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Tag: active learning activities

Students laughing while engaged in small group discussion—illustrating active learning
discussing controversial topics
podcasting
students working on their content reviews
students in lecture hall
Students at university lecture raise hands to ask questions

This article first appeared in the December 1999 issue of The Teaching Professor.

Do you teach a 50-minute class? Or perhaps you teach a longer block of time: 75 minutes, three hours, or even six hours, like I am currently doing? Lecture breaks can be used every 20 to 30 minutes to enhance student learning by providing:

Double-response homework check

Before class begins, write a couple questions from the homework readings on the board. When class starts, ask students to fold a sheet of paper in half and answer both questions twice: once on the top, and again on the bottom of the sheet. One sheet is given to the instructor, and the other is self-corrected by the students.

Ask students to “legally cheat” by writing in corrected answers in bold as the questions are discussed by the whole class. Homework checks let you know who is preparing for class, and they let students know you know. You might announce that if grades are borderline, consistently accurate homework checks will raise a student’s grade.

Questions that can be answered in a few words are most appropriate for this lecture break. Also, the answers to this homework check can be structured as an advanced organizer for today’s class topic.

Think-ink-pair-share

After 20 to 30 minute, design a lecture break that asks students to elaborate on information from your lecture by thinking about it, writing it down, discussing it in pairs, and sharing it in a total-class discussion. This elaboration can be:

Heads together, random share

After 20 to 30 minutes, ask students to form groups of four. Pose a complex question with a convergent answer. Your students then discuss the answer (heads together) for one to two minutes. Finally, randomly call a number from each group to answer for his/her group. You will want to hear from three to four of them.

For large classes with auditorium seating, walk the aisle, designating rows odd or even and ask the odd-row students to turn around to group with the even-row students.

Graphic thinking

Ask students to draw a diagram (blueprint for thinking) to organize information from your course. Graphics could include a Venn diagram, matrix, web, or compare/contrast chart.

Three-step interview

If your students have completed individual projects, ask them to share their efforts with a small audience of their peers. Students form groups of four and pair up: Student number one interviews number two about his/her project, while number three interviews number four. After three minutes, they reverse roles. After three more minutes, in groups of four, pairs explain their partner’s project to the other pair.

Brainstorm, categorize, and roam

This is an excellent lecture break to foster analytical thinking. Ask students to form groups of four, brainstorm ideas on a given topic, and record them on small Post-it notes, one idea per sheet. (I ask students to bring Post-its to class daily.) After five minutes, when 15 or more ideas have been recorded by each group, ask them to categorize all the Post-its on chart paper (you’ll have to bring this) and label the categories in a logical manner that they can explain.

After selecting one person per group to remain with the chart to explain it, all other students roam the room to study all of the groups’ charts. (e.g., a world geography instructor would ask students to generate the names of 15 important world rivers and categorize them using some defensible method.)

Send-a-problem

Ask students to form groups of four. On a 3x5 file card, each student writes a question on one side of the card and the answer on the other. Next, as a group, they check all cards for accuracy. Then, the group’s four cards are sent to the next group to be answered orally.

This can continue for a few rounds. If questions are confusing, groups send a “diplomat” to the table of origin for clarification. Ultimately, cards are submitted to the instructor for assessment.

K-W-L reading strategy

Either individually or in groups, ask students to predict their absorption of a topic before studying it:

K: list what we already know about the topic,

W: list what we want or need to find out about the topic, and

L: list what has been learned about the topic after the unit of study has been completed.

Next, check L with K to see if what they knew was accurate. This is a useful strategy for introducing a topic that students think they know well, but you believe they might have some trouble with.

Group discussion with markers

Ask students to form groups of four to discuss a complex issue. To equalize participation, students are asked to place their “marker” (e.g., a pencil) on the desk, one at a time, to signal their turn to speak uninterrupted by group members. The marker is left there until all four students have spoken and all four markers are in a pile. Then, students retrieve their markers and continue another round of discussion, time permitting.

Group discussion with markers and passport

To encourage listening during “group discussion with markers,” ask students to paraphrase the key point of the last person who spoke. This restating of another’s comments gives them the “passport” to state their key point on the issue. However, the paraphrase often doesn’t capture what the preceding person intended, and clarification occurs before proceeding. This is a useful lecture break for learning about communication.

Value lines (a movement lecture break)

If you have an exceptionally long class session with 25 or fewer students who need to stretch their legs, ask them to line up according to how strongly they agree or disagree with a controversial topic. Next, ask students on the extreme ends of the value line to explain their points of view to the whole class.

Next, group students according to their placement on the value line to listen and paraphrase opposing positions. Use “group discussion with markers and passport” (see above).

Pick the false fact

A game-like lecture break might be in order for a late-night class towards the end of the semester. Ask students to review their notes and write three “facts.” However, only two of the facts should actually be true. In pairs, groups of four, or with the whole class, students try to pick the false fact.


Cynthia Desrochers, EdD, is professor emerita of elementary education at California State University, Northridge.