Active learning Strategies and Examples - Group Discussion and Brainstorming

Active Learning Strategies and Examples

Last post, we discussed what active learning is and some reasons why it is beneficial. Now, let’s dive into active learning strategies and examples for improvement in the classroom. In all probability, you are already are using some of them.  Active learning encompasses everything from pausing for reflection to experimental site visits. We begin by outlining strategies for how to incorporate active learning. Then we will discuss specific examples and map out their complexities.

Active Learning Strategies

Goal Orientation for Accuracy and Effectiveness

To ensure that your active learning is successful, start by asking yourself what students should learn that day? What are the salient concepts, words, and topics the student should walk away with? Once your objectives are clear, then consider where students might falter.

What are some common mistakes a student might make or ideas they may struggle with most? Is there a certain type of math problem that is particularly difficult?  Is there a technique in the laboratory that might cause issues?

Is there a way to practice these difficult ideas before the class, test or quiz? Is there an even more engaging way to carry out these ideas? Planning for and foreseeing complications is crucial to a successful active learning classroom. If you are jumping too soon into a game, students may be drilling in incorrect techniques.

Be excited about the concepts as much as the activity. If this happens, it is easier to get carried away. When you ask yourself these questions, it becomes easier to pick the activity. If you want students to learn about medical ethics (e.g. physician assisted suicide), a trivia style game may not be ideal. If you are drilling derivatives, a debate-style discussion may not be appropriate. Keeping in mind the goals and difficulties of the topic can highlight a choice of activity. This is the foremost of our Active Learning Strategies.

Communicate Objectives to the Students

Students want to know where class is headed and how they can stay on track. This doesn’t have to be long or drawn out. It can be as simple as saying “Today we are practicing derivatives. It’s simply a review day so you can be familiar with all the material. If you are still struggling with the derivatives covered in class today, you can come talk to me after.” This tells the students where they should be at at the beginning of class (familiar with all the material).  Then you tell them that by the end of class this is where you should be and if you’re not, what should they do.

For example, ‘Today we are covering photosynthesis in class. You may have never seen this before, so let me know if you have any questions or tell me if I’m going too fast. By the end of class, you should be able to complete the worksheet for homework. If not, you can work with each other or use your textbook or the internet to help you.’

Ensure your students are on task.

Especially today, students think and juggle 700 things at once. They may watch TV, eat dinner, do their homework and scroll through their phone. It all seems to happen at the same time and it is no surprise that students have a hard time focusing.

If you make the student accountable for their own work, they are more likely to do it. This doesn’t mean you have to grade everything they put their pencil on. If they are discussing in small groups, one student can share with the class what their group discussed.  Think about a reading quiz: you have to write, use class time to give, and then grade. Instead, ask a random student to summarize the reading from last night. This is much easier and less time consuming for you. It also encourages the students to actually invest thought into the reading. Students receive quizzes (and bad grades) almost everyday. Most students do not articulate their thoughts in front of their peers daily. It also becomes much harder for the student who didn’t do the reading to fake their way through it. Students tend to stay on task when the activity is short and the object clear. Something as simple as ‘discuss your thoughts’ can allow students to process the information they have been given. But when you give them a specific task or goal and even a period to do so, the effect is dramatic.

For example, consider the following instructions.

  1. Discuss photosynthesis with your partner.
  2. Walk through the important steps of photosynthesis (including both inputs and outputs of each) in 5 minutes.

The first discussion is somewhat lost on the student. It’s possible that they could just list the steps, out of order and then talk about whatever they want. The second has clear goals and a time. If the students need more time, feel free to give it to them. Keeping your students accountable and making sure they feel valued is critical to active learning models. Also be sure to include specific instructions to keep students on task.

Image from Pixabay

Concluding and Summarizing

Concluding the activity is vital to every classroom. Students may get excited  and forget the actual information they learned. A simple review for 5 minutes ensures that students process the information. Coming back to your objectives from the beginning of the activity is a great way to end the class well. For example: ‘I hope you all are comfortable with the derivatives we practiced today’. Telling students how they will use these skills practiced will help them understand why they are important. For example, you may finish a lab by saying the following. ‘Today, we used various techniques to mix solutions. We then observed what happened when we mixed them. Next week, you have a lab practical with the same solutions. You will need to identify them without being told what they are’. This makes the practice more real. It also allows the students to better review the material in preparation.

