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Active Learning vs. the Lecture - June 2017


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Active Learning vs. the Lecture Transcript [PDF]

People in this podcast

  • Mick Charney, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Architecture, University Distinguished Teaching Scholar

    Kansas State University

  • Jennifer Kerns, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History

    Portland State University

  • Michael Prince, Ph.D., Professor of Chemical Engineering

    Bucknell University

  • Ashley Rhodes, Ph.D., Teaching Associate Professor of Biology

    Kansas State University

  • Michael Wesch, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology, Coffman Chair for Distinguished Teaching Scholars

    Kansas State University

Getting Started with Active Learning

To put it succinctly, active learning is a strategy that simply has students take chunks of course content and use it in some way to further, and deepen, their understanding of the material. So rather than being passive recipients of content--the way they mostly are when listening to a traditional lecture--students are taking in some information and then doing something with it that exercises their understanding of it. These kinds of active learning exercises can be quite simple and brief, such as the now classic, think-share-pair, or more complex such as a complex problem-based learning project (see this document from the University of Michigan for a continuum of active learning activities). But it is not just about activity. Working on a project, discussing content, or any seemingly “active” task is not active learning if it doesn’t actually accomplish the goal of improving or deepening their understanding. 

So how do you do it? 

Start Small...

You don’t have to completely redesign a course, completely abandon lecturing, or fully alter your teaching style to incorporate meaningful active learning strategies into a course. Start by reviewing the major learning outcomes you have for the course and perhaps the sub-outcomes for particular units or individual classes. These are the concepts or skills that you want to be sure students are “getting,” and these are the ones for which active learning can be the most useful. Then think about how you can get students to exercise their understanding. 

Quick look

  • Consider your main learning outcomes and individual class outcomes.
  • Select points in your classes to pause content delivery and have students exercise their understanding of key outcomes.
  • Identify simple active learning strategies that get students to use or apply content in a way appropriate to your outcome (i.e., Bloom's taxonomy).
Consider that math classes do this naturally in most cases. The instructor explains how to solve a certain kind of math problem, and then stops and presents an unsolved problem for students to work through right then. Students may have thought they understood it when hearing about it, but not until they actually do it do they know for sure. And the actual doing helps deepen the understanding and makes it more durable in their memory. It also gives the instructor the chance to check understanding right then before moving on to something else.  

A similar strategy can be used in any class. So for instance, in a mostly lecture-based course, stop every 10 or 15 minutes and ask students to apply the concept you have just explained. In a history class, you’ve just explained the political situations that led to World War II. Stop and ask students in pairs or small groups to compare those political forces to those in the world today. This requires that they can talk about and explain those political forces well enough to be able to compare them to those of today. And that’s what you want. You want them to not just list the political forces but to understand why they came about and the intricacies of them. This kind of active learning activity can help them do that. Or just have them write a paragraph describing their “muddiest point” about the chuck of lecture they have just heard. That requires them to think about and process the information they just heard and has the additional benefit of providing feedback for you on what might need more explanation.  Keep in mind that your active learning strategies should match the level and kind of learning you desire for the specific content (see Bloom’s taxonomy) though you can start with lower level activities and build to higher level activities over time.  

Most active learning strategies are not that complex and may even seem trivial, but when used well and at the right times, they can contribute to improved and deeper learning (see Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research). Below are resources with descriptions of active learning strategies and more.


Richard Felder describes and demonstrates active learning  

(video used with permission)


Difficult Topics - January 2017

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Difficult Topics Transcript [PDF]

People in this podcast


A summary of the suggestions for dealing with difficult topics made by those featured in this podcast.

  1. Create guidelines for participating in class discussions as part of your syllabus or separate document, and discuss them in class. Consider having students create the guidelines themselves. Go over them as often as necessary during a course. Be sure to include consequences for failure to abide by them such as being dismissed from the class.

  2. Set expectations for class discussions such as the likelihood that students will hear points-of-view with which they will not agree. Encourage them to approach discussions as a learning experience and not a battle.

  3. Have a plan and purpose for discussions. Think ahead of time about what directions certain topics may go during discussions, and how you can bring them back to your learning goals.

  4. Anticipate what issues might come up with discussions and even rehearse what your response might be.

  5. Intervene when discussions get too heated. “Let’s stop a minute. Yelling is not part of our agreement…” Humor can quickly lower the pressure and bring everyone back together as a group. Consider having the class take a minute to write their observations of a heated discussion. What points were made and what points were made without evidence?

  6. When someone gets overly emotional, stop them, and ask them to dig deeper into the specifics behind their emotion and to defend their point-of-view with clear evidence. Remind those who are violating discussion guidelines that they are doing so if they persist.

  7. Get to know your students--their names and their points-of-view--so that you can intervene more effectively when necessary.

  8. Follow-up with individuals, or the whole class, after any challenging discussions. Email them, or post on our discussion board, or see them in-person. Summarize your assessment of the discussion including the points made, and encourage them to continue exploring the issue.

Related IDEA Materials

Learning Outcomes - December 2016

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Learning Outcomes

People in this Podcast


Related IDEA Materials 


The Lowly Syllabus - November 2016

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The Lowly Syllabus [PDF]

People in this Podcast

  • Mark Canada, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Indiana University Kokomo
  • Michael Palmer, Managing Director, Associate Professor, & Lecturer in Chemistry, Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Virginia
  • Christina Petersen, Education Program Specialist, Center for Educational Innovation, University of Minnesota

Examples of Graphical Syllabi

Curtis Newbold suggests an infographic approach.

Infographic sample by Newbold:

Some graphical examples from the University of Texas, Austin 


graphical syllabi

(distributed via ShareAlike Creative Commons license)

By Tona Hangen:

Mentioned in the Podcast

Syllabus project at the University of Virginia


Related IDEA Materials 

This podcast is provided via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License and may be used by institutions of higher learning and other non-profits under the terms of the license. 



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