Cultivating Active Learning

view of an active class in progress

Although it may seem counterintuitive–and also counter to conventional modes of instruction in which a teacher imparts information directly to students–educational research and cognitive science strongly suggest that transmission of information intact from one person to another is highly unlikely. We all construct knowledge on our own, sifting what we hear through our own beliefs and our prior knowledge and experience. We fit any new ideas into existing frameworks of understanding, however naïve or limited they may be, and reject what doesn’t fit or doesn’t interest us.

There’s no way around it, “deep learning”—learning for understanding, applying new knowledge, and integrating new ideas—is hard work. As teachers, our greatest talent may be in guiding students into doing that work. Whether you’re teaching a large lecture or a small seminar, there are strategies you can employ to help students engage more deeply with the ideas you’re presenting or discussing.


Active Learning

Encouraging Active Learning

  • Find out what students already know, or think they know, and build on it. As you begin a new topic, poll student ideas, or ask them to write short summaries of concepts. If you uncover student misperceptions or naïve beliefs, take the time to pose a question that makes them reflect on the issue from another angle, or give them additional information that won’t fit within their prior frameworks. Have them talk through these new conceptions in class with a neighbor or in a small group.
  • Assign and collect a “one-minute paper” at the end of class. Ask students to write down an idea they learned or a point of confusion they still have from the day’s class, on an index card or in an assignment on Canvas. Many faculty find this strategy useful for uncovering student misperceptions or points in the lecture that still aren’t clear. But it also provides an opportunity for students to retrieve information on the spot, a task that aids in long-term memory. And it provides you with potential topics for small group discussion.  
  • Assign a brief writing exercise at the start of class. A writing exercise that asks students to analyze course material can prepare them to discuss it with greater depth or insight.  
  • Solicit real-world applications from your students for the theorems or problems in lecture or discussion. Or ask students to draw connections between a problem in class and one addressed earlier in the semester.
  • Begin a problem on the chalkboard and ask students to work on it independently before calling for their suggestions on how to solve it.
  • Begin class by asking one or more students to summarize what they learned in the previous one. Or midway through class, ask a student to summarize what’s been addressed in lecture or discussed so far.
  • Pause during lecture or discussion and let your students catch up in their notes or thinking, encouraging them to review their notes and underline central ideas. 
  • Prompt your students repeatedly in lecture, discussion, or homework assignments to take an active role in their learning by asking certain questions, observing certain phenomena, or engaging more generally in critical inquiry in the discipline.
  • Consider using active learning technological tools or spaces on campus, as they support your course goals. For some suggestions, see our introduction to Active Learning at Princeton and our Best Practices Guides to teaching with Canvas. For a list of tools that integrate with Canvas, many of which support active learning, see our Teaching Tools Overview.
Motivating Active Reading
  • Make it relevant. Explain why you have selected a particular reading. How is it related to the overall course goals, to the other texts on the syllabus, and to the students' development?
  • Make it personal. Guide students to ask questions before reading that will help them connect what they read to prior knowledge. What do they already know about the topic? Pre-reading questions can also make students aware of their personal motivation to do the work. What is interesting about this topic? How is this topic relevant to their lives?
  • Make it interesting. Engage students with the reading before they even start. You might pose questions that the reading addresses or problems that the reading provides insight into. One good strategy is to hand out a series of questions on an upcoming topic and make students aware of what they do not yet know. You can also have students write or talk about a topic in class, with the promise that the reading will give them even further insight.
  • Make it required. One of the best ways to help students keep up with the reading and learn from it is to ask them to do something in addition to reading. For example, you could require students to keep reading logs or journals in which they write weekly. You might ask students to: summarize key concepts, pose provocative questions, evaluate arguments, or synthesize the main points of a text. You might ask them to explicate and respond to a particularly striking quotation. The reading and writing task should be tailored to your primary course goals.
  • Make it public. You might ask students to take turns introducing the days' readings to the class. They can use their five minute introductions to provide context or to engage the text itself through summary, application, analysis, synthesis or evaluation.
  • Make it social. Encourage students’ active reading of assigned material through social annotation (with tools such as Hypothesis and Perusall), and begin your next class with key questions or interesting discussion threads that they introduced. For more on social annotation, please see our Social Annotations Best Practices page. 

