Feed on

*Today’s post comes from “Tomorrow’s Professor”. This post is written by Linda C. Hodges,University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 28, Number 1, December 2018*

As we design active learning experiences or flipped classes, it’s easy to focus primarily on choosing appropriate preparatory assignments and creating worthwhile in-class learning activities. These aspects are, in a sense, the first and second acts of a three-part performance of instruction. What we sometimes emphasizes is how to make sure that students come away from each session having achieved our goals for their learning—and realizing that they have. This finale is known as the denouement in performance, and just as it is critical for our understanding of a complex play, it is also essential for helping our students make meaning out of the chaos of an active learning experience.

Strategies to Help Students Recognize What and How They Learned

One obvious way to emphasize what students should take away from class is for the instructor to review and summarize at the end. Letting the students take charge of this last act in the session can provide a potent reminder of their own power as learners. When doing so, instructors may choose whether the form of abstraction is individual or group-based. When using groups in large classes, debriefs can often be aided by various technologies.

The strategies below can each be adapted to focus more on individual or on group engagement.

  • Pre-/post-quizzes. In this approach, faculty ask students several questions on that day’s topics at the beginning of class, and students answer using personal response systems, polling software, or low-tech color-coded cards. Students are then asked the same questions at the end. Inevitably, students perform better on the post-quiz, thus explicitly demonstrating learning. Technology options allow for students to answer these quizzes either by choosing letters or entering words. If students enter words, some systems can generate a word cloud. Comparing beginning and ending clouds creates a strong visual image of how students’ thoughts have changed as a result of the session. Pre-/post-quiz strategies engage students individually, yet allow them to see group results.
  • Summarizing/debriefs. Just as in a traditional lecture, summarizing the day’s takeaways is important in consolidating learning at the end of an active learning session.In small classes, we can simply ask students to volunteer ideas that we then capture on the board or via the presentation software. We can engage more students, however, by requiring them to do this in groups. Students can record their thoughts on portable or individual whiteboards or flip chart paper, or via various engagement technologies that gather and project student group responses.
  • Reflection exercises. Depending on the topic of the day’s session, what may be as important as content for students to come away with is a sense of self-knowledge. This observation is especially true if one of our course goals is to promote students’ abilities to self-regulate. The classic one- minute or muddiest point paper can be made communal through group response using any of the methods noted earlier. These exercises ask students to assess their learning progress in the moment. We can also adapt the Critical Incident Questionnaire to be a session-ending reflection, asking students when during class they were most or least engaged (Brookfield, 1995), raising students’ awareness of their own waxing or waning attention during class activities.


Class time is a precious commodity, and as instructors we are often hesitant to take time to teach learning processes. We know, however, that many of our learners today are not familiar with the mental gymnastics required for deep learning. Framing our class sessions to explicitly model the key stages of learning (i.e., planning, practicing, monitoring, and reflecting) can cultivate students’ abilities to internalize these processes as they head off to work on their own.

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