Active Learning in the Classroom – Now What?

Posted May 25, 2016

By Claire Gravelin


I already use active learning strategies in my classroom, why should I make more changes to my course?

Because more can be done!

Congratulations! You’re riding the active learning train and you and your students are surely witnessing the benefits that arise from learner-centered instruction. But don’t stop now! What we view as best practices in teaching are continuously evolving and your class should be, too!

In this post, I overview some simple changes I made in one of my upper-level psychology courses to enhance student learning and engagement with course material. These changes enhanced my already active and student-centered classroom and resulted in even greater gains in student learning. The best part – the changes were small, but made a huge impact.

Image: Government of Prince Edward Island,[email protected]/2619725... CC BY-NC-ND

About My Class:

I was teaching an upper-level psychology course, Psychology and Social Issues. The goal of this course is to expose students to empirical and theoretical research in social psychology and apply these ideas to real world problems and events. Like many of our junior/senior-level classes, this course was discussion-based; students read the assigned articles outside of class and were expected to come to class ready to discuss the articles and apply what they learned to current events (e.g. implicit racism and shooting unarmed Black men).

Traditional” Active Learning:

During my first semester teaching this course, dubbed the “Traditional” Active Learning approach, I served as the discussion leader for the first few weeks to model how discussions should take place. Then, as the proponent of learner-centered teaching that I am, I passed the baton to the students. Thus, students took turns leading the discussion on that days’ assigned readings, which were always discussed in a full-class round-table format. With each reading assignment, I also posted a series of learning objective to help guide their reading.

The problem: Discussion quality was highly variable depending on how prepared the student discussion leader was. Poor preparation by the discussion leader meant the entire class suffered, and even when the discussion leader was prepared, the class was not. Often students took the fact that they weren’t the discussion leader as an opportunity not to closely read the material. This meant we often spent more time in class discussing the basic concepts from the readings and not getting the chance to apply these concepts to real world social issues like I hoped. Worse still, in polling the students, most admitted they didn’t use the learning objectives to guide their reading, and only used them when it came time to prepare for the exams.

“Enhanced” Active Learning:

I decided I needed to make some changes – but I didn’t want to completely abandon the learner-centered approach. It would have been easy to throw up my hands, declare that my students couldn’t handle the responsibility of leading discussions, and resort to leading the course myself. But I knew students would be missing out on an incredible learning opportunity. So instead, I made the decision to give my students more responsibility (whhaaaaatt!?). Here’s what I did:

  • Scaffold student preparation. Discussion leaders were responsible for submitting a reading guide and a list of discussion questions to me a week before their discussion day. 
    • Reading guides served as a brief outline of the assigned reading that would be posted for the class as a study tool for the exams. I returned to them detailed feedback on areas in their guides that needed correction or expansion, and pushed students to think of deeper discussion questions beyond rote memorization of concepts.
  • Switch up the Discussion Format. Prior to turning the reigns over to the students, I modeled the traditional full-class discussion format and an alternative small-groups format. In the small-groups format, students broke up into groups of 5-6 students each to discuss the basics of the reading assignment, with myself and the discussion leader walking around the room as “experts” to aid in their understanding of the material. After discussing the basics of the reading, a delegate from each group had to post four questions their group couldn’t reach a consensus on to the white board for full-class discussion.
    • These could be definitions/concepts that were unclear, but were usually deeper-level application-based discussion questions. When we returned to the full group, the discussion leader now had their own pre-prepared discussion points, and also a pool of discussion questions generated by their peers to pick from.
  • Let them Choose. After modeling both discussion formats, I encouraged discussion leaders to adopt whichever format they felt most comfortable with when it was their day to lead the class.
    • I found a pretty even mix between discussion preference. This was good because it kept the class (and me!) on their toes!
  • Re-engage with the Material. Following class, discussion leaders revised their reading guides to elaborate on any specific topics/concepts in need of greater clarification in response to course discussion and to briefly summarize what was discussed in class.

Did It Work?:

Discussions were of much higher quality and more in-depth in the “Enhanced” Active Learning class compared to the “Traditional” Active Learning class. Students came to class prepared more often due to the increased responsibility of having to generate quality discussion questions in small groups even on the days they were not the assigned leader. Forcing discussion leaders to engage with the material early by submitting a reading guide and discussion questions to me allowed me the opportunity to correct any misinterpretations they had before class and allow them time to generate deeper-level discussion questions than they might have otherwise.

Students who are more resistant to participate in large-group discussions found it easier to participate and contribute when given the opportunity to talk in smaller groups.

But Did They LEARN More?:

Yes! There were a total of 51 multiple choice and 6 short answer exam questions common across both semesters. I used these items to compare performance across the two Active Learning Approaches:

Students in the Enhanced class performed an average of 25 points higher on the multiple choice compared to those in the Traditional class, t(37) = 15.14, p <.001;d= 4.84, AND they performed an average 2.5 points higher on the short answer items, t(37) = 4.87, p <.001; d= 1.57

Now It’s Your Turn:

Regardless of the format of your course, I hope this post has inspired you to think about what more can be done in your classroom. Push the envelope and try something new. As demonstrated above, even relatively small changes can have substantial impact on student learning – and isn’t that what we’re all here for?


Claire Gravelin is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, KS where she has taught a wide range of face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses including social psychology, statistics, and research methods. Her research focuses on exