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Techniques and Activities

<Active Learning

Characteristics of effective activities

  • Support and build upon the lecture (and vice versa!)
  • Can be completed within one or two classes
  • Require students to work together (i.e., cannot be completed by an individual)
  • Can be broken down so that students can work on pieces (individual accountability)and then integrate them
  • Require students to take different perspectives or come up with alternative approaches
  • Technologies are used enhance the activity rather than complicating it or adding no value
  • Provide detailed written instructions with time limits clearly indicated
Do it, talk it, read it, write it, learn it

Collaborative Learning Techniques

Cooperative Learning Techniques

Activities to use with cooperative
or collaborative

Activities for Writing: Understanding,
Analysis, Synthesis

Short Activities

Collaborative Techniques

Team Based Learning (TBL)

In TBL, permanent teams work together throughout the semester on multiple application activities aligned with major course units. The other two components of TBS are the readiness assurance process (RAP) and peer evaluation.   TBL can be used with many of the specific techniques listed below.  For more information, see:

Inquiry-based Instruction/Collective Problem Solving

In structured inquiry learning, students are given a problem to solve, the method for solving the problem and any needed materials, but not the expected outcome.  In some cases, the solution can be implemented and tested.  This method is most often used in mathematics and sciences.

In guided inquiry, students must also devise the method for solving the problem.  The problem can be anything, from a philosophical issue to engineering.    A variation of this technique asks small groups to take a problem and reformulate it or look at it differently in at least 5 new ways.  In this variation, the focus is on rethinking the nature of the problem (divergent thinking), not arriving at a solution (convergent thinking).


 Students participate in a series of problem solving rounds, contributing their independently generated solution to those that have been developed by other groups. After a number of rounds, students are asked to review the solutions developed by their peers, evaluate the answers and develop a final solution. (Example: Understanding the Impact of (Fiscal and Monetary) Policy)

Three-stay, one-stray

Even students working in groups can benefit from the feedback of additional peers. In this structure, students periodically take a break from their work (often at key decision making points) and send one group member to another group to describe their progress. The role of the group is to gain information and alternative perspectives by listening and sharing. The number of times the group sends a representative to another group depends on the level of complexity of the problem. This method can also be used to report out final solutions.

Hypothetical situations

Groups are given a hypothetical situation or dilemma to analyze. Questions are in the form “ If A, then what if…or why…or why not…?”  Multiple situations or variations can be proposed with different pairs or teams working on the variations. After a specified time, answers are shared and open to peer review by the whole class In the end, the instructor supplies a summary of the arguments and further analysis of the proposed solutions or actions can occur.

Case study/mini-case study

The case method combines two elements: the case itself and the discussion of that case. A teaching case is not a "case study" of the type used in academic research.  It is a rich narrative which provides information, but no analysis or conclusions. Students work in teams to apply the concepts, techniques and methods of the discipline to explain the relationships among events in the case, identify options, evaluate choices and predict the effects of these choices. Sources and example cases can be found at:

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
Harvard Business School Publishing
Harvard Kennedy School of Government
PEW Case Study Center (International Affairs)
Evans School of Public Affairs (many topics, including, arts, education, environment, energy, health, media, social services and technology)

Student generated scenarios

Students create a narrative which demonstrates the important elements of a situation, process or concept within a system or organization.  Can be used as a writing activity, or a role play.

Cooperative Learning Techniques

Jigsaw Group Projects

Each group member is asked to complete some discrete part of an assignment, or become an expert in one aspect of a topic. When every member has completed his assigned task, they reassemble and teach the material to their group members. Then they use this information to accomplish a common goal.  Example: In a chemistry course each student group could research a different form of power generation (nuclear, fossil fuel, hydroelectric, etc.). Then the groups are reformed so that each group has an expert in one form of power generation. They then tackle the problem of how much emphasis should be placed on each method.

Peer-to-peer Instruction

The Instructor introduces a question that requires the students to connect or apply real life examples of recently introduced concepts (ConcepTests) by determining the answer and explaining their reasoning to another student, trying to convince them of their correctness.  Students have a few minutes to think through the answer alone, then raise their hands or use clickers to indicate their answer.  Students then work in pairs or small group, trying to convince the other students of his or her explanation.  After a few minutes, students answer the question again.   For more information: Mazur Active Learning

Structured Academic Controversy (SAC)

In a Structured Controversy, small teams learn about a controversial issue from multiple perspectives then work towards consensus on the issue. Teams of 4 first work together to identify the controversial issue(s) within a topic. The team then divides into pairs and each pair takes one side, develops their position and presents it to the other pair (or class). The pairs then restate the opposing pair’s position, or reverse their positions and reargue. As a follow on activity the teams work together to merge their opposing perspectives into a cohesive, reasoned position.

In a double switch format, each group of students presents one view to another group with an opposing view, then switch the groups switch positions and discuss the issue with a new team.  For more information, see:

Structured Academic Controversy - includes many examples from the Curry School of Education at UVA
Critical Thinking Through Structured Controversy

Activities that can be used in conjunction with Cooperative or Collaborative learning

Collaborative listing and ranking

Group members determine the individual aspects or elements of a task or concept then prioritize or put them into hierarchical order. Can be done as a graphic organizer (below).

