Integrating Active Learning Strategies into Lectures
Christine Harrington Ph.D. Kathy Shay Ph.D.
Lecturing, when done well, can be an extremely powerful way to teach students content. It is
particularly valuable when students are novices in the field and direct instruction is key to
learning (Clark,Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012). To maximize the effectiveness of good lectures,
brief yet powerful active learning strategies can be incorporated into the lecture. These brief
activities can result in higher levels of student engagement with the material and one another,
higher motivational levels, and can lead to an increased mastery of the material being learned.
These activities offer students the opportunities to reflect on, process, and apply the
information just learned in the lecture. Based on research reviewed by Prince (2004), adding a
brief interactive exercise into your lecture approximately every fifteen minutes is suggested.
Research has shown that brief non-graded writing exercises during class, for instance, led to
higher academic performance on exams (Drabick et al, 2007), and activities such as quizzes that
target retrieval practice enhance the long term retention of the content being learned (Karpicke
and Roediger, 2007).
Here are some (this is clearly not an exhaustive list) examples of brief, active learning strategies
that can be integrated into your lectures (several ideas are from Angelo and Cross, 1993):
Think, Pair, Share
In this activity, you ask students to first think about the answer to a question you pose, identify
an example of a concept recently discussed, or consider what they have learned that day in
class. Having students write down their thoughts during this stage is valuable. Next, have
students share their response or thoughts with one other student in the class. After each
“partner” has shared his/her initial thoughts, you then move back to the large group and ask for
volunteers (or call on students) to share what they discussed. This is a great way to get
students who are not as quick to participate in a traditional discussion to share their ideas with
the large group. It works well because it builds in processing time, making it more likely for
students who like to reflect or “test drive” their ideas with others before sharing in a large
group. This can be as brief as 1-2 minutes in each phase or longer if the task requires it.
Turn and Talk
This is an abbreviated version of the Think, Pair, Share activity. If you are short on time, you
can eliminate the thinking portion and have students start out by discussing the topic with a
partner and then having a large group discussion.
One Minute Papers
This is a reflective exercise that can be graded or un-graded. At various points throughout the
lecture, ask students to stop and summarize what they have learned from the readings or from
the lecture thus far. They only have one minute for this activity so they should be encouraged
to focus on major points. At the conclusion of the activity, you can move on to new content or
you may want to consider having students swap papers so they can see what others thought
was important. A variation of this exercise is to have students write down one major point
from the lecture, pass the paper to another classmate and each subsequent classmate has to
add another concept learned that day. At the conclusion of the exercise (which can go as many
rounds as you deem appropriate), each student will be in possession of paper that has several
major points from the lesson.
This is a great exercise for the end of class. Ask students to identify which concepts they are
having difficulty understanding. They can pose questions to you about these concepts
anonymously. You can collect the papers and address their questions immediately, through an
on-line conversation or at the start of the next class.
At several different points throughout your lecture, ask multiple choice or true-false questions
that students may answer by holding up colored note cards, using hand signals, or with student
response systems (clickers). Questions may be posed to promote discussion and/or to check
for understanding of concepts. When students do not agree on the answer to an objective
question, call on individual students to defend their chosen answer and convince the class that
they are correct. Try to have the class reach a consensus without your telling them the correct
Dusting Off the Cobwebs
This is a great activity at the start of class. It takes approximately 5 minutes. Ask students to
get into pairs or small groups and to discuss what they learned during the last class or from the
readings. For the first 1-2 minutes, don’t let them look at their course materials. After their
initial discussion, they can look at their materials to fill in any of the information gaps. You can
do a brief review as a large class or simply move onto your new lecture material.
Have students line up in two rows where they are facing one another. You can visually post or
verbally say a concept or theory and then ask students to talk about this concept/theory to the
classmate whom they are facing. Give them approximately 30 seconds for this task. Have one
row of students move down one so they are now facing a new person. They can repeat this
with a new concept/theory. Repeat this exercise with as many concepts as you’d like.
At various points, ask students to compare their notes with those of a classmate. Have them
talk about the similarities and differences in terms of concepts included. They can use this
opportunity to fill in missing information and to ask questions as needed.
Ruhl, Hughes, and Schloss (1987) found that adding this technique to a lecture produced
significant learning gains on both short term and long term retention. In their study, students
were asked to engage in this activity 3 times during a 45 minute lecture. Each time, students
were given two minutes for the task.
A concept map is a diagram that shows the relationships among concepts, as illustrated below.
Robinson and Kiewra (1995) found that using graphic organizers such as concept map is
connected to increases in learning. In fact, they found that graphic organizers were more
effective than outlines.
Ask students to work individually, in a pair, or even in a small group to create a concept map of
material just learned. You can randomly select a group or two to share their product and
summarize the key points.
Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College
Teachers, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Clark, R. E., Kirschner, P.A, & Sweller, J. (2012). Putting students on the path to learning: A case
for fully guided instruction. American Educator, 36, 6-11.
Drabick, D.A.G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L, & Bubier, J. L. (2007). Methods and techniques: Keeping
it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of
Psychology, 34(3), 172-176.
Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering
Education. 93(3), 223-231.
Robinson, D. H., & Kiewra, K. A. (1995). Visual argument: Graphic organizers are superior to
outlines in improving learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87(3), 455
Roediger, H., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves
long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255. doi:10.1111/j.1467
Ruhl, K. Hughes, C., & Schloss, P. (1987). Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall.
Teacher Education and Special Education, 10, 14-18.