Engage Students with Active Learning Strategies

These pages were developed by R. Mark Leckie, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Student-active learning shifts the action from you to the students. The goal is to engage students by actively doing or thinking about a problem, rather than passively listening and/or note-taking. There are a variety of ways to engage students in classroom activities that complement the lecture material by initiating, supplementing, and/or reinforcing the content of the day. Utilizing authentic data is one way to engage students, by having them plot and/or interpret data or by having them make simple calculations. By engaging your students in some form of problem-solving, writing, or small group discussion such as think-pair-share, you stimulate their interest and encourage participation. Small group work also fosters peer-teaching. Classroom discussion brings the exercise to a close and it helps to create a community of active and engaged learners.

Average land surface temperature for the month of December, 2009.

I try to engage and challenge students with active learning on a daily basis. This can be done effectively in both small and large lecture classes, whether there is an associated laboratory section or not. One way to accomplish this is with short in-class exercises that are integrated with your lecture. In-class activities can be effectively used to "set the hook," to get students interested in what you have to teach, challenge their understanding, address misconceptions, and to practice their skills of critical thinking and problem-solving. The goal in using in-class activities is to get students to think critically about the topic at hand.

How to Incorporate Active Learning Exercises

There are several different ways to integrate active learning exercises into your classes. For example, these activities can be used to initiate discussion of a new topic or to provide reinforcement of material you've presented in lecture. They can also be bundled into a series of short in-class activities interspersed with lecture and/or classroom discussion: do something - talk about it - do something else to build understanding. This has been called the do-talk-do instructional strategy (Kemper and Ramsey, 1997).

Introduce a new topic with active learning exercises

Here are some examples of ways to use active learning to introduce a topic (ecosystems, tides, weather and climate, global warming) before beginning a lecture on the topic. These examples of active-learning activities are effective for large (or small) lecture classes. Each one may take 10-20 minutes of class time, but the students are "hooked" and much more apt to engage in the lecture material or other activities that follow.

Major environments or ecosystems

  • Students work in small groups; each group chooses one of the following environments/ecosystems (e.g., desert, rainforest, coral reef, temperate forest, prairie/grasslands, tundra, etc.)
  • Groups each compile a list of characteristics for their chosen or assigned environment/ecosystem (physical environment, climate, seasonality, organisms, diversity of organisms, etc.)
  • Classroom discussion of each environment/ecosystem with groups providing input while instructor writes out the lists on an overhead projector, or types the lists in PowerPoint (alternatively, have a group representative come up to the front of the class and write the list out, with input from the class, on the overhead projector)


  • Begin class by asking the questions: What causes the tides? How could you test your ideas (hypotheses)?
  • Provide several days of tide data from several cities and towns along the coast. Small groups compile a list of observations regarding tidal period and other trends for one of the towns
  • Have a classroom discussion about observations for each of the towns. What are the similarities and differences between the towns? Can you relate the observations (data) with your ideas (hypotheses) about the cause(s) of the tides?

Weather and climate

  • Show satellite images of Earth depicting cloud distribution and/or water vapor
  • Small group or classroom discussion: brainstorm a list of observations
  • Make connections between cloud patterns and distribution of tropical rain forests and deserts: zones of low and high atmospheric pressure
  • Consider movement of hurricanes: Where do Atlantic hurricanes form? How do they move?
  • Consider movement of weather patterns across the lower 48 states of the US: How does weather move across the US?
  • Make connections between climate zones and movement of weather patterns: concept of prevailing winds

Global warming

  • Show an up-to-date image of atmospheric pCO2 measured on Mauna Loa since 1958
  • Small group or classroom discussion:
    • Why the saw-tooth pattern?
    • What is the trend of pCO2 since 1958?
    • Has the rate of pCO2 rise been constant since 1958? What is the basis of your answer?
    • What was the rate of pCO2 increase between 1960 and 1965? Between 2000 and 2005?
    • What is the percent change in pCO2 since 1958?

Supplement or reinforce learning

Here are some examples of activities students can do to reinforce concepts being developed in lecture:

Interpret a figure or a map from the book or from the web.

  • Make observations and compile lists; discuss via think-pair-share, small group, and/or classroom discussion
  • Make interpretations and/or predictions
  • Opportunity to investigate how scientific data are presented, how various concepts can be conveyed with illustrations, basic geography, or to gain greater familiarity with different perspectives or views of something (e.g., map view, cross-section, oblique view)

Explore and interpret authentic data.

  • Plot data, label key parts of the graph, and interpret what the plot depicts.
  • Explore how data are represented in graphic or table form.
  • Individual work followed by classroom discussion.

Reflective writing.

  • Write a "minute paper"
  • Used as reflection to reinforce a difficult concept, or to identify things that are not clear while the material is fresh

Generate a formula depicting a concept.

  • e.g., two-way travel time associated with mapping the seafloor or seismic reflection data

Perform simple calculations.