Consistency is Key

It is important to practice these ideas throughout the course. Students and teachers fall into a rhythm in the classroom. If you begin the semester with engaging thoughtful activities, students are likely to keep the energy up through the semester. If you try to introduce these techniques after week 5, students may not respond as well.

Be open to discussions and criticisms

Keep up a dialog with the students about the activity. You may hear that some students didn’t like the discussion questions. Or the material was not understood. They can tell you which concepts were confusing, or which activities were too long and too short. This feedback will let you know how to adjust the activities for a specific class and improve for next time.

Staging and Timing of Active Learning

There are two outlines to consider when adding active learning into your class. These can change as a result of the material, activities or students in the class. The first is when activities or discussion questions are mixed throughout the lecture. The other is when the teacher finishes the lecture first. Then active learning tasks take place.  e.g.: note taking, activities and discussion questions. An easily distracted class may benefit from engagement throughout the lecture. Another class may stray off topic and the teacher must lecture first to finish material on time. Some active learning activities need a lot of classroom time to finish. Both outlines have strong and weak points. It is up to the discretion of the teacher to weigh both against their lesson plan. But don’t be afraid to stretch your comfort zone because great things may await.

Active Learning Examples

Complexity Spectrum of Active Learning Activities

There is also an image of some activities compared to their complexity. This complexity is designed to engage students, not just be complex for the sake of complexity. Usually, the complexity also leads to a larger amount of class time usage.

Active Learning Activities

Listed below are some activities that are great to incorporate into the classroom:

Activity Description


This is great for reviewing before a test. Favorites include: Jeopardy (online sources allow you to create boards for free), ‘Pick a question out of a bag’, and others…

Clarification Pauses:  

This is a simple technique ensures students understand an important concept or term. This allows for the information to ‘sink in’ and also gives time to the student to ask questions. This is easy to incorporate and does not take up much class time.

Interactive Lectures:  

Having students interact with something discussed in lecture. For example in Geography or Earth Science may include rocks and minerals. As the teacher describes different rocks and minerals the students are holding them.  

Role Playing:  

Students act out different scenarios. This can demonstrate molecules, animals or chemical reactions  

Inquiry Learning:  

A teacher poses a concept and students do research to uncover the answer. An example would be a research paper.


Have students attempt to ‘predict’ things you will cover in class. (Example: What do you think some possible benefits of this adaptation are?)  

Jigsaw Discussion:  

A complex topic is divided into many sub-topics or facets and assigned to a puzzle piece.  Each student then receives a piece of the puzzle.  The student must become an expert in the topic. Each student must teach the class about their specific topic.  As the students educate the class, the topic will be thoroughly addressed.  

Writing Activities:  

At appropriate times in the lecture, it may be a good idea to ask students to engage in some writing. They could: list topics covered or grapple with a particularly complex theme.  

Self Assessment:  

An ungraded quiz provides students with feedback on their understanding of the unit. (Example: How well do you understand this topic? What steps would you take to complete this problem?) These can even be anonymous!  

Experimental or Site visits:  

For most STEM teachers, using experiments its obvious, but site visits are not so obvious. Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Engineering etc. teachers can easily put in place experiments. Some schools even require lab time in these courses. Site visits and field trips are also an exciting way to engage students at any age!  


Students debate two sides of an argument in class  

Group Evaluations:  

Have students evaluate other students for a group project or presentation  

Large/Small Group Discussion:  

These can help further thought on topics from class


Students will attack a problem or reflect on something from class. Then they will be paired up and discuss the problem together. Then they will come up with a synthesized answer to share with the class.  

Case Studies:  
Use real life examples to have students grapple with difficult topics  

Hands on Technology:  
This is especially useful for classrooms and labs with few resources. There are many online simulations to show tangible and intangible concepts. Some even have pre-made worksheets.  

Peer Evaluation:  

Students, on the day the assignment is due, will submit one copy to the teacher and another copy to a student in class. Students will then share their assessment of the others work.


Drafted by: Mackenzie Brandt ; Edited by Earl D’Souza

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