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Great Active Learning Strategies

By Jeri Asaro

Looking for great ideas to make your classroom more student-centered? Below are a series of fantastic ideas from Inspiring Teachers columnist Jeri Asaro for you to add to your tool box of classroom activities. Each of these can be done prior to a reading assignment or lecture/mini-lesson within your classroom. Instead of assigning a list of questions along with a textbook reading for homework, try some of these activities instead. You will encourage your students to utilize higher thinking skills outside of the classroom.
  • Take a Guess Before your lecture, have your learners pair up (triads are okay, too). With their partners, have the students create a list of three to six important facts about the topic which they think you will discuss in your lecture. You can either have them speak those facts aloud before your lecture, or have each student make a list. As you are lecturing, and you cover a fact they thought you might mention, they circle the items. This step allows the learners to focus their minds on what they already know and prepares them for what they are about to learn.

  • Let's Cheat Before your lecture begins, give each student a worksheet that lists about twelve questions which pertain to your presentation. Make the questions a mix of difficult and easy. Direct them to walk around the room and ask other people what they think are the answers to the questions and have them write down the answers they think are most likely. This worksheet can be used as an easy assessment tool. This idea could also be a fill-in-the-blank activity instead of questions. Learners try to fill in the missing words in advance of the lecture. One other similar idea is to create this worksheet based on a course text or hand-out material. Give students and opportunity to briefly work together in advance to answer the questions. They confirm their answers while listening to your lecture.

  • Three/Four Columns Before beginning your lecture, tell your learners to fold a piece of blank paper into three/four equal columns. At the top of each column, have them draw the following pictures (small): A book: for important facts; A light bulb: for new ideas or "aha" moments; A question mark for any questions they have during the lecture; (optional) A running stick figure for action plans. At different times during your lecture, stop and tell the students to write a word or phrase in the column or columns. Initially, you can guide this activity by saying, "In the book column, write down one important fact you just learned." Later on, students can share what they wrote with other students. An advanced organizer like this one gives students a reason to pay attention.

  • Index Cards Using the same idea as three/four columns, students use index cards writing important facts, words, points, or questions on each card one item per card. After the presentation, students can review their cards in groups, and exchange questions and answers.

  • Pass it! After about 10-minutes of lecture, have students write down a question or a fact they just learned on an index card. Give a few minutes so students can process the information you just said. Have students pass the cards around so they are "shuffled" in the room. Using Popsicle sticks with student names randomly choose a student to share what is on the index card in front of them. Facilitate an answer to the question or have students offer more information about the fact, etc. You can also do this activity by only asking for questions and collect the cards during a break. Skim the cards and address with common questions after the break is complete.

  • Tie a Yellow Ribbon This idea works well up to about sixth grade. Give each student a piece of yellow (or any ribbon) about eight inches in length. As you cover an important point, tell the learners to tie a knot in the ribbon and repeat that important point aloud with you. Then, have them turn to a person sitting next to them and repeat the information a second time. Small post-it notes could be used for older students. Teaching moments that involve steps, like in a math class, can really take advantage of this idea. I have personally used it with the eight parts of speech. The kids really learn the definitions using this strategy.

  • Reading Quiz - Clearly, this is one way to coerce students to read assigned material! Active learning depends upon students coming to class prepared or reading the material you assign in the class period. The reading quiz can be done like a game, and can also be used as an effective measure of student comprehension of the readings. Quiz before discussion. Also, by asking the same types of questions on several reading quizzes, you will give students guidance as to what to look for when reading assigned text. If your goal is to instruct (and not merely to coerce), carefully choose questions which will both identify who has read the material (for your sake) and identify what is important in the reading (for their sake).

  • Response to a demonstration, a teacher-centered activity, or a lecture - The students are asked to write a paragraph that begins with: I was surprised that ... I learned that ... I wonder about ... This writing activity allows the students to reflect on what they actually got out of the teachers' presentation. It also helps students realize that the activity was designed for more than just entertainment.

  • Student Summary of Another Student's Answer - In order to promote active listening, after one student has volunteered an answer to your question, ask another student to summarize the first student's response. Many students hear little of what their classmates have to say, waiting instead for the instructor to either correct or repeat the answer. Having students summarize or repeat each others' contributions to the course both fosters active participation by all students and promotes the idea that learning is a shared enterprise. Given the possibility of being asked to repeat classmates' comments, most students will listen more attentively to each other.

  • Gallery Walk On the walls around the room, post chart paper. Have students use Post-it notes to answer critical thinking questions about the lesson. Allow students to use some time during the lesson to take a gallery walk. Music can be used to begin and end the activity. Students can also use markers to write directly on the chart paper.