  • e.g., use a formula that's just been presented to calculate something

Classroom (Personal) Response Systems ("Clickers")

One way to engage students in the course material is to ask them a challenging multiple-choice question (the kind you might use on an exam) to probe their understanding of the material you've just lectured about. You can use a Classroom Response System to tally and display a graph of student responses instantly. This provides a wonderful way to interact with your class by stimulating student interest, generating classroom discussion, clarifying misconceptions, and creating a "teaching moment" based on student responses. When most students choose the correct answer, you and they get instant feedback that they have understood the concept, and you can move on to the next topic. For examples of the kinds of questions you can ask using Classroom Response Systems, see the SERC web pages on ConcepTests.

Helpful Hints: Logistics

The comments that follow are based on our experiences with the large Introductory Oceanography course at UMass-Amherst.

  • We do some form of student-active learning every day in class; sometimes two activities. The students expect it.
  • We collect many of the in-class activities that the students do, but there are many that we don't, and we don't tell them ahead of time whether something will be collected or not. These in-class activities are worth up to 20% of the final grade. For us, this is the same value as an exam; students can earn the equivalent of a 100% on an exam simply by coming to class every day and participating. This is a great incentive to get them to engage!
  • Grading of the collected in-class activities is designed to be simple: we give 2 points for a completed activity, 1 point for an incomplete effort, and zero for nothing turned in. We don't spend much time actually evaluating the student responses because we nearly always have a classroom discussion about the activity before it is turned in.
  • Collection of 300 pieces of paper on a regular basis can be challenging, but we do 2 things that expedite the sorting: 1) students write the first 3 letters of their last name in the upper right-hand corner of the paper (in large block letters), and 2) they place their exercise in the appropriate box (reprint box with one or more letters, "A-B", "C-D", etc.) as they exit the classroom at the end of class. Alphabetizing, grading, and entering the scores in a spreadsheet will take a Teaching Assistant only ~1 hour or so.
  • We use these same labeled reprint boxes to return graded exercises to the students during the next class; we arrive early to class and put the graded exercises out for students to pick up before class begins.

Why Use Active Learning Strategies in Large Classes

We have been using active learning strategies in our 300-student Introductory Oceanography course at the University of Massachusetts since the late 1990s with great success (e.g. Yuretich et al., 2001). The student evaluations of the course have been uniformly strong and the written comments consistently demonstrate that the students appreciate, or even enjoy, the interactive nature of the lectures, the pyramid (two-stage) multiple-choice exams, and the opportunities to do well in this general education science course. The graphs below show how our students responded to questions about how much they learned with the pedagogy employed (on the left) and their attitudes about science at the end of the semester (on the right) (Fall 2009; 160 responses). Click on the images to see larger (legible) versions.

Although hands-on and critical thinking activities take time away from lecture, and this does add up over the course of the semester, students retain more of the information presented and they have daily opportunities to practice their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In addition, incorporating these activities forced us to identify what we think are the most relevant and important aspects of the course, including the information and skills we hope are retained by our students years after they've taken the course.

These exercises get students to attend class and to participate. They benefit from experiencing the material first-hand, in addition to the powerpoint lecture notes, which are also made available to them online after class. Repetition and multiple forms of learning yield a better outcome.

Additional resources:


Beatty, Ian. "Transforming Student Learning with Classroom Communication Systems," Educause Center for Applied Research Bulletin. Volume 2004, Issue 3 (February 3, 2004), p. 5.

Felder, Richard M., and Brent, Rebecca, 1999. Chem. Engr. Education, 33 (4), 276-277. Responses to the questions "Can I use active learning exercises in my classes and still cover the syllabus?" and "Do active learning methods work in large classes?"

Felder, Richard M., and Brent, Rebecca, 2003. "Learning By Doing," Chem. Engr. Education, 37 (4), 282­283.

Kaleta, Robert, and Joosten, Tanya. "Student Response Systems: A University of Wisconsin System Study of Clickers," Educause Center for Applied Research Bulletin. Vol. 2007, Issue 10, May 8, 2007, pp. 4–7.

Kemper, J., and Ramsey, J., 1997. Facilitate science learning in elementary and middle school. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Leckie, R.M., and Yuretich, R., 2003. Investigating the Ocean: An Interactive Guide to the Science of Oceanography. McGraw-Hill Custom Publishing, 3rd edition (ISBN 0-07-287963-7).

McKinney, Kathleen, 2008. "Active Learning."

Prince, M., 2004. "Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research," J. Engr. Education, 93 (3), 223-231.

Yuretich, R., 2003. "Encouraging critical thinking," Journal of College Science Teaching, 33 (3), 40-46.

Yuretich, R., Khan, S.A., Leckie, R.M., and Clement, J.J., 2001. "Active-learning methods improve student performance and scientific interest in a large introductory oceanography course," Journal of Geoscience Education, 49, 111-119.