Skip to Main Content
Ask A Librarian

Active Learning

Active learning includes any type of instructional activity that engages students in learning, beyond listening, reading, and memorizing.


Repositories of sample assignments and IL learning activities










Cooperative Learning Exercises
For more complex projects, where many heads are better than one or two, you may want to have students work in groups of three or more. As the term "cooperative learning" suggests, students working in groups will help each other to learn. Generally, it is better to form heterogeneous groups (with regard to gender, ethnicity, and academic performance), particularly when the groups will be working together over time or on complex projects; however, some of these techniques work well with spontaneously formed groups. Cooperative groups encourage discussion of problem solving techniques ("Should we try this?", etc.), and avoid the embarrassment of students who have not yet mastered all of the skills required. 

1.  The "One Minute Paper" - This is a highly effective technique for checking student progress, both in understanding the material and in reacting to course material. Ask students to take out a blank sheet of paper, pose a question (either specific or open-ended), and give them one (or perhaps two - but not many more) minute(s) to respond. Some sample questions include: "How does John Hospers define "free will"?", "What is "scientific realism"?", "What is the activation energy for a chemical reaction?", "What is the difference between replication and transcription?", and so on. Another good use of the minute paper is to ask questions like "What was the main point of today’s class material?" This tells you whether or not the students are viewing the material in the way you envisioned.

2.  Muddiest (or Clearest) Point - This is a variation on the one-minute paper, though you may wish to give students a slightly longer time period to answer the question. Here you ask (at the end of a class period, or at a natural break in the presentation), "What was the "muddiest point" in today's lecture?" or, perhaps, you might be more specific, asking, for example: "What (if anything) do you find unclear about the concept of 'personal identity' ('inertia', 'natural selection', etc.)?".

3.  Affective Response - Again, this is similar to the above exercises, but here you are asking students to report their reactions to some facet of the course material - i.e., to provide an emotional or valuative response to the material. Obviously, this approach is limited to those subject areas in which such questions are appropriate (one should not, for instance, inquire into students’ affective responses to vertebrate taxonomy). However, it can be quite a useful starting point for courses such as applied ethics, particularly as a precursor to theoretical analysis. For example, you might ask students what they think of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's activities, before presenting what various moral theorists would make of them. By having several views "on the table" before theory is presented, you can help students to see the material in context and to explore their own beliefs. It is also a good way to begin a discussion of evolutionary theory or any other scientific area where the general public often has views contrary to current scientific thinking, such as paper vs. plastic packaging or nuclear power generation.

4.  Daily Journal - This combines the advantages of the above three techniques, and allows for more in-depth discussion of or reaction to course material. You may set aside class time for students to complete their journal entries, or assign this as homework. The only disadvantage to this approach is that the feedback will not be as "instant" as with the one-minute paper (and other assignments which you collect the day of the relevant lecture). But with this approach (particularly if entries are assigned for homework), you may ask more complex questions, such as, "Do you think that determinism is correct, or that humans have free will? Explain your answer.", or "Do you think that Dr. Kevorkian's actions are morally right? What would John Stuart Mill say?" and so on. Or you might have students find and discuss reports of scientific studies in popular media on topics relevant to course material, such as global warming, the ozone layer, and so forth.