  • Quiz/Test Questions - Here students are asked to become actively involved in creating quizzes and tests by constructing some (or all) of the questions for the exams. This exercise may be assigned for homework and evaluated (perhaps for extra credit points) as an assessment of the material. In asking students to think up exam questions, we encourage them to think more deeply about the course material and to explore major themes, comparison of views presented, applications, and other higher-order thinking skills. Small groups and textbook or novel chapters also works very well. Once suggested questions are collected, the instructor may use them as the basis of review games.

  • Finger Signals - This method provides instructors with a means of testing student comprehension without the waiting period or the grading time required for written quizzes. Students are asked questions and instructed to signal their answers by holding up the appropriate number of fingers immediately in front of their torsos (this makes it impossible for students to "copy", thus committing them to answer each question on their own). For example, the instructor might say "one finger for 'yes', two for 'no'", and then ask questions such as "Do all organic compounds contain carbon?" Or, the instructor might have multiple choice questions prepared for the overhead projector and have the answers numbered (1) through (5), asking students to answer with finger signals. In very large classes, the students can use a set of large cardboard signs or playing cards with numbers written on them.

  • The Interactive True/False Quiz - Students often dutifully record everything the instructor says during a lecture and then ask at the end of the day or the course "what use is any of this?", or "what good will this philosophy be?" To avoid such questions, and to get students interested in a topic before lectures begin, an instructor can give a quiz aimed at getting students to both identify and to assess their own views. An example of this is a long "True or False" questionnaire designed to start students thinking about a moral theme in a novel. (STATEMENT: There are appropriate times in life to take something that is not yours based on a novel theme or plot) After students have responded to the questions individually, have them compare answers in pairs or small groups and discuss the ones on which they disagree. Or, have them take sides in the room and discuss their ideas.

  • Choral Reading Students like this activity and it forces them to say and hear the material which helps it to be remembered. Read or say a bulleted point in your lecture. Have students re-read or re-say that same bulleted point following you. Make it light-hearted and fun by changing your voice, etc. Or, direct only certain people to read aloud. For example: Students with hair longer than their chin; students who are male; students whose birthday is from January 1 to June 30; students wearing red; students wearing earrings; etc.

  • Note Comparison/Sharing - One reason that some students perform poorly in classes is that they often do not have good note-taking skills. One way to avoid some of these pitfalls and to have students' model good note-taking is to have them occasionally compare notes. The instructor might stop lecturing immediately after covering a crucial concept and have students read each others' notes, filling in the gaps in their own note-taking.

  • Note-taking Allow students to take notes during the class period, and then let them use their notes on a mini-quiz that assesses the material. Note-taking is a method of active learning, and it can be particularly effective if students realize they can score higher if they do it well. If the quizzes are given within a class period or two, the more effective the note-taking becomes because students learn to be more responsible for their actions, and they understand the value of their strong work skills.

  • Doodle it! - If the question is appropriate for an illustration, have students illustrate their response and have a presenter from the group share it with the class offering an explanation for clarification.

  • Question Bee Have the entire group stand in place. Ask a question pertaining to the information you just presented. Make the question difficult enough that many will NOT know the answer. Direct students to tell their neighbor the right answer. Then, tell the class the right answer. Any student, who answered correctly, remains standing. Repeat the procedure until only a few people are left standing. Those students who are seated then give those standing a round of applause, or you can distribute a small prize (sticker, pencil, etc.).

  • Go Fish! Before your lecture, distribute paper bags to each group of students. Fill the bags with paper strips on which you have written important questions about the topic. Every ten minutes or so, stop lecturing and tell the groups to choose a strip from the jar (or two, or three, etc.). You can choose the person who picks the strip by doing a round-robin or by saying things like, "The person with the most pets at the table chooses the next slip" or "The person wearing the brightest colored socks," etc. The group must either answer the question or explain why the fact was important. If the question or fact was not yet covered, they put it back in the jar and choose another. Groups can report after each round so that information is repeated a third time.

  • Pass the Quarter After ten-minutes of lecture, stop and ask for one question from a volunteer. Answer the question and thank the volunteer with a quarter. Continue talking and encourage good questions. When the next question is asked, tell the first person to pass the quarter to the person asking the second question. The quarter makes its way around the room. At the end of the lecture, the person who asks the last question keeps the quarter. This same idea can also work with the instructor asking the questions and students being rewarded with the right answer. If you do not feel comfortable using a quarter, any trinket or prize can be used instead.

