedback on an assigned reading, or ask them to construct a "mind map" showing in a connective diagram how today's concepts fit into their previous knowledge. Professors differ as to whether they have the students write their names on the submissions; those that do feel it yields better quality responses, and allows the sheets to be handed back at the next class (usually without annotations). Marilyn Robinson used to ask students to bring along their recent submissions when they came to her office for a consultation on specific topics, and pointed out that collecting the forms allows you to see who is consistently attending lectures and who is not!

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