Graphic Organizers/Mind mapping/Concept Mapping

Graphic organizers help students to convert complex information into meaningful visual displays.  Graphic organizers help students to develop the ability to draw inferences, synthesize and integrate information and ideas. The basic idea is that students are given a central concept(s). This concept is the central image, with associated themes/concepts radiating out as “branches”.  Topics related to those branches can be connected as “twigs.” The theory behind mind mapping is that each of these map components can act as a hook, associating new information with existing knowledge, making it easier to understand and recall. 

 There are many software tools that exist to help students create these maps, including Inspiration, which can be found on Cougar Apps (must be logged in to university network to access). 


Topic review:  To cement understanding, have your students  work in groups to create a graphic organizer summarizing the key concepts and relationships in a recently covered course topic. 

Group grid: Students practice organizing and classifying information in a table. A more complex version of this structure requires students to first identify the classification scheme that will be used.

Sequence chains: The goal of this exercise is to provide a visual representation of a series of events, actions, roles, or decisions. Students can be provided with the items to be organized or asked to first generate these based on a predetermined end goal. This structure can be made more complex by having students also identify and describe the links between each of the sequenced components.

See Michael Zeilik’s website for more variations  and instructions for teaching students how to create these maps.

Listening Teams

Listening teams are used in conjunction with other activities such as team presentations, structured controversy or scenarios, to ensure that students not actively presenting are engaged. Each student in a group of four will take on one of the roles. While listening, think of examples, questions, and areas of disagreement and agreement.After the presentation, meet as a group for 5-10 minutes to share ideas and finalize your contributions.Groups will share examples and ask clarifying questions of the presenters or other groups to solidify their understanding of the key concepts.

Listening Team Roles
Student 1, Example Giver (Facilitator/Tutor): Gives examples or applications of key concepts.
Student 2, Questioner (Inquisitive Student): Asks 2 clarifying questions about the material.
Student 3, Devil’s Advocate (Critical Thinker): Identifies 2 areas of disagreement within the content and explains why.
Student 4, Team Player (Positive Believer): Points out two areas of agreement with content and explains why.

Geographical Information Systems/Mapping

Creating and using graphical information maps gives students a new way to visualize, and represent geospatial data on a wide range of topics.  AT CSUSM we are fortunate to have a Geographical Information Systems ( GIS) specialist, Allen Risley, who can help you incorporate GIS into your course.  We also have a dedicated GIS computer lab/classroom for use by GIS-oriented classes. To learn more about GIS at CSUSM check out the GIS weboage or contact Allen directly at ext. 4169.

Google Maps Gallery is a repository of maps created by governmental organizations, NGOs and individuals, with information ranging from a WWII veteran's jourey through the war to a visualization of how local governments are responding to climate change. According to Google, as of September, 2014,the gallery will provide access to all public maps. These maps can also be opened in Google Earth and integrated with additional layers of information.

Google is also offering tools through My Maps that allow students and educators to create, edit and share maps. Users can take existing maps and add overlays consisting of starting points, destinations, waypoints, markers, lines, shapes, text and multimedia objects. Google My Maps is free to anyone with a Google account.

Activities for Writing:  Comprehension, Analysis, Synthesis

Dyadic essays

Students prepare for the in-class portion of this exercise by developing an essay question and model answer based on assigned reading. Students typically need to be guided to develop questions that integrate material across content as opposed to ones that simply recite facts from the reading. In class, students exchange essay questions and write a spontaneous answer essay. Students then pair up, compare and contrast the model answer and the spontaneously written answer. As a follow up, questions and answers can be shared with the larger class.

Peer editing

 As opposed to the editing process that often appears only at the final stage of a paper, peer editing pairs up students at the idea generation stage.  For example, each student in the pair describes their topic ideas and outlines the structure of their work while their partner asks questions, and develops an outline based on what is described. Throughout the writing process, peers read drafts and provide feedback.

Create a Poster

Capitalizes on the idea that communication through visual images is "fundamental to the process of exploring concepts and disseminating information”. As preparation for writing an essay, have small groups design a poster to communicate the key discoveries they’ve made about their specialized topic. Students should be creative, but their content and design should suggest the focus and purpose for their essay.  Students are given one minute to share comments about their poster.

Short Activities

Think – Pair – Share or Round Table Discussion

The instructor states an open-ended question. Individuals spend a minute or two to writing a response, then share their responses with a partner or group members. – Each person has equal opportunity and is expected to contribute equally in the discussion.  After a few minutes the instructor calls on individual students to share the pair’s responses. 

One minute papers/Muddiest point

Near the end of class or just before a break, the instructor poses one of these questions: What are the two most important points from today’s session? What was the muddiest point from today’s session? What would make the material clearer for you? Students are given 1-2 minutes to write brief responses on index cards, which are turned in anonymously.

How/Why (Classroom formative assessment)

Instructor asks students to write down a how or why question about the course material.  This type of question focuses students on the higher order thinking skills.  The student’s cards are redistributed, so they are not holding their original card (lowers risk for shy students). The Instructor calls on students to read their question, then asks for a show of hands from students who have the same or very similar question on their cards.  Questions are then answered either as a whole class or in groups.

More resources

Considerations for teaching in an active learning classroom,  University of Minnesota - Center for Teaching and Learning. Provides dozens of specific recommendations to address common obstacles to active learning, including how to: overcome student resistance; counter complaints; maintain control of your classroom; manage time; handle dysfunctional groups; and ensure quality peer review.

Navigating the Bumpy Road to Student-Centered Instruction, paper by Felder and Brent.


Student Engagement Techniques

Available as an ebook and softcover in Kellogg Library