TEACHING NOTES: Are your students actively learning?

This article begins a series on Strategies for keeping students engaged in class. Last month we looked at Starting semester right. Now we’ll focus on what else you can do to keep students attending and engaged in their learning.

So you’ve completed the first couple of weeks of semester and it’s started well. Has that initial enthusiasm from your students begun to wane? Has attendance started to drop off? How do you keep your classroom a lively and engaging place so students remain motivated to learn? With census date closing in for many topics (for standard semester 1 topics its March 30), what strategies are you using to help students engage with their learning?

In part, answers to this question are about what you believe your purpose is in the classroom. Is it just about covering content? The ready availability of content often leads us to reconsider how we spend our time with students. There are many strategies you can use in teaching and the ones promoting active learning can be very effective.


So what is active learning? Defined by Bonwell and Eison (1991 p.2),  it is ’anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing’.  Activities relating to doing things can include debating, idea mapping, discussion, collaborating. These activities help students to construct their knowledge using higher order thinking (e.g. applying, evaluating, analysing) so they are not passively receiving information.

Activities related to students thinking about the things they are doing can include metacognition (or thinking about thinking), such as reflecting, think-pair-share and Applications cards (see below).

These activities are vital in active learning, as it is about students reflecting on their knowledge and learning habits as well as helping them to assess and regulate themselves as learners.


So what are some strategies to encourage active learning in your face-to-face classroom?


Minute papers

Ask students to note down the most important point/s they recall from the previous class. You may also like to ask why they think it was important. Alternatively, at the end of the class they could write down key points and consider the next logical steps. You can collect these, or do them electronically (e.g. using FLO), to review. Depending on what your focus is for the activity (e.g. are students learning what you want them to) you may tweak the question accordingly but remember to feed back a summary and your actions to students after you review them or you risk students seeing the activity as a form of mindless polling.

Minute papers help students synthesise and integrate information and ideas; think holistically; get better at paying attention, concentrating and listening; and learn the facts, theories and concepts in a topic. Despite being simple, they assess much more than just recall, and can be adapted to a variety of uses.


One sentence summary

This requires students to answer the question ‘Who did what to whom, when, where, how and why?’ about a given idea/concept/process etc. They are then required to formulate this answer into one grammatically correct, informative, summary sentence. This gives students practice in ‘chunking’ information and allows you to see how concisely they can summarise information.

One sentence summaries help students synthesise and integrate information and ideas; improve memory, listening and reading skills; develop good study habits; and prepare for postgraduate study, as well as improving their time management skills. You can build on this activity by having students pair up and share their summaries, give peer feedback or collaborate to combine their summaries into one.


Think, pair, share

Small group work is common but Think, pair, share offers a very specific strategy for students to collaborate in a non-threatening way. Students must:

  • think individually about your question/the concept etc. (they may like to make some notes)
  • discuss this with the person next to them
  • share with the larger group.

The larger group may be the rest of their small group, the entire class, or both, depending on how you plan it. You can build on this activity by having pairs combine to discuss or even debate responses, adding a further active component to the learning.

Think, pair, share helps students to work collaboratively whilst learning and understanding the concepts, theories, values and perceptions of the topic; develop openness to new ideas and other cultures. It is also a really helpful way of getting quieter students engaged.


Applications card

With this technique, students are asked to consider the information/concept/theory/process you have just covered and write down one (or more) possible real-world applications for what they have learned. By doing this, they are able to more easily see the relevance of their learning. You may like to collect index cards given out or do this electronically (e.g. using FLO).

You might like to feed back three to five of the best responses to the class and discuss why they are good. Conversely, you may like to choose a couple of borderline responses and discuss why they might not be so applicable. You can build on this activity by having students collaborate to complete the Applications card, share their responses for peer feedback, or make it part of homework or an ‘Applications journal’ for the topic.

Applications cards help students apply principles to new problems or situations; draw inferences from observations; develop the capacity to think for themselves; and think creatively.


Try to include an active learning strategy in every part of your topic design, even if it’s just one strategy per class. You may need to rethink how you cover content if you usually do so in class. Perhaps reading, videos or quizzes (or a combination) occur prior to class so they are familiar with the content? Flipping the classroom offers many options for active learning by making the most of that in-class time with students.

You can probably think of lots of reasons not to include active learning strategies (e.g. they require extra preparation, you’re already a good lecturer, you don’t have the materials, students might not like it and so on). However, the gain for you in your students being more engaged and excited about their learning far outweighs the barriers.


One of my favourite quotes is ‘Effective teaching is an outcome of decision making that arises from knowing why you are doing what you are doing. Such decision making starts and finishes with the students’ (Hunt, Chalmers & MacDonald 2012 p. 22). So start small, be clear about why you are doing what you are doing, and be confident about your new strategies to keep students more engaged in their learning and coming to class.



Angelo, TA & Cross KP 1993, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, California.

Bonwell, C C & Eison, J A 1991, Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom, ASHE–ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1. The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development, Washington, DC.

Hunt, L, Chalmers, D & MacDonald, R  2012 in Hunt L and Chalmers D (eds), University Teaching in Focus, ACER Press, Camberwell, Victoria.


Written by Cassandra Hood

Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

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