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Active Learning for the College Classroom

Within the past 10 years, we have seen an explosion of interest among college faculty in the teaching methods variously grouped under the terms active learning and cooperative learning. However, even with this interest, there remains much misunderstanding of and mistrust of the pedagogical "movement" behind the words. The majority of all college faculty still teach their classes in the traditional lecture mode. Some of the criticism and hesitation seem to originate in the idea that active and cooperative learning techniques are genuine alternatives to, rather than enhancements of, professors' lectures (Hartley, Sponsler, & Orphan, 2023).

"Active Learning" is, in short, anything that students do in a classroom other than merely passively listening to an instructor's lecture. This includes everything from listening practices that help the students absorb what they hear, to short writing exercises in which students react to lecture material, to complex group exercises in which students apply course material to "real life" situations and/or new problems (Ziziumiza, Bungsu, and Shahrill, 2022). The term "Cooperative Learning" covers the subset of active learning activities which students do as groups of three or more, rather than alone or in pairs. Cooperative learning is to be distinguished from another now well-defined term of art, "Collaborative Learning," which refers to those classroom strategies which have the instructor and the students placed on an equal footing working together in, for example, designing assignments, choosing texts, and presenting material to the class. "Techniques of active learning" are those activities that an instructor incorporates into the classroom to foster active learning (Michael, 2006; Wiederman, 2015).

Several exercises can be incorporated without changing too much of your course design. These techniques are useful in providing the instructor with feedback regarding student retention and understanding of the material.

  • The Fish Bowl- Students are given index cards and asked to write down one question concerning the course material. They should be directed to ask a question of clarification regarding some aspect of the material which they do not fully understand; or, perhaps you may allow questions concerning the application of course material to practical contexts. At the end of the class period (or, at the beginning of the next class meeting if the question is assigned for homework), students deposit their questions in a fish bowl. The instructor then draws several questions out of the bowl and answers them for the class or asks the class to answer them.
  • Share/Pair - Grouping students in pairs allows many of the advantages of group work. Students have the opportunity to state their views, to hear from others, to hone their argumentative skills, and so forth without the administrative "costs" of group work (time spent assigning people to groups, class time used just for "getting in groups", and so on). Further, pairs make it virtually impossible for students to avoid participating thus making each person accountable.
  • Concept Mapping - A concept map is a way of illustrating the connections that exist between terms or concepts covered in the course material. Students construct concept maps by connecting individual terms with lines that indicate the relationship between each set of connected terms. Most of the terms in a concept map have multiple connections. Developing a concept map requires the students to identify and organize information and to establish meaningful relationships between the pieces of information (Cross, n.d.).


Cross, P. (n.d.). The K. Patricia Cross Academy. Retrieved from The K. Patricia Cross Academy.

Hartley, M., Sponsler, L. E., & Orphan, C. M. (2023). Helping Students Lead Lives of Purpose. The Handbook of Student Affairs Administration, 283.

Michael, J. (2006). Where's the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education, 30(4), 159–167.

Wiederman, M. (2015). Active learning and learner-centered instruction. University of South Carolina School of Medicine-Greenville.

Ziziumiza, S., Bungsu, J., & Shahrill, M. (2022). The Effectiveness of Student Teams Achievement Division Cooperative Learning in Improving Mathematics Skills in VTE Engineering Students. International Journal of Pedagogy and Teacher Education6(2), 52-60.

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