  • Graphic Organizers Graphic organizers comes in all shapes and sizes. Look on the internet to help you find one that will work for your class or lecture, or make your own using tables in Word or some other word-processing program. They help students make connections between terms, concepts, timelines, etc. As you lecture, or the students watch a movie, read a chapter, etc. have students fill in the graphic organizer. Then, have students compare notes.

  • Visual Lists - Here students are asked to make a list -- on paper or on the blackboard; by working in groups, students typically can generate more comprehensive lists than they might if working alone. This method is particularly effective when students are asked to compare views, contrast ideas, or to list pros and cons of a position. It is really a form a brainstorming.

  • Ticket Out Explain to each student that they must give you a ticket out to leave the room. The ticket is an index card which could do one of the following: Ask a question to be addressed the next day; says what they liked best about the lecture; suggests what they need to learn next; predicts something in the future; etc.

  • Graffiti Wall Instead of the ticket out, post a large strip of chart or butcher block paper at the door. Label it Graffiti Wall. Encourage students to write comments/questions as they leave the room.

  • Games - There is no better instructional tool in the eyes of your students. For example, when students are introduced to the concepts of "laws of nature" and "the scientific method," it is hard to convey through lectures the nature of scientific work and the fallibility of inductive hypotheses. Instead, students play a couple rounds of the Induction Game, in which playing cards are turned up and either added to a running series or discarded according to the dealer's pre-conceived "law of nature." Students are asked to "discover" the natural law, by formulating and testing hypotheses as the game proceeds. On the Internet, there are already many pre-made PowerPoint templates for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and "Jeopardy." Sports games work too, but students cannot "move around the bases" or "shoot the basket" until they answer the question correctly. Give a point for answering correctly, and additional points for "shooting" or "running."

  • Similes, Analogies, and Metaphors Stimulate creative thinking by having students compare something they just learned using one of these forms of figurative language.

  • Pass the Paper Each student takes a piece of blank paper and writes his/her name on top. He/she then writes one thing he/she learned during the lecture. The paper is passed in some order to about six more people with soft music playing. Each person must write an additional fact they learned (and not repeat any said so far). When the music is turned off, the paper is returned to the original owner and serves as a mini-review of the material. You could also be more pointed with each round of passing. For example in round one, "Write one fact you remembered from the lecture." In round two: Write one question about something you learned today. In round three: Write the answer to the question on your paper. And so on.

  • Mini-dry erase boards or chalk boards These boards can be a great tool for questioning answering in groups, pairs, or singles (if whole class you need a class set of boards and markers or chalk). Ask short answer questions, and have students hold up the boards all at once when you say "UP!" When working in groups, have students take turns doing the writing. If it is a game, give a point to every group with the right answer. The idea should not be the quickest person/group, but the most accurate.

  • Pair Shares During a lecture period or at the end of a period of activity, have students do a pair share. Here are a few to consider:

    1. Turn to your neighbor and tell him/her _____ things you learned in the last ____ minutes.

    2. On scratch paper, draw a doodle representing the most important point you just heard. Explain your doodle to the person on your _______ .

    3. Turn to the person sitting behind you (next to you, etc.) and tell that person what you feel is the most important point of information in the lecture so far.

    4. If you had to represent what you just heard with a sound, what would it be? Tell it to your partner (neighbor, etc.) and explain why you chose that sound.

    5. Stand up and find someone across the room from you.

    6. Share the most important information you learned so far or - Share what you are going to do with the information you learned.

    7. Turn to the person behind you (next to you, etc.) and ask him/her a POP QUIZ question on the material that was presented so far. Make sure you know and can share the answer to that question.

Remember, research done by the NTL Institute for Behavioral Science tells us through the learning pyramid that students retain up to 90% of learning that occurs through student-centered active strategies as opposed to 5% retention of learning through lecture. Take it one step at a time and see how you can include one or more of these active learning strategies in your class.

Author Biography Jeryl-Ann (Jeri) Asaro loves her job as a seventh-grade English teacher. After a 23-year career in publishing and advertising, Jeri changed her occupation and became a teacher. Since that time, she has been voted Teacher of the Year, earned a Masters Degree in the Art of Teaching, and is presently finishing up her last class toward her Supervisor's certificate. Besides teaching seventh grade, she offers various workshops to novice and English teachers around the state of New Jersey, and is an instructor for Rowan University's Beginning Teacher Induction Center. In her district, she is a Team Leader coordinating a professional learning community within the middle school. During her teaching years, she has taught at all three levels -- elementary, middle and high school, but has found that teaching adolescent-aged students is her true calling. Spending her days in her classroom with her 13-year olds is her favorite place to be -- crazy, but true. Changing careers was the best life decision she ever made.
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