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15 active learning activities to energize your next college class

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on August 22, 2018
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active learning activities

The evidence just keeps growing – postsecondary students engage more, learn more and accomplish more with active learning. In yet another proof point, a meta-analysis from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that student exam scores improved 6% when active learning approaches were used. And students in traditional classes were 1.5 times more likely to fail than those being taught with interactive methods.

Are you ready to shift to a different way of teaching but need some ideas to get you started? Or maybe you’ve been running your courses this way for years but want new activities for your toolkit. Whether you’re teaching your first section or your hundredth, here are 15 active learning activities to try with your students this semester.


1. Think-pair-repair

In this twist on think-pair-share, pose an open-ended question to your class and ask students to come up with their best answer. Next, pair learners up and get them to agree on a response. Get two pairs together, and the foursome needs to do the same thing. Continue until half the group goes head to head with the other half.

2. Improv games

If your classroom is museum-level quiet no matter how you try to liven things up, try some low-stakes (read: not embarrassing) improv activities. In the three things in common game, pairs figure out the most unexpected things they share. Or challenge your students to count to 20 as a group with one person saying each number – but no one is assigned a number, and if two people talk at the same time, everyone starts again at 1.

3. Brainwriting

You’ve probably tried brainstorming, but have you triedbrainwriting? In this approach, students begin by coming up with their own ideas, either on paper or using visual collaboration software. Building in time for individual reflection leads to better ideas and less groupthink.

Download our free eBook to get practical checklists, handy guides and other  resources to help you create amazing active learning spaces on your campus.

4. Jigsaw

Help students build accountability by teaching each other. Start by dividing them into “home groups” (4 or 5 people works well). Assign each person in the group a different topic to explore – they’ll regroup to work with all the students from the other groups who are exploring the same idea. Once they’ve mastered the concept, students return to their home group and everyone shares newfound expertise.

concept mapping

5. Concept mapping

Use your walls or displays to visually organize ideas. Collaborative concept mapping is a great way for students to step away from their individual perspectives. Groups can do this to review previous work, or it can help them map ideas for projects and assignments.

6. The one-minute paper

How much could you explain in one minute? At the end of class, set a timer and ask students to write down their most eye-opening revelation or biggest question. This activity lets students reflect on learning and build writing skills – plus you’ll get a window into their understandings and misunderstandings. Here are more prompts you can use to get students writing.

7. Real-time reactions

When students are watching a video, a mini lecture or another student’s presentation, have them share their real-time reactions. This helps students spot trends and consider new points of view. You can set up a hashtag to allow for live tweeting, or use cloud-based collaboration software displayed at the front of the room to get the same effect with none of the distractions.

8. Chain notes

Write several questions on pieces of paper and pass each to a student. The first student adds a response (use a timer to keep things moving quickly) and then passes the page along to gather more responses. Multiple contributions help build more complete understanding. A digital alternative involves using apps to share responses both simultaneously and anonymously (QuickShare in Span™ Workspace works great for this). Then your class can examine the responses and identify patterns and missing pieces.

idea line up

9. Idea line up

Choose a question that has a range of responses, and then ask students where they stand – literally. Have them come to the front of the classroom and organize themselves in a line, based on where on the spectrum of answers they find themselves.

10. Mystery quotation

Test how well students can apply their understanding of an issue or theoretical position. After they’ve explored a topic, show them a quotation about it they’ve never seen before. Their task is to figure out the point of view of the person behind the quotation – and justify it to the class. Students can debate this issue in small groups before beginning a whole-class discussion.

11. Idea speed dating

Have students cycle through your space, sharing insights about a topic or their elevator pitch for an upcoming project. As they present their learnings multiple times on several “speed dates,” students’ presentation skills and perspectives will grow.

12. Peer review

The process of peer review is as old as academia, and it’s never too early to start. Have students swap drafts of their essays, proposals or lab reports, and then come up with comments and questions for each other. Make sure to be clear about what the goals are (using rubrics helps). For example, students could identify compelling arguments, unanswered questions and holes in logic.


13. Quescussion

Ever played Jeopardy? Then you’re ready for quescussion. It’s like a standard class discussion but only questions are allowed (students call “Statement!” if someone slips up). If you play this game at the beginning of the course, the questions can help shape your course. Make sure to write them down – if you’re using Span Workspace, students can contribute right from their devices.

14. Sketchnoting

Instead of taking traditional lecture notes, try getting your students to sketch a picture that represents what they’ve learned during class. Remember, it’s not about the quality of the art – it’s about how drawing prompts students to visualize their understanding and look at their learning from a different perspective.

15. Empathy mapping

Take a page from the designers’ handbook and get students to explore deeper by embracing a perspective. It’s deceptively simple – write down what a person says, thinks, does and feels. The ability to slow down and immerse yourself in another point of view is valuable. In design thinking, empathy maps help designers create better products for users. But this process can be just as valuable for analyzing characters from literature, historical figures or political stances.

Let’s keep adding to this list. What are your favorite active learning activities?

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Are you developing innovative new spaces for students, or do your current active learning classrooms need a refresh? In this eBook, you’ll find practical checklists, handy guides and other resources to help create amazing active learning spaces on your campus.

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Topics: Active Learning