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Category: Online Teaching and Learning

Colors of different stripes to illustrate color-coding course design strategy

Active learning in small groups has, at best, a mixed reputation. Instructors voice concerns about unequal levels of participation, students rushing through activities to leave or log off early, difficulties in assessing effort and learning, and the fact that many students arrive in class not having completed the readings and assignments that would facilitate their participation (Ballen et al., 2017). Students complain of anxiety about talking to others, unequal workloads, the potential for looking incompetent in front of their peers and instructors, and a general sense of awkwardness related to not knowing what to do with the time allotted (Hood et al., 2021). 

Questioning common practice

These concerns can be substantively mitigated through tweaks in design. The first step involves questioning common practices related to group size, roles, and selection and activity length. Consider changing up the following:

Four tips for effective group-based learning

Now let’s look at ways to cultivate effective active learning design for groups. While the logistics of these activities are relatively straightforward in remote settings through the use of breakout rooms, they can also work quite well for larger lecture classes provided that there is moderate weather and adequate, accessible outdoor space near the classroom for students to gather after you send them out of the lecture hall.

Tip 1: Provide clear, detailed, written prompts

Many group activities founder when students have inadequate or vague direction. An active learning prompt should have a similar level of detail to the prompt for a long-ish paper. It should be posted in an accessible (i.e., mobile-friendly) format. You can post it in your LMS or as a collaborative doc link in your Zoom chat; either way, students should know before class starts where they can expect to find their active learning prompts. Here’s what to include:

Tip 2: Create activities that students cannot complete within the allotted time

The time limits that instructors impose on synchronous group activities are designed to keep students on track. They can, however, create performance anxiety and may inadvertently encourage students to rush through to leave class early.

An instructor can achieve outstanding results by giving students activities that are deliberately unfinishable. We have found the design sweet spot to be about 50 percent longer than the class time allotted to the activity. Simply tell your students that there is no way for them to finish the activity—and that you do not expect them to finish it. This works especially well where the goal is evidence of sustained effort rather than perfection in the outcome. 

Tip 3: Design for mutual accountability

One of the biggest pitfalls of active learning in groups is the potential for the workload to be unequally divided and for shyer students to refrain from participating. Students need to trust one another to work effectively together, and they need a clear set of actions to take if things go wrong.

A simple expectation-setting conversation is an effective way to combat the free rider problem. Students roundly resent unfair distributions of labor; still, they’re hesitant to report free riders without explicit permission or encouragement to do so. 

Tip 4: Design for equity and belonging

Poorly designed active learning can leave vulnerable students feeling isolated or at the mercy of deep-seated imposter syndrome. Doing the following can cultivate a sense of community in groups:

While none of these tips alone is a silver bullet, we’ve found that they’re highly effective when used in concert with one another, thus enabling our faculty clients to take advantage of the most valuable features of active learning pedagogies.


Ballen, C. J., Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J. B., & Zamudio, K. R. (2017). Enhancing diversity in undergraduate science: Self-efficacy drives performance gains with active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(4). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-12-0344

Hood, S., Barrickman, N., Djerdjian, N., Farr, M., Magner, S., Roychowdhury, H., Gerrits, R., Lawford, H., Ott, B., Ross, K. & Paige, O. (2021). “I like and prefer to work alone”: Social anxiety, academic self-efficacy, and students’ perceptions of active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-12-0271

Megan McNamara, PhD, is a lecturer in sociology and an instructional designer at UC Santa Cruz and adjunct faculty in sociology at West Valley College and Foothill College.

Aaron Zachmeier is the associate director for instructional design and development at UC Santa Cruz.