Active Learning: 7 Strategies for Teachers

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.

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. To get started on the active learning journey, below is a list of seven strategies and the benefits of each one to share with students. That way, each time you try one of the tools in practice, students will understand how this approach supports their growth with a clear explanation of the “why” behind each activity.

1. 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. This helps students make meaning of new concepts in their own heads and acts as a check for understanding for the teacher to see where struggles might still exist. Additionally, this activity empowers students to think critically about the salient ideas presented.

2. 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. This activity engages students in critical questioning, and all participants have a chance to respond to one another in an accessible space. The teacher can also be on the lookout for misconceptions and adjust instruction accordingly.

3. 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. This activity quickly clears up confusion, encourages a culture of welcoming mistakes and misconceptions, and normalizes not knowing and asking questions. It also allows students to communicate in a variety of modalities and gives everyone in the classroom a voice.

4. 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! This gamification technique increases student engagement as teachers can provide students with the opportunity to engage in a role reversal. By creating the quizzes, students learn the material more actively.

5. 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. This activity allows students to make their own meaning of an image before the teacher directs learning more specifically toward the daily lesson. It also encourages students to learn in a different way (i.e. visually) and helps to facilitate a more inductive approach to course content.

6. 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. This activity embraces the concept that all learners struggle, and that collaboration is key to surmounting obstacles. It also teaches students with multiple points of view to help one another and breaks a formidable task down into more manageable chunks.

7. 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. This activity is great because it encourages the use of higher-order, critical thinking skills and provides an avenue for students to share at low risk (i.e., in smaller groups) rather than in front of the class. Additionally, the teacher can see how students make meaning of the daily objective in front of them by observing.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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