Guide To Teaching and Learning

Active Learning Strategies

The approaches below can be used in both online and onsite classes and are readily adaptable to different content.

Cooperative learning strategies

These are techniques that get students working with each other and helping each other learn. Below are activities that you may already do under a different name (or no name at all). Examples include:

  • Think-Pair-Share: Students are posed a question, given ‘think time’ and encouraged to write their thoughts, partner with another student to solve the problem or discuss the issue and then share their ideas with the rest of the class. This can be done both in real time (Zoom breakouts) and independently/asynchronously via discussion board.
  • Sticky Note Storm: Students working in small groups are posed a question, then asked to write their responses, one per sticky note, which they stick in the ‘center of the table’ or on a ‘wall’, then review each other’s ideas. Mural is a handy application for this activity in real time.
  • Sage and Scribe: One student is the ‘teacher’, that is, the sage, and one student is a note taker, that is, the scribe; the sage responds to the prompt and the scribe records it, then they switch roles. Having to teach something to someone else is a great way to reinforce learning, and the scribe should try to do the note-taking by hand, not computer, to deepen listening and understanding.
  • Reciprocal Teaching: Student pairs share their understanding of a particular text or concept and ask each other questions allowing students to clarify, question, predict and summarize.
  • Group or Team-Based Learning:  Instructors may assign roles, such as group leader, recorder, reporter, and skeptic to help guide the group effectively. Designating a skeptic encourages students to take a position with which they may personally disagree and argue against a point, regardless of how they actually feel about it.  This article on making small groups effective offers strategies for small group learning.

Problem-Based Learning

This is an approach that starts with a “wicked” problem rather than introducing content and then asking students to apply their new knowledge to a problem. Central to problem-based learning (PBL) is that authentic, real world problems are addressed; these are often unclear, unstructured and might have an ethical or moral component; intentionally not like a typical in-class exercise.  Questions raised should be ones that are “alive” in the field (people ask and argue about them outside of school).  Students identify content needed to approach the problem and work toward a solution. The instructor is a facilitator and mentor to the students rather than a ‘teacher’.

Short handout with additional information

Guided inquiry (or discovery) approaches to learning

The instructor constructs exercises, experiences and opportunities that allow students to learn through an evolving and iterative process to discover for themselves rather than simply to be told. They are focused on the experience of the students rather than how the instructor imparts information and help students develop a deeper understanding of the content than through memorization or rote learning. The approaches were first developed in the sciences when professors discovered that students could do well on tests without any real understanding of the underlying concepts. They aim for deep learning. In general, they require foundational knowledge and skills which the faculty member may need to build into the course. Approaches can include role-play, scenarios, experiments, problem-solving and applied research and often are team-based. For further information and suggestions: Using Classroom Assessment and Cognitive Scaffolding to Enhance the Power of Small Group Learning.

Role Play

This is a powerful exercise and promotes empathy and diversity of thought. It allows students to embody issues, ideas, concepts or characters. It also encourages students to take a position with which they may personally disagree by playing the role of a historical, artistic or literary figure whose work they may dislike or with whose ideology they disagree.

Writing to learn

Encourage writing activities that help students think through concepts and develop deeper understanding. Different from writing to communicate, writing to learn is a tool for discovering, shaping meaning and building understanding. Techniques include: focused questioning (ask them to write about where they got stuck); journaling; scenarios in which they are asked to take on a particular role (see also: role play); assignment paraphrase; ‘believing and doubting,’ in which students are asked to write in support of a concept and then in opposition. Such exercises are usually limited to a short period of time, e.g. five minutes.

Drawing to learn

As many faculty know, drawing is a powerful tool for thinking and communicating, unlocking ideas and promoting understanding. It draws in non-linear thinkers and challenges linear thinkers to see concepts in new ways. Drawing to learn can include mind mapping for synthesizing resources, understanding relations among ideas, brainstorming and problem solving.

Moving to learn

There is a growing body of thought that movement facilitates learning. Certainly movement is essential for developing certain skills such as sewing, playing the violin, acting and dancing. But movement can also benefit learning in disciplines that might be thought of as strictly ‘cerebral’. Ask students to ‘dance’ a poem and watch what happens!

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