During a Lecture

During a Lecture

Students learn more when they are active, which presents a challenge when you are delivering a lecture. Below we offer various strategies and suggestions to help you retain (or regain) students’ attention and active engagement in lecture. See also our best practices page on teaching Large Courses using Canvas. 

  • Have your learning objectives in mind as you plan the lecture. What will you expect students to know, understand, or be able to do by the end of the lecture? Be sure these align to your overall learning goals for the course.
  • Be clear about how the material in the lecture fits in with that of other lectures and the course as a whole.
  • Be sure you can be seen and heard by all students. Repeat students' questions and comments so that everyone in the room can hear them or use a throwable mic (available from McGraw's Digital Learning Lab.)
  • Call attention to how you expect students will take notes during class. For example, you might provide an outline of the lecture so that students can see the organizational structure but also focus on filling in details and making connections in class.
  • Structure your lecture in segments, being intentional about what you want to accomplish in each. For example, in a fifty minute lecture, you might vary your delivery method, include an application exercise, or pause for questions every fifteen minutes, leaving time for introductions and conclusions.
  • Provide periodic summaries and give students time to process information and ideas.
  • Punctuate the lecture with questions and poll students to find out their answers. Digital tools such as iClicker Cloud or Mentimeter allow students to anonymously respond to polls in real time and see the aggregated results. If time allows, ask students to briefly explain to a partner why they responded in the way that they did: having them articulate their understanding will further solidify learning. 
  • Enlist the help of a digital Q&A board such as EdDiscussion to solicit students’ questions in real time; you might ask an AI to monitor the board and raise questions at appropriate times during the lecture.
  • Use visual materials like maps or tables of data to demonstrate how to pose a question or identify a problem.
  • Share your thought process. When you are making a particularly demanding observation or drawing a conclusion based on evidence, pause and share with your students what they should be asking themselves, how they should be processing or even arguing with this information. Ask rhetorical questions such as, “How can I make a claim like that?” “Where could I find conflicting ideas about this topic?” “What’s another way to make this argument/test this hypothesis?” 
  • Be clear about the relationship between the readings and your lectures. For example, you might make specific reference to the readings in lecture, clarifying their relevance or importance.
  • Distribute handouts with passages for students to analyze or problems for them to solve.
  • Avoid reading from notes or from your slide deck.
  • In whatever ways work for you, try to engage with your students while speaking, for instance, by making eye contact, moving around the room, choosing vivid language, or using humor.
  • Sharing personal examples or examples that relate to students’ lives can help to connect them to you and to the content being discussed.
  • Avoid the tendency to speed through material at the end of the lecture. Build in time for a proper wrap-up and encourage students to reflect on the material learned.
  • Invite AIs or other guest lecturers to make short presentations on their areas of expertise.

Flipped Classroom

Flipped Classroom

Increasingly, instructors are embracing the flipped classroom as a way to encourage active learning and engagement with class material. Typically, in a flipped classroom, students engage with the course content outside of class (often in recorded lectures or lecture segments) and then do activities during class, often with their peers. The McGraw Center can work with you to record video content, but you can also create your own using any number of simple tools such as Zoom or Panopto. (For support from the McGraw Center, please reach out to Mona Fixdal, Senior Associate Director.) You can flip the classroom for some or all of your lectures–you need not shift your approach for the whole semester. The primary learning goal of a flipped classroom is to encourage active learning and peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration. In what follows, we offer some suggestions for structuring a flipped classroom, both in terms of planning activities during class and creating the material with which students will engage outside of class.

