December 16, 2023

7 Strategies to ignite active learning

7 Strategies to ignite active learning – and help students see its benefits


At its core, active learning relies on a collaborative, student-centered approach. As Vanderbilt University professor Cynthia J. Brame explains, “active learning approaches also often embrace the use of cooperative learning groups, a constructivist-based practice that places particular emphasis on the contribution that social interaction can make.” One would think that students embrace such a model, but an unexpected complication of creating a learning environment around active methods is sometimes a show of student resistance. After years of a more passive experience, many students can be loath to do something different, even if the end result will be more fulfilling. In “Students Think Lectures Are Best, But Research Suggests They’re Wrong,” Edutopia editor Youki Terada cites a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). As Terada shares, the research study showed that “strategies that require low cognitive effort — such as passively listening to a lecture — are often perceived by students to be more effective than active strategies such as hands-on experimentation and group problem-solving.” Why might that be?

PNAS researchers Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, and Greg Kestin answer this question when they “identify an inherent student bias against active learning that can limit its effectiveness and may hinder the wide adoption of these methods.” Essentially, students perceive that they are most successful in traditional, teacher-directed classrooms. There are any number of reasons they might feel this way, from having never experienced anything different to worrying about what might happen if they are asked to do what feels like more. To combat this problem, the study suggests that teachers explicitly share with students why a more active approach is better and then continue to reinforce its benefits. They write: “The success of active learning will be greatly enhanced if students accept that it leads to deeper learning — and acknowledge that it may sometimes feel like exactly the opposite is true.”

Teaching students is not just about communicating content; it is also about being instructive about how to access learning. If we are not explicit about the “why” behind the ways in which class is structured, students will form their own assumptions about what works. It is not enough, therefore, to create a student-centered classroom model and expect everyone to get on board without knowing the rationale behind an active learning approach. Instead, developing a space in which all learners (vocal or otherwise) can flourish is also dependent upon explaining what is happening as it occurs, gathering student voice along the way, and course-correcting as needed.

The Big Question

Midway through sharing new information, the teacher pauses and asks students to write down an area of confusion so far. Then, students either post their questions on the wall and respond in writing or hand them to the teacher to share with the group anonymously.

  1. Clears up confusion
  2. Encourages a culture of welcoming mistakes and misconceptions
  3. Normalizes not knowing and asking questions
  4. Allows students to communicate in a variety of modalities
  5. Gives everyone a voice



Connection, Prediction

Before starting a daily objective, students pose a question or idea that makes a connection to prior learning. Then, they develop a prediction about what they are about to learn and share their thoughts with classmates via pairings or small groups.

  1. Encourages the use of higher-order, critical thinking skills
  2. Provides an avenue for students to share at low risk (i.e., in smaller groups) rather than in front of the class
  3. Allows the teacher to see how students make meaning of the daily objective in front of them

Question Everything

For a specific timeframe within the class period, students are asked to phrase any response to a question in a shared space (an online document, chart paper, board, etc.) as an open-ended question. Then, students answer the question by posing yet another question of their own in the same space.

  1. Engages students in critical questioning
  2. All participants have a chance to respond to one another in an accessible space
  3. The teacher can be on the lookout for misconceptions and adjust instruction accordingly

Images and Inspiration

Using a visual image (a photograph, drawing or similar), the teacher asks students to “free write” for a short period of time about what the image inspires. Depending on the course subject, students could write their conjectures about what they see or engage in a more creative approach.

  1. Allows students to make their own meaning of an image before the teacher directs learning more specifically toward the daily lesson
  2. Encourages students to learn in a different way (i.e. visually)
  3. Helps to facilitate a more inductive approach to course content

One Sentence

For an upcoming extended writing project that may be intimidating, ask students to write just one sentence from the assigned prompt. Then, put them in small groups to examine one another’s sentences and discuss the challenges they face.

  1. Embraces the concept that all learners struggle, and that collaboration is key to surmounting obstacles
  2. Teaches students with multiple points of view to help one another
  3. Breaks a formidable task into more manageable chunks

Rephrase, Please!

Sometimes, ideas get lost in translation. In this activity, students are asked to take the key ideas taught during direct instruction and phrase them in their own words. They can then post their phrases on a wall, share in groups, or be called upon randomly.

  1. Helps students make meaning of new concepts in their own heads
  2. Acts as a check for understanding for the teacher to see where struggles might still exist
  3. Empowers students to think critically about the salient ideas presented

Stump the Teacher

Students form groups and create a series of quiz questions on course content. Then, groups take turns posing questions in an attempt to stump the teacher. If the teacher cannot answer enough questions correctly, the class wins!

  1. This gamification technique increases student engagement
  2. Teachers provide students with the opportunity to engage in a role reversal
  3. By creating the quizzes, students learn material more actively

Active learning is dependent upon the act of critical thinking. With the strategies and accompanying rationale provided above, teachers working with multiple grade levels in a variety of content areas can find at least a few approaches that work to increase the involvement of everyone in the room.

Tempting though it might be to rely on vocal students to carry student discourse each day past the point of awkwardness and toward whatever a teacher might wish to highlight, resisting that urge is key to ensuring that every child in the room is an active learner. Even the loudest students in the room who verbally process information may be more passive than we suppose. So, finding more effective ways to involve all students in each day’s learning is an effort that is well worth the time. That way, when a teacher leaves the classroom thinking, “Wow. They were really with me today,” that thought will apply to not just the few students who always like to talk — it will also accurately represent the experience of the entire class.




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