Active Learning Strategies


Class size: 10-50

Time frame: 20 or more minutes

Setting: moveable seating required, a lot of space preferable

Purpose: learn concepts in-depth, develop teamwork, have students teaching

Description: This strategy involves students becoming "experts" on one aspect of a topic, then sharing their expertise with others. Divide a topic into a few constitutive parts ("puzzle pieces"). Form subgroups of 3-5 and assign each subgroup a different "piece" of the topic (or, if the class is large, assign two or more subgroups to each subtopic). Each group's task is to develop expertise on its particular subtopic by brainstorming, developing ideas, and if time permits, researching. Once students have become experts on a particular subtopic, shuffle the groups so that the members of each group have a different area of expertise. Students then take turns sharing their expertise with the other group members, thereby creating a completed "puzzle" of knowledge about the main topic (see Silberman, 1996). A convenient way to assign different areas of expertise is to distribute handouts of different colours. For the first stage of the group work, groups are composed of students with the same colour of handout; for the second stage, each member of the newly formed groups must have a different colour of handout.


Class size: 10-50

Time frame: 15 or more minutes

Setting: moveable seating and a lot of space preferable; if necessary, have inner group stand/sit at front of lecture hall and the outer group sit in regular lecture hall seats

Purpose: observe group interaction, provide real illustrations for concepts, provide opportunity for analysis

Description: This method involves one group observing another group. The first group forms a circle and either discusses an issue or topic, does a role play, or performs a brief drama. The second group forms a circle around the inner group. Depending on the inner group's task and the context of your course, the outer group can look for themes, patterns, soundness of argument, etc., in the inner group's discussion, analyze the inner group's functioning as a group, or simply watch and comment on the role play. Debrief with both groups at the end in a plenary to capture their experiences. See Jacques (2000) for several variations on this technique.

Circle of Voices

Class size: any

Time frame: 10-20 minutes

Setting: moveable chairs preferable

Purpose: generate ideas, develop listening skills, have all students participate, equalize learning environment

Description: This method involves students taking turns to speak. Students form circles of four or five. Give students a topic, and allow them  a few minutes to organize their thoughts about it. Then the discussion begins, with each student having up to three minutes (or choose a different length) of uninterrupted time to speak. During this time, no one else is allowed to say anything. After everyone has spoken once, open the floor within the subgroup for general discussion. Specify that students should only build on what someone else has said, not on their own ideas; also, at this point they should not introduce new ideas (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999).

Buzz Groups

Class size: any

Time frame: 3-10 minutes

Setting: no limitations

Purpose: generate ideas/answers, re-stimulate student interest, gauge student understanding

Description: These groups involve students engaging in short, informal discussions, often in response to a particular sentence starter or question. At a transitional moment in the class, have students turn to 1-3 neighbours to discuss any difficulties in understanding, answer a prepared question, define or give examples of key concepts, or speculate on what will happen next in the class. The best discussions are those in which students make judgments regarding the relative merits, relevance, or usefulness of an aspect of the lecture (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999). Sample questions include, "What's the most contentious statement you've heard so far in the lecture today?" or "What's the most unsupported assertion you've heard in the lecture today?" Reconvene as a class and have a general discussion in which students share ideas or questions that arose within their subgroups.