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Twelve Ways to Incorporate Active Learning in Your Classroom

The students stand with their eyes closed repeating “I’m not attached.” As the teacher taps a student’s shoulder, that student sits down and is quiet. The exercise stops when the last student sits and is quiet, at which point all the students raise a hand to indicate that they think everyone is “attached.” Then the students do the same exercise in reverse. The students remain quiet until they are tapped, and then they began repeating “I’m attached.” At the end, it is much more difficult for the students to know when to raise a hand to indicate they think everyone is “attached,” and most raise a hand too early. This activity demonstrates how a cell knows when to divide, which should only happen after all of the chromosomes are attached to the mitotic spindle to be properly segregated. But chromosomes do not speak. Instead they release chemical messages until they attach. Once there are no more chemical messages, a cell knows it is safe to divide. This activity is an example of active learning that I have used in a small biology class.

In the most traditional model of education, students sit in front of a teacher and listen. Listening is a passive form of learning. In contrast, active learning involves students in the learning process. It requires them to connect their learning to action. After all, formulating a biblical worldview isn’t just about teaching students to think as a Christian, but to act as a Christian. Many of my most memorable moments in the classroom, as a teacher or student, occurred during student-centered learning experiences. I had high school students paint half a head of cauliflower to learn and label parts of the brain. In my high school government class, my classmates and I role-played members of the House of Representatives, and we had to work with another class role-playing the Senate to pass legislation. There are a variety of ways, from simple to complex, to engage students in the learning process.

  1. Personal Reflection

In the last few minutes of a class, ask students to write down what they did not understand from that session. Review the responses and address them the next time you meet.

  1. Minute Papers

The minute paper usually requires more than a minute, but it asks students to produce a short essay about the topic of study. Typically, a grade is not assigned so that the pressure is off. The teacher can use these assignments to reflect on what students are learning and adjust the teaching.

  1. Think-Pair-Share

This activity starts by asking students to think about a complex question. Next they work in pairs to discuss what they were thinking. Students use the discussion to refine their thinking and to help each other correct errors. In the final step, some pairs will share with everyone as time allows.

  1. Sticky-note Parade

In a sticky-note parade, students respond to a problem or series of problems by writing an answer on a sticky note and placing the note near the appropriate problem. This exercise is helpful for brainstorming or for getting students who rarely speak up to participate in the problem-solving exercise.

  1. Group Discussion

A well-facilitated group discussion can teach students to make value judgments about the topic of study.

  1. Craft a Model

Creating an artistic work, such as the cauliflower brain activity mentioned above, or composing a song can help a student learn and recall rote facts more easily.

  1. Snowball Activity

A snowball activity works well for brainstorming the best answers to a question that may have multiple answers. Each student produces three answers. Then students pair up and select the three best answers among them. Groups continue to merge and select the best responses, until the entire group has selected the best answers.

  1. Debates

Students can participate in debates to argue one side of a controversial topic after gathering evidence. The teacher must take great care in selecting topics for debate so that the debate is an enriching experience for all students.

  1. Review Games

What student dislikes review games? Technology offers a big assist here. A slide show application can facilitate a game of Jeopardy. Other applications like Quizlet allow the teacher to create custom content for flashcards or review games.

  1. Simulations

A simulation works well for demonstrating a multistep random mechanism like cancer development or other concepts in science.

  1. Labs and Project-Based Learning

Real experiments in the laboratory are also examples of active learning. A similar type of learning outside of the sciences is project-based learning.

  1. Role-Play

Role-playing real people in the field of study engages students in understanding how those people operate at work. Even literary characters can be role-played.

These examples are just a sampling of the many possible active learning activities. Perhaps the best student-centered learning will take place when the teacher leaves his or her comfort zone in the traditional teaching model and creates an activity specifically designed for the subject. Student-centered learning takes more time than a lecture, but research clearly shows that it works. Thinking deeply about the subject of study helps students understand it better. Students retain more information because they have synthesized knowledge in the process of using it. Pupils feel engaged in the learning process. They also perform better when tested after active learning. The next time you find yourself planning an entire period of lecture, try to get out of your comfort zone by using one or more of the activities above. Your students will thank you!

by Valerie C. Coffman, June 2020