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Steps to Creating an Active Learning Environment

drawing of students at desks

It is important to analyze how and what students should learn in class or out of class, either independently or with others, as well as how to conduct in-class and out-of-class activities that effectively employ more active learning strategies.

evaluate & assess diagram

Step 1: Analyzing needs for implementing an active learning strategy

Before deciding on an active learning strategy, analyze the need. Ask yourself:

Evidence & Data
  • What evidence is there that a particular active learning strategy will enhance my teaching and learning or improve learning?
  • How will this active learning strategy help your students meet the learning objectives?
  • What observational or concrete data do you have about your classroom that can inform you about why you need to change it and how?
  • What does the research literature suggest about my particular subject matter and best approaches to teaching it?
Pedagogical Challenges
  • What is the challenge with your current classroom? 
  • What concepts or topics do students struggle with the most based on observation, in-class student responses, quiz/test scores and/or other assignments?
  • Do students need more personalized attention applying certain skills and knowledge in-class where your expertise could guide or coach their development?
Strategies
  • Based on the feedback and data you have collected about your class and students, where do active learning strategies makes sense in your course? 
  • Are there examples of the active learning strategies that you have seen that would be valuable to your students?

Step 2: Identify topic and questions

The first step is to identify the topics you wish to apply active learning strategies. Additionally, identify the overarching questions about this topic.

  • Example: Topic: Water Pollution in the Hudson River, New York City
  • Questions: Is the Hudson River really polluted? What are acceptable levels? Who decides these levels? Is there a single right answer to this problem?

Step 3: Identify learning objectives & outcomes

Next, define the learning objectives and outcomes for each topic:

  • Give an example of a well-written learning objective with outcome: Students will collaborate in small groups (2-3) to conduct a research study on water pollution
  • Learning outcome: Students will demonstrate their understanding by gathering data, analyzing data, providing written results that meet professional research standards, and presenting orally and pictorially to the class the results [Outcome].

Step 4: Plan and design the activity

Now that you have clearly identified learning objectives and outcomes, you can begin to plan and design the activity through considering the following questions:

  • Will the activity occur in the classroom, outside the classroom, or both? Prepare a timeline plan to help you manage the activity and keep students on task.
  • Provide clear and specific instructions to students before the session.
  • Describe how students will engage with each other and complete the activity. Outline the steps.
  • Establish and communicate ground rules and guidelines for group etiquette.
  • Assign roles and responsibilities for any group work, collaboration, discussions or debate.
  • Provide an agenda that includes a timeline of the topics and activities to be covered during the session.
  • Provide verbal feedback that is consistent and fair.
  • Consider how the in-class activity will continue after class in order to extend the learning process and experience.
  • Communicate to students after the session. Prepare a rubric for assessing student effort. Determine what kind of technology or media you will need for the classroom, for students to access outside the classroom, etc...

Step 5: Identify sequence of learning events

Next, plan the sequence of learning events that will best meet the learning objectives and outcomes. Active learning does not have to replace traditional lecturing; instead, it may be interspersed with the ways you usually conduct the class. For example, you could lecture for 10-15 minutes, carry out an active learning activity, and, then, return to lecturing. Or, one week you could lecture, but assign an active learning activity for homework; then, the next week, you could flip your class and carry out active learning exercises with students already familiar with the lecture material during class time. There are many ways to sequence the learning events. Your job is to carefully think through the planning and delivery of these events to support your learners.

Step 6: Evaluate and assess

You should analyze the effectiveness of the active learning activity and assess whether or not it aided student understanding and met the associated learning objectives. Please see the next section for specific information on how to complete this evaluation and assessments.