Strategies for Increasing Active Learning in Lecture Courses
Despite its limitations for
promoting critical thinking and long-term retention, lecturing continues
to be the teaching method of choice on most college campuses, particularly
in large classes. Here are some classroom-tested activities to increase
students active engagement in lecture courses.
Intersperse lecture with
more active strategies
shown that pausing every 12-18 minutes during a lecture for some kind
of activity increases students understanding and retention of material
presented. Here are a variety of activities to use during such short pauses:
- Note Comparison Ask students to compare notes with a neighbor and fill in any gaps or misunderstandings.
Additionally, you may call for questions students have been unable to resolve between them.
Present a question, problem, or case study for students to consider.
Students think about it alone for five minutes or less, then pair up
to discuss their views. Selected pairs (or all in a smaller class) share
their conclusions with the rest of the class.
- Focused Writing Have students write briefly on a topic arising from the lecture.
Give an example of this concept or principle.
Explain this concept in your own words.
How does this idea relate to your own experience?
- Feedback Lecture Divide the class period into two mini lectures separated by small-group
or paired discussion of a focused question from the lecture. Ideally,
this discussion will provide a logical starting-point for the second
- Voting Use a show
of hands to keep students involved and to determine what the class believes
as a group. A quick vote on a provocative question can spark interest
at the beginning a lecture. Voting can also be used during lecture by
calling for a show of hands, and then calling on students
for opposing views, reasons, etc.
- Brainstorming (a) Start class by having students brainstorm on what they know about
the topic for the day. Put ideas on the board and use them as an organizing
principle for the lecture. (b) Give a mini-lecture, then have a group
brainstorming session to solve a related problem.
- Student Questions Devote an entire class period from time to time to addressing students
questions. Have students submit questions ahead of time, and allow the
class to vote on which they would most like answered. Go over as many
as possible in the time available.
- Fish-bowl Pre-select
(ask for volunteers) a small group of students to discuss a controversial
topic in front of the rest of the class. Ask non-participating students
to take notes as they listen and write a quick position paper at the
end of class.
- Trade a Problem Divide the class into teams and have each team construct review questions,
to be written on index cards, with the answer written on the back of
the card. The teams then trade cards and attempt to answer one anothers
questions by team consensus without looking at the answer on the back.
If the teams answer does not agree with the original answer, they should
add their answer on the back of the card as an alternative. Cards continue
to be traded. The teacher may want to conduct a whole-class discussion
on the questions with more than one answer.
- Concept Map Divide
the class into groups, each with a large piece of paper or a transparency.
Each group should write down the topic being studied in the center of
the paper inside a circle or rectangle, then place related concepts
around it, drawing lines as appropriate to indicate relationships among
elements of the map. Results may be shared with the full class.
Monitor Student Learning
- ConcepTests In
this activity, developed by Eric Mazur at Harvard, lecture is interspersed
with brief, multiple-choice, conceptual questions to test student understanding
of the material. Students may indicate their answers by show of hands
or flash cards (at Harvard they use special palm-top computers). If
most students do well on a question, the lecture proceeds to new material.
When the concept test reveals that students have conceptual problems
or misunderstandings, students are encouraged to work out the answer
to the question in small groups. If many students still have problems,
the instructor spends more time on the material.
- Ungraded quizzes Use formative (un-graded) quizzes to help students check their own
- Minute Paper In the last three minutes of class, ask the students to write anonymously
one thing they remember from class and one question that remains. Collect
these and scan them to check comprehension.
Encourage active note-taking
- Outline Hand out a skeleton outline at the beginning of class to give students
a structure for note-taking.
- Matrix If the
lecture lends itself t osuch a presentation, give students a blank table
with columns and rows labeled, in which to fill appropriate material
from the lecture.
Provide more opportunities
for human contact
- Student-faculty meetings Meet with groups of students
to discuss material during office hours throughout the quarter, scheduling
these groups so that eventually every student has had an opportunity
to meet in small discussion with the professor.
- Student-student discussion Organize student groups to meet in class or out of class for discussion.
Understand what lectures
can and can't do
What a good lecture can
- Present information not
readily available in print
- Adapt material to the particular
backgrounds/interests of an audience
- Provide structure to help
students read or study better
- Stimulate interest in further
- Communicate instructor
- Model disciplinary thinking
Lectures are generally not
good at promoting:
- Transfer of knowledge to
- Higher-order or critical
- Long-term retention of
- Open-minded exploration
of controversial material
- Changes in attitudes
Other limitations to the
- Studies have shown that
most adults attention to a lecture bgegins to decline marketdly after
about 10-15 minutes.
- Students are passive during
a lecture; they may not engage with the material.
- Many students do not learn
best through listening.
For further reading:
Bonwell, Charles C. and James A. Eison. Active Learning: Creating
Excitement in the Classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports.
LB1027.23 .B66 1991
Sutherland, Tracey E. and Charles C. Bonwell. Using Active Learning
in College Classes: A Range of Options for Faculty. New Directions
for Teaching and Learning, no. 67, 1996.
LB1027.23 .U848 1996
Bligh, Donald A. Whats the Use of Lectures? 2000, Jossey-Bass.
LC 6515 .B55 1998