Get Out of Your Seats! Active Learning Strategies That Engage Students in the 21st-Century

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2018

Stetson University
Miami, Florida


Since 1984, the term “active learning” has been trending at college and university professional development fora and faculty orientations as well as in undergraduate classroom learning environments. Both the concept and practice emphasize engaging students in their own environments where they are accountable for their own learning. Though not new to education, active learning strategies have been gaining momentum in the last two decades by accentuating learner-centric teaching methodologies (Obenland, Munson, & Hutchinson, 2012, p. 90). Cognitive specialists and educators maintain that active learning increases self-responsibility, self-motivation, self-esteem, learner accountability, organizational skills, time-management, knowledge retention, interpersonal communication, and content transferability—all of which are necessary for academic, professional, and personal success (Robinson, 2017, p. 18; Sibona & Pourreza, 2018, p. 66; Cattaneo, 2017, p. 144; Rocca, 2010, pp. 188-189).

Instructional design methodology and philosophy interpret active learning as purposeful learning activities that engage learners (not only students) in a task, or series of tasks, usually to address a problem or bring a project to fruition (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Adkins, 2018). Active learning refers to “any activity encouraging students to participate in learning approaches engaging them with course material and enhancing critical thinking as they make applications beyond the classroom” (as cited in Adkins, 2018, pp. 67-68). Bonwell and Eison posit that active learning motivates learners to do things and think about, or reflect on, what they have been doing (1991, p. iii). Active learning strategies are based on six constructivist concepts: 1) learner-centeredness; 2) concentrating on process and content; 3) utilizing interdisciplinary lessons; 4) using collaborative practices; 5) facilitating student reflection; 6) focusing on developing intrinsic motivation without any emphasis on assessment (Cattaneo, 2017, p. 145).

Active learning purports to guide learners through the learning process as they build new knowledge and skills upon lessons already learned (Berek, 2017). In addition to academic achievements, active learning establishes a sense of community among peers, decreasing biases, and thereby sets the stage for successful collaborative and, eventually, independent learning experiences. It allows individuals to participate according to their cognitive abilities, academic acumen, learning styles, personality types, and interpersonal communicative competencies. Ideally, active learning encourages equity and tolerance in learning across multiple playing fields.

Active learning helps learners who have negative attitudes toward learning shift their thinking to a more positive mindset. Robinson maintains that when learners “believe their intelligence can be improved, they are more willing to put extra time and effort into their learning” (2017, p. 18). Active learning provides the emotional and psychological infrastructure to support and encourage academic and professional achievements organically. Rather than depending on extrinsic motivation (grades, honors, and awards), active learning facilitates intrinsic motivation. Learners with a “growth mindset” believe that their abilities can be developed with practice, guidance, and time (Robinson, 2017, p. 18; WIDA, 2018). Consequently, learners’ behavior toward academic achievements gradually becomes more positive as self-confidence in learning increases.

According to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), there should be movement toward decreasing—and eventually removing—scaffolds to increase “independence both within and across…complexity bands defined in the standards” (as cited in Young, 2013, p. 40; CCSS, 2019). Scaffolding exercises can be used as formative assessment at any level and in most academic disciplines. Since “practice and formative assessment improve student performance,” it is important to build scaffolds into learning processes and assignments (Owen, 2016, p. 172). Rather than using leveled teaching, cognitive specialists recommend differentiation in teaching to address the demands of the multiple learning styles of diverse learners.

Using a Picture Prompt to Teach Aristophane’s Lysistrata

English 260: Comedy and Tragedy is a course open to non-English majors at Manhattan College. It is primarily populated with business and engineering students who are enrolled in the class in order to fulfill an elective credit. Given that they are typically not interested in theatre, the course is not only ripe for active learning, it demands it.

Although Aristophane’s Lysistrata appears on several top-ten lists of plays for students to read, the language is cumbersome and the humor is often lost on undergraduates. The students are often turned off by the title alone. Students question the relevance of the text to their lives and believe that such an antiquated play has little to offer. These ideas happen all before even one word of the play is read or taught. In order to garner enthusiasm for the play, I employ “picture prompts” on the first day of teaching it.

The picture-prompt activity begins by showing students an image with no explanation, and asking them to explain it and justify their answers. It can also be done by asking students to write about the picture using terms from a previous lecture, or to name the processes and concepts being shown. The instructor should not reveal the “answers” until the students have explored all of the options first (Angelo & Cross, 1993; Morrison-Shetlar & Marwitz, 2001; Silberman, 1996; VanGundy, 2005; Watkins, 2005).

