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A wealth of education literature suggests that using active learning techniques in class leads to more positive learning outcomes, including greater retention of course material, higher levels of student engagement, and increased opportunities for critical thinking. In spite of this evidence, some educators may be hesitant to include active learning techniques in their courses. Busyness, comfort with other models of teaching and learning, or negative experiences when first trying active learning are common reasons for not employing more active learning strategies. While there are many very simple active learning techniques that can be paired with any teaching model, overcoming negative experiences with active learning (either as a teacher or as a student) can be much more difficult. Below are five tips to keep in mind when using active learning to avoid common mistakes and to produce more positive experiences:

  • Match active learning with your class goals. Active learning works best when you have a reason for doing it, and not just for the sake of doing it or filling class time. Consider how active learning fits into the broader picture of your class: are you asking students to recall class material, learn to solve problems, apply the material to real-world problems, or reflect on their learning? Is there a certain point you want to emphasize through the activity, do you want every student to speak, or are students practicing working in groups? You may also consider briefly explaining why you are doing an activity to increase motivation.
  • Explain ahead of time and give clear directions. As with any teaching activity, active learning is only useful when students know exactly what they are supposed to be doing. If directions are not clear, participants will get off-topic much easier and the leader will receive less buy-in to the activity. If the activity is complex (or even if it is not), try writing directions on the board, displaying them on the screen, or putting them into a handout.
  • Don’t make activities too easy or too hard. This takes time to figure out. Avoid packing too much into a single learning exercise, but make sure that you are not giving students five minutes to do a one minute activity. Many of the best active learning strategies challenge students to work on a single question or topic. Monitor the activity by walking around the room and gauging students’ completion. If the goal is not completing an assignment, many active learning exercises do not require you to wait for all students to finish; otherwise students who complete the work early will likely tune out as others wrap up.
  • Hold students accountable. To make sure students consistently stay on task throughout the semester, consider collecting students’ writing or discussing the activity with the full group. It is important to reinforce that everyone should participate in the activities, and calling on students or asking each group to share is one way to keep students focused on learning. Active learning techniques can be used to evaluate participation or informally evaluate student learning.
  • Use a variety of techniques. Some active learning techniques work better than others in a given class. If one technique doesn’t seem to work, try something else! If you are unsure about whether students are learning what they need to from the activity, follow up with them to see. There are hundreds of different active learning techniques, so find the ones that work best for you.

It’s easy to get discouraged when trying or experiencing new teaching techniques. If your first attempt doesn’t go well, perhaps the activity just needs to be tweaked, or maybe a different type of active learning is more appropriate. Either way, don’t give up! If you want to incorporate active learning and need a place to start, start small. One technique in one class. Research shows that using short active learning activities every 15 minutes leads to more learning, even simple tasks such as having students compare notes or discussing a single discussion question. So if at first you don’t succeed, as the old adage suggests, try and try again.

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