Structuring learning outside of class

Online course environments offer students much more than videos of your lectures. A number of interactive online tools give students ways to process new material as they encounter it, which can deepen their learning, provide you and them with feedback on their understanding, and help you plan for in-class activities. These strategies for making the most of the online setting can ensure that your students’ engagement with online material is intentional and learning-centered:

  • Rather than flipping the lectures for the entire semester, many faculty begin flipping classes by strategically selecting a few lectures to record and put online. For example, you might choose to record lectures containing especially challenging or abstract material. The video playback feature allows students to repeat sections of the lecture as necessary and you can use in-class time to help students grapple with the difficult material.
  • When designing your online content, break your original classroom lectures into short video segments. Many instructors use a range from 8-12 minutes. This segmentation allows students to refresh their attention and actively process new material as they encounter it. Organize the segments according to the concepts they should learn or be able to apply from each one. 
  • Encourage student interaction with the material. A common misconception about flipped classes is that the online setting is defined by the video content and passive viewing. Consequently, the classroom is seen as the only site of active engagement. Students can engage with online content more strategically and actively than they might during a live lecture by adaptively pausing, rewinding, or changing the speed of the video. In addition to video viewing, the online work can include related quiz questions or a variety of brief low stakes problems or writing assignments that enhance understanding of the video content and give students real-time feedback. Canvas hosts a wide range of digital tools that allow students to manipulate course material and undertake creative work and collaborations. See our Best Practices Guide for more information.
  • Encourage student interaction with each other. Another misconception about flipped classes is that the online environment is for individual student activity, whereas the classroom is the social setting. Some faculty have extended their structured group activities in the classroom into the online environment. Their Canvas sites are designed to promote interaction through discussion forums, galleries of student work, collaborative projects, and peer evaluation and commentary. These forms of interaction amplify students’ interest in the material and promote their enthusiasm for their roles as active learners. 
  • Make it inclusive. Consider your course site as part of your strategy for inclusive teaching, where your students can become more familiar with each other. Online settings offer some students a more comfortable environment than the classroom for participation or risk-taking. By combining online and classroom activities, you can create a learning environment that broadens the sense of belonging in their academic community. 
  • Make it accessible. In addition to strengthening a feeling of belonging, recorded lectures can offer accessibility options, such as the chance to view the material repeated times and the option of closed captions. We encourage you to record in or import your material to Panopto, which integrates with Zoom and Canvas, includes automatic captioning, and prevents students from downloading the material. For more on accessibility and course content, see Make your Course Accessible.

Structuring learning during class

The effective flipped classroom applies and extends the work students do out of class to promote more extensive and complex learning. This can entail a wide range of problem-solving, discussion, and creative activities that students engage either with peers or on their own to integrate and process the material. Feel free to be imaginative in planning these activities. Here we offer a few general guidelines for effectively structuring individual, paired, or small group in-class activities:

  • Decide on the structure of the task: Is it best suited to individual, group, or collective work? It may also move between all three. For instance, Eric Mazur describes his use of “clickers” to post multiple choice questions to the whole class: he asks each student to respond individually, breaks the students into groups to discuss, and then asks students again to respond on their own. 
  • Clearly define the task. What is the specific question or problem the students are to answer and how does it extend and deepen the learning they did prior to class? What form will their work take (e.g. a list, sentence, short letter, diagram, solution)? Feel free to think outside the box as you consider options for in-class activities, consulting our section on active learning.
  • Define the process for completing the task and describe the steps students should take in their work. Suggest a division of labor for group work if appropriate. Should they appoint a speaker, artist, or note-taker? Indicate the amount of time you are allowing for the activity so that students finish their work on time. See our section on collaborative learning for more information on structuring and evaluating group work.
  • If possible, circulate around the classroom if you are asking students to work individually or in groups, so that you can help them use their time most effectively, answer any questions, and challenge and extend their thinking.
  • Plan in advance how you will debrief when the group or individual work is finished. Asking groups to reiterate their conversations may not be the most effective use of class time. To make this moment useful, plan specific questions for students to answer about their work and the process of collaborating. Or allow student groups to ask each other their focused questions about the outcomes of each other’s work. Think about how they might continue these activities online.

Finally, students may not immediately see the value of active learning in the flipped classroom. Students may assert that their professors are supposed to be teaching them–that they should not be expected to learn on their own or be taught by peers. When students raise these concerns, you might remind them that studies show we learn best and most deeply through actively engaging with the material ourselves.


Leading Discussions

Leading Seminar Discussions

Anyone who has led discussions understands their unpredictable nature. Preparing for discussion does not limit this unpredictability but ensures that the conversation is as open-ended and self-critical as possible. Think of the following as a set of strategies to help foster dialogue in both seminars and precepts and further discussion's many aims: to improve students' active listening, analytical thinking, and public speaking skills; to encourage intellectual collaboration and mutual critique; and to highlight the complexity of course themes and issues.

Setting the Scene

  • Be enthusiastic from the start. Introduce yourself and explain your interests in the course material and methodology. Ask students to do the same.
  • Allow class members to learn something about one another. Students who feel a sense of community also feel a greater responsibility to the work of the class.
  • Rearrange the classroom seating. Ask students to sit in a semicircle; seat yourself on the side of a seminar table rather than at its head. Try changing your position during the semester to shake up established speaking patterns.
  • Recognize the tension between sharing authority in the classroom and establishing a presence in it. Don’t feel that you need to respond to every student’s comment, for instance: the goal is to encourage them to speak to each other. Rather, offer an encouraging presence and supportive facilitation, encouraging students to make productive comments and ask questions.  
  • Establish discussion expectations. Consider whether you want to have a preliminary conversation about what to expect in class and in discussions: this could include formalizing a community contract as a class, or simply sharing with students in advance what your expectations are for respectful dialogue. For further suggestions and some guidelines on creating a community contract, please see our resource Discussion Guidelines

Getting–and Keeping–Things Going

  • Generate a repertoire of carefully phrased questions. Avoid using ambiguous or "closed" questions (yes/no questions, questions with only one answer, leading questions); instead, pose questions that require students to draw conclusions from the readings, find evidence for their claims, consider the implications of an argument, synthesize seemingly disparate material, and make critical judgments. Make sure to provide enough time (between 10-30 seconds) for students to respond. You may want to refine or refocus your query after the initial response to deepen and enrich that response.
  • Invite students to generate discussion themes and topics. Ask students to post thought questions about the week's reading to a Canvas discussion board and to use them to initiate conversation. For suggestions for using an online discussion board, see our Best Practices for Asynchronous Discussion Forums.
  • Resist the urge to respond to every student comment. Instead, redirect comments and questions back to the group, encouraging students to elaborate on or respectfully disagree with one another's ideas. Make an effort to learn and use students’ names, and personalize the ideas and analysis offered in the discussion ("Jaime's made a terrific point. What do others think?").
  • Assign in-class writing. Asking students to write for a few minutes on a question or problem can generate more considered responses and stimulate more thoughtful discussions.
  • Experiment with dividing students into pairs or small groups. Make sure to direct them to a specific issue to grapple with and report on. Students are often more comfortable speaking to a few classmates than to the entire class; after working in groups, they may find it easier to participate in general discussions.
  • Disagreements happen: it can be helpful to think in advance about how you will handle any disagreements that come up, whether it is giving students a minute to write and reflect on their own, or taking a pause in class and resuming once things are calmer.

Finishing Up, Reflecting Back

  • Summarize, or ask one or two students to summarize, the most important discussion points at the end of class. Alternately, ask students to articulate unanswered questions that the discussion has raised, stressing that intellectual inquiry is ongoing.
  • Solicit feedback about the success of the discussion methods and pedagogical techniques you use. For example, you might try using mid-semester evaluations.

Encouraging Reflection

Encouraging Reflection

You’ve spent over three months thinking and discussing, reading and problem-solving with your class. What did it all add up to? As the semester winds down, consider giving your students opportunities to reflect on that question. What have they learned from the class and how have they developed? You can structure these opportunities so that students solidify or deepen their knowledge, synthesize course concepts, apply them in new contexts, and become more aware of their own intellectual processes and development. Exercises in reflection can also help you assess the impact of your teaching and can prime students to write more substantive evaluations about how the course promoted their learning and growth.

Below you will find some assignments and exercises that ask students to reflect on their learning. Most of these suggestions can work with a variety of formats: having students write, discuss in pairs, discuss in small groups, or discuss with the entire class or precept. In addition, you can add custom questions to your final course evaluations (the responses to which only you can see).

  • Ask your students how their thinking about a course topic has deepened or changed this semester.
  • Distribute the outline of your syllabus, including only weekly topics and readings. Have students annotate the syllabus, noting the knowledge or concepts that they most remember for each week.
  • Ask your students to describe an impact of the class that you and the rest of the class are unlikely to know about. Did any of the course concepts influence a conversation outside of class? Were any ideas or skills learned in class applied in another academic context? Or in a non-academic context?
  • Give your students an opportunity to reflect on how coursework prepared them for their final scholarly project for the semester. For example, Professors Bill Gleason and William Howarth have asked students which approaches or methodologies from the course (readings, lectures, labs, etc.) were most pertinent or useful in conceptualizing and completing a final project. Why? How?
  • Give students up to ten minutes to write down the three most important ideas or concepts learned or skills developed. Let a few volunteers share their lists or give everyone a chance to pick one of their three items and explain it to the class. As James Lang put it in an essay in the Chronicle, “The more people you can get to contribute, and the more varied the answers, the more students will begin to see how much they have learned.”
  • Give students an opportunity to articulate how newly acquired skills or knowledge might help them in future classes, professional, civic, or personal life. You might simply ask “How might your learning from this class prove relevant for the future?” A more substantive assignment would ask them to take some course learning and apply it to a new context. 
  • At the start of the semester, you might begin with an exercise that can be used for reflection at term’s end. On the first day, have students write down what they expect or hope to learn. Collect their responses so that you can return them in one of the final classes. Ask students to reflect on whether the class fulfilled their hopes or whether they learned something they value, but did not anticipate.
Cultivating Complexity, Plurality, and Uncertainty

Professors are what Wilbert J. McKeachie terms “scholars in action,” routinely demonstrating complexity in lectures and discussions, but how can we teach students to carry out inquiries for which there may not be a straightforward answer? When William Perry studied Harvard undergraduates more than thirty years ago, he observed nine approaches to learning that may be condensed as:

  • Dualism–students exhibit a right/wrong approach to knowledge. They view their own role as receivers of knowledge who must repeat it back correctly.
  • Multiplicity–students begin to grasp uncertainties and recognize that some important questions do not have clear right or wrong answers. Students may think that all views are equally valid and are confused by instructors’ criticism of their work. They respond by parroting what they perceive is correct without full understanding or conviction. 
  • Commitment–students come to see knowledge as a constructed process and decisions as contextual. Seeing their professors as disciplinary experts and as models, students begin to make choices based on reliable information and draw conclusions based on appropriate evidence and analytic frames.

Perry showed that students move from seeing themselves as recipients of knowledge who must correctly repeat a stable set of facts and ideas to being active thinkers who can select among competing frames of analysis to interpret evidence and reach conclusions. He also showed that students might exhibit different levels at the same time depending on the course material and the various stresses of coping with certain ideas or course requirements. 

To address the ways that students process knowledge in fields that are new to them, faculty may find it helpful to order their course narratives and deliberately direct assignments toward these moments in the learning process. We also suggest the following:

  • Provide examples, both historical and current, in which the knowledge of your field transforms as ideas emerge in new historical contexts.
  • By making explicit comparisons of theories and criteria for "best" theories in your field, delineate the limits of your field, the values inherent in the practice of your field, and the consequences that follow from applying them.
  • Show how your decisions about complex issues are based on careful analyses of information and grounded in your own set of values.
  • Engage students, even in large classes, by enabling them to actively participate in the knowledge-making process. Build in time for students to think or reflect independently in the class by assigning a one-minute paper during or at the end of the lecture in which students identify a question or work on a problem the lecture has raised.
  • Guide them in revealing their frames of analysis and showing how specific facts become available, more significant, or desirable, depending on these contextual frames. Ask them to deduce what theoretical connections or arguments cannot be supported within these frameworks.
  • Use pedagogical strategies that allow students to rehearse or practice deliberating important ideas through writing, speaking, discussing and reviewing, and doing the work of your discipline.
  • Allow students opportunities to engage in structured small group discussions to practice and reflect on critical thinking skills.




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