In order to demonstrate the effectiveness of this strategy to faculty, I asked members of a workshop to get into groups of four and view the picture prompt silently (Angelo & Cross, 1993; Morrison-Shetlar & Marwitz, 2001; Silberman, 1996; VanGundy, 2005; Watkins, 2005).  After a few minutes, I asked them to discuss with their team members what they saw before opening up the discussion to the larger group. Members responded in various ways from commenting on the protagonist’s physique to analyzing secondary characters. In response, I often asked follow-up questions or requested clarification. For example, when the group responded that the main figure was “fierce,” I asked them to define the term. When the group remarked that the men were “clothed in armor,” I asked them to consider the women and how they were dressed. Questioning the members of the group served to develop their responses. The groups began to interact with each other, often developing or concurring with each other’s observations.

After summing up the remarks, I moved to a second visual (Angelo & Cross, 1993; Morrison-Shetlar & Marwitz, 2001; Silberman, 1996; VanGundy, 2005; Watkins, 2005). Transitioning from a black and white sketch to a color, graphic, modern visual proved to be a provocative move as the groups began to respond immediately. Here I had to remind them of the exercise, which asks that students first observe before responding. Needless to say, some learners may become distracted by the noise of collaborative work, so instructors must be prepared to request silence as they redirect the group. The brief respite from the noise was welcomed as they engaged in self-reflection before starting the next task (Petersen & Gorman, 2014). Instructors, therefore, must anticipate potential issues interfering in learning by proactively orchestrating a smooth flow of multiple activities to counteract the sounds and unpredictable disruptions of the non-traditional active learning environment.

I repeated the steps above and then asked the group members if they could make some predictions about the play. Who is the main character? What do you anticipate the plot to be about? What might be a conflict in the play? Can you determine from the pictures if the conflicts are resolved in the end? By making predictions about the characters, themes, and plot, students develop an interest in the play and know what to better expect before they begin reading.

Using Think-Pair-Share to Discuss Rhetorical Strategies

Think-Pair-Share is a cooperative learning strategy that can promote and support higher-level thinking. The instructor asks students to think about a specific topic or problem individually for a short period of time. Students then pair with another colleague to discuss their thinking and then share their ideas with the larger group (Millis & Cotell, 1998). I used this technique in English 211: Written Communications, a writing course that is required of all business majors at Manhattan College.

I used this activity to generate discussion on the rhetorical effectiveness of Wendy Shanker’s article “Strong Enough.” The students were asked to consider whether or not the motion-picture industry influences our perceptions of body-image, self-worth, and social acceptance. They were asked the question, “Try to picture your version of the perfect female body. Is your image influenced by outside forces such as media, your gender, or your age? Does Shanker argue her position effectively and why?”

In order to demonstrate the strategy to faculty, I organized faculty workshop participants into pairs and posed the same questions. I allowed them several minutes to discuss and then they reported out their findings to the larger group. Interestingly, the workshop participants experienced similar problems with the activity, specifically that the questions were flawed and did not encourage participation among all the members of the group.

While active learning theorists purport that introverts can shift their behavior by contributing to class discussions, demonstrating their ability to engage in collaborative assignments (Obenland, Munson, & Hutchinson, 2012, pp. 92-93), this activity did not seem to encourage participation among participants who were less likely to speak beyond the confines of the pair.

Additionally, participants felt that the article was not well matched for the activity given the gender make-up of the class (16 males; 2 females). When matched with students of the opposite sex, students felt uncomfortable sharing their thoughts on the topic of body image and lost sight of identifying rhetorical strategies. Conversely, when many of my male students were matched together to discuss, they acted immaturely toward the topic of the article.

Using Stop-Start-Continue to Discuss Controversies in Higher Education

Stop-Start-Continue is an activity that I used during a lesson on Ronald Leibowitz’s baccalaureate address to the Middlebury College class of 2007, entitled, “The Value of Discomfort.” The stop-start-continue technique is a means of quickly obtaining feedback from students in a non-threatening manner. It is an excellent post-assessment technique. Assessment formats that prompt learners to free-style their responses provide valuable information not only about where learners are, but also how well they can adapt their knowledge (Michael & Modell, 2003, p. 127).

At the conclusion of the initial meeting with the group, the instructor hands out three different color post-it notes to each student (red, green, and yellow). Learners can anonymously write simple phrases in response to the facilitators’ prompts, rather than passively listening. Each color corresponds to a signal: green for start, red for stop, and yellow for continue. Once students have the post-its, they are asked to respond to the following questions on the appropriately colored sheet:

  • What would you like me to start doing for the remainder of our meeting?
  • What would you like me to continue doing?
  • What would you like me to stop doing?

While such feedback can communicate crucial information to instructors so that they can differentiate lessons, my feelings about this activity were mixed. My students were unable to differentiate between the “start” and “continue” prompts. If I were to do the activity again, I would make more of a distinction between the questions. Many students suggested new approaches to teaching the content. Students also saw this as an opportunity to be critical of the article and not the pedagogy. Additionally, some students admitted that they thought I would recognize their handwriting and didn’t want to be critical of my teaching. Others only offered comments that praised the teaching and did not provide constructive feedback.

Education Students Experience the Academic Library Through Movement

Undergraduate education students at Manhattan College are required to learn how to integrate information from authoritative sources in elementary school lesson plans in the teacher education programs. Not only do education students have to develop their own information literacy and research skills, they will eventually teach these skills to their students (CCSS, 2019). In the courses “Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Elementary Classroom” and “Integrating Learning: Grades 4-6,” my colleague Dr. Deborah Greenblatt (a former assistant professor in undergraduate education) and I, an associate librarian, collaborated on information literacy lessons that introduce students to multiple collections in the O’Malley Library.

Under this team-teaching approach, students were asked to move around the library, familiarizing themselves with print and digital sources. Dr. Greenblatt’s group explored the collections in educational psychology, educational philosophy, and the curriculum collection, while my group stayed in the computer lab to access Kanopy, a streaming video database.

After the first twenty minutes, the groups switched.  Each group completed an assignment in Google Docs based on the following learning outcomes:

  • Become familiar with educational psychology and educational philosophy collections
  • Become familiar with picture books in the curriculum collection
  • Select books from the educational philosophy or psychology and the curriculum collections
  • Borrow the selected books at the circulation desk
  • Become acquainted with Kanopy, a streaming video database
  • Create watch lists in Kanopy, using specific database tools

Dr. Greenblatt’s group searched the online public catalog Jaspercat for print books on educational psychology and philosophy.  Using the call number location guide, the students located the books on the shelves. Dr. Greenblatt escorted the group around the library to help students familiarize themselves with picture books and teaching materials. Moving around the library created an organic learning environment in which students collaborated, worked independently, and shared with the whole class. More commonly known as kinesthetic learning, learning through movement nurtures the development of collaborative and independent learning, supporting students’ academic, professional, and personal success. Kinesthetic learners discover and learn as they move from one activity to another, frequently learning by “trial and error” (Sibona & Pourreza, 2018, p. 67). During the library walkthroughs, students shared ideas without feeling pressured. Dr. Greenblatt’s students used Jaspercat’s advanced search to limit results to the curriculum collection and they completed exercises that required knowledge of bibliographic information. Additionally, they learned how to create APA reference citations for print books.

In the library lab, I used the instructional computer, projector, and screen to demonstrate how to navigate the library portal. Seated at computers, the students followed the path to the databases. After logging into Kanopy, students browsed two collections: “Teacher Education Development” and “Education Documentary.”  They searched for films to use in their lesson plans and created a “watch list,” as per the assignment. After saving the videos, students used the database features, including the citation creator, the video clipping tool, and the transcript. The students saved the APA reference citations and integrated them into their assignments. Students responded to questions about Kanopy, which prompted them to think critically about digital content.

The team-teaching information literacy lessons increase knowledge retention and its re-application. Undergraduate education students found the team-taught information literacy lessons valuable in completing their immediate assignments, and recognized that the academic content and teaching methodologies would be useful in their careers as teachers and educators. Within 50 minutes, the students learned how to find books, evaluate content, strategically integrate authoritative information into lesson plans, determine bibliographic information, and experience the academic library with two different types of educators, an education professor and an academic librarian.


Active learning techniques are beneficial in understanding academic content and stimulating higher order thinking. They also facilitate developing students’ self-esteem in comfortable, supportive social settings where relationships among peers are nurtured and strengthened. These positive surroundings foster collegial respect for peers; everyone’s voice is heard and all contributions valued. All of these attributes of active learning will prepare twenty-first-century learners for academic, professional, and personal success in the fast-paced, technologically-dependent, and infinitely diverse twenty-first-century globalized world. Ultimately, the degree to which learners are engaged indicates learners’ personal relationship to learning and demonstrates their commitment to learning throughout life, both inside and outside of formal learning spaces.


We would like to thank Kimberly Woodruff, director of instructional design at Manhattan College, for her invaluable workshop contributions.


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Spring 2019: Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning