Active learning is a pedagogical approach that actively engages students with the course material through discussions, problem solving, case studies, and other strategies. Active learning strategies can range in length from a couple of minutes to an entire class period.
Below you will find several active learning strategies. Many of the strategies can also serve as formative assessments or a way to monitor student learning. There is also a video, below, on active learning strategies specific to engineering and other STEM courses.
If you are interested in diving deeper into this pedagogical approach, the NDSU Library offers a list of books and resources on active learning.
Active Learning Strategies for All Courses
Concept Map: Students are provided with a list of terms and must arrange the terms on paper, drawing arrows between related concepts and labeling each arrow to explain the relationship. Alternatively, students can use software like bubbl.us to project their maps on a screen or share with the class. If there is enough space in the classroom, students can also draw their maps on the whiteboards.
Exam Wrappers: Exam wrappers are short worksheets students complete when they receive an exam back. An exam wrapper asks students to:
- identify their own individual areas of strength and weakness to guide further study;
- reflect on the adequacy of their preparation time and the appropriateness of their study strategies; and
- characterize the nature of their errors to find any recurring patterns that could be addressed.
Numbered Heads Together: In this activity, student teammates work together to ensure all members understand some course concept; one student is randomly selected to be held accountable.
- Students count off numbers in their groups.
- The instructor poses a problem and gives wait time (Example: “According to Rebecca Moore Howard, what is patchwriting? Now make sure everyone on your team understands what patchwriting is.”)
- Students stand up to discuss and teach.
- Students sit down when everyone knows the answer or has something to share or when time is up.
- The instructor calls a number. The student with that number from each team answers the question individually, using: response cards, the whiteboard, electronic means (for example, Padlet).
Idea Wave: Each student lists 3-5 ideas about the assigned topic. For example, an instructor in an education course might post the question, “How can we prevent cheating in classes?” One student begins the idea wave by sharing his / her / their idea. After the first student has shared, the student to the right shares one idea. The instructor directs the idea wave until several different ideas have been shared. At the end of the formal idea wave, a few volunteers who were not included may contribute.
Interview: In this activity, ask students to answer, in writing, the following prompt: “You’ve got an interview for your dream job. The interviewer, who may become your boss, is looking at your transcript and says, “Oh, I see you took Specialty Writing. Tell me what you learned about XX.” After students have a chance to answer the prompt in writing, ask students to find a partner. Each partner should take turns answering the prompt verbally, and after, the instructor can segue to a whole class discussion.
Kahoot!: Want to play a game? Kahoot! is a free game-based learning system that students can easily play from their phone or tablets.Kahoot! is a great way to review course content.
Letter Between Students: To give students a chance to reflect on a unit or course, ask them to write a short letter to an incoming student. What advice would they give incoming students?
Minute Paper / Free Write: In this activity, ask students to write for 2-3 minutes on a topic or in response to a question written by the instructor. This gives students a chance to explore their own ideas before discussion or to bring closure to a class or topic. The University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning has some great advice. They recommend asking students to do a minute paper "if a discussion takes a turn you didn't expect – when a particularly good question comes from the group, when discussion keeps circulating around a basic idea rather than inching its way into potential applications or deepening of ideas.”
Muddiest Point: This activity is a variation of the minute paper. After explaining a concept, or at the end of class, ask students, "What was the "muddiest point" in today's lecture? What are you unclear about?"
Note Check: To conduct a note check, ask students to pair with a partner/small group to briefly (2-5 minutes) share notes. This is a chance for students to get clarification on a course concept.
Predict: This activity asks students to predict the outcomes of a demonstration. After the demonstration, the instructor should ask the students to discuss the observed result and how it differed from their prediction.
Polls: During the lecture, ask students to respond to questions that check their understanding. To learn more about polling at NDSU, click here: https://kb.ndsu.edu/page.php?id=101459.
Ticket to Leave: The instructor asks students a specific question about the lesson. Students then respond and give their answers to the instructor, either on their way out or on their way in the next day. This is a great formative assessment; an instructor can then evaluate the need to re-teach or questions that need to be answered. Tickets can be submitted via Blackboard, as a personal message in Zoom, or as an assignment in Blackboard. Below are some possible prompts.
- Write down two things you learned today.
- Write down one question you have about today’s lesson.
- Write down one thing I can do to help you.
- If you were writing a quiz over today’s material, what question you would put on it?
Write/Pair/Share: This activity works well in larger classrooms. The objective of write/pair/share is to engage participants with the material on an individual level, then in pairs, and finally as a large group.
- First, ask students to individually summarize what they just learned, answer a question you posted, or consider how and why and when they might apply a concept to their own situations.
- Second, ask students to pair up and share their responses.
- Finally, choose a random pair to share what they discussed.
Active Learning Strategies for Small Courses
Corners Activity I: Prior to the start of class, the instructor places a question in each corner of the room as well as a place for students to write (flipchart, whiteboard, construction paper, etc.). During the activity, groups of 3-6 people move from corner to corner and answer to each question. The groups develop a consensus and write their answer directly on each flipchart / whiteboard / paper. When the flipchart has an answer already written by a previous group, the next group revises/expands/ illustrates that response with additional information. Different colored markers can be used for each group to see what each group wrote for each question.
Corners Activity II: Students move to different corners of the room, depending on their point of view. This activity helps students see that not everyone shares the same point of view, and it may stretch their own way of thinking.
- The instructor announces “corners.” Then she announces the choices for each corner of the room. “If you caught a student cheating on an exam, what do you think is an appropriate consequence: makeup exam, failure of the test, failure of the course, or other?”
- Students are then given a small amount of silent think time to make a choice. They will write the name of their corner on a piece of paper but should not discuss it with anyone else.
- The instructor tells students to go to their chosen corners. Once they are in their corner, they must find a partner to talk with someone not on their regular team.
- Pairs will then discuss the reason(s) for their choice. The instructor will then select a few students from each corner to share what his or her partner shared.
Jigsaw Teamwork: A jigsaw is an active learning exercise in which a topic is related to smaller pieces (think: puzzle pieces). Each member of a team is asked to learn about, and become an expert on, their piece. This is important because after students master their piece, they are expected to teach other members on their team about it. After everyone is done teaching their piece, the puzzle has been reassembled. To learn more about jigsaws, click here: https://www.jigsaw.org/#steps.
Learning Log: To help students keep up with the course readings and prepare for class discussion, ask students to write in their learning log. Each entry should include the following:
- a concise summary of the central points of the chapters read;
- a response that demonstrates a synthesis of the ideas in a variety of articles;
- a response to the article;
- a question or two for discussion.
Instructors can either ask students to write in a notebook or post to the journal function on Blackboard. In order to manage grading, instructors can periodically check learning logs and/or rotate which journals they check.
Active Learning: Engaging Students in the Engineering Classroom
How can active learning strategies improve engagement in your engineering classes? Learn why you should use active learning strategies, what are the most effective strategies, and how to begin implementing these strategies into your classes.
Dr. Stephanie Kusano presents information on active learning for student engagement and leads this discussion.
Presentation Powerpoint (PDF) >>
* If you need an accessible version of this PDF, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips for Managing Active Learning
- Display the activity directions on a presentation slide.
- While students engage in the task, circulate around the classroom and answer any questions. If you have a teaching assistant or learning assistant, ask them to do the same.
- Depending on the activity, it might be beneficial for groups to report their findings on a collaborative document. This is particularly helpful in hyflex courses.
- You can signal the end of the activity by turning the lights off and on or by making a sound to redirect students' attention. You may also consider displaying a timer within your PowerPoint to help students pace their work: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/insert-an-on-screen-timer-4c3a70d3-8d59-4972-a368-8b4ffc31a606.
- Take time to debrief. Ask a few groups to share their thoughts.
- Remember, most active learning opportunities are not graded. When you collect student work (minute papers, for example), make sure to provide feedback. This feedback, however, does not have to be individual feedback. You can spend the first five minutes of the next class period discussing their minute papers, or you can send out a short email via Blackboard.