Skip navigation
Career Advice

Putting students in a more central role in the classroom

How to encourage active learning with your students.


Dear instructor, here’s a challenge for you: include active learning activities in every lecture. Active learning is a philosophy and an approach in which teaching moves beyond the “podium style” lecture and directly includes students in the learning process.
There is certainly a big movement out there to include active learning in the classroom, and strategies have been around for a long time. It can make the learning experience more interactive, inclusive, and help embrace different learning styles.

Active learning places the students in a more central role in a classroom, and allows them to engage with the course and course content in a different way. Without a doubt, it can take a bit of extra work for the instructor. The strategies can remove some of the control from teachers, and this can be uncomfortable for some. For any active learning strategy to work, the instructor and students need to be on board. Each strategy brings some challenges, takes time to prepare, and certainly takes time in the classroom.

This term, in my ecology class of 70-plus students, I decided to take the challenge and include active learning in every lecture. Let me share a few of the things I have done so far and hopefully show that some strategies are easy and doable for pretty much any teaching context.

The teacher becomes the student
For the last five minutes of one class I pretended to be a student and asked the students to become the teacher. I then asked them some questions about the course content, drawing upon material from the last few lectures. Because I have taught the course for many years, I had a good sense of where some “problem areas” may be, and thus formulated questions that got to the more difficult material. Students then were able to respond to my questions and share their own expertise.

Clear and muddy
At the end of another lecture, I asked the students to write down one part of the content they really understood well, and one area that might be “the muddiest point” (i.e., what they are struggling with). Students handed in the pieces of paper; I went through and sorted them, and then spent part of the next lecture re-explaining common muddy areas. This was a terrific way to get anonymous feedback, helped reinforce areas that I perceived to be going well, and allowed me to target problem areas in the course.

Gather in groups
Many active learning strategies work best when students are in groups. To quickly set up groups during class, each student holds a card with a different symbol, letter, number or drawing. When I call out one of these, the students form groups. I made the cards so students get sorted into groups of different sizes, depending on the activity. An easy and effective active learning strategy with groups is to have students discuss among themselves a particular problem or question. After a few minutes, a spokesperson can report back their findings to the whole class.

Instant feedback
This term, I am trying out instant-feedback assessment techniques for multiple-choice questions. Students scratch off answers on a card, and they know immediately if they are right or wrong. They can scratch a second or third time to receive partial points. I have used these in the classroom for group work: students can work on problems, debate and discuss the answers, and then scratch off to reveal the correct answer. It does take a little bit of time (20 minutes or so for a few questions), but is an effective active learning strategy that combines learning with an instant-feedback style of assessment.

Pair and share
This is also a simple and effective way to get discussions happening in a lecture: I pose a question or idea, and simply have students turn to their neighbour to discuss the answer. I then ask some of the pairs to share their answers or ideas, and I also divide the lecture hall into different sections and ask pairs from each section to report back. This allows full use of the space in the classroom and students at the back, front or sides are able to feel included.

All of the above-mentioned strategies don’t actually take that long and do not require a major overhaul to the course or course content. I believe they are relatively risk-free and easy, and suitable for any instructor, pre-tenure or not. I see these kinds of active learning strategies more as “value added” activities, and as small steps that can in-crease student engagement in the classroom.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Trent Tucker / March 12, 2015 at 17:28

    For your “Instant Feedback” approach, what do you use? IF-AT forms? Something else? Thanks!

Click to fill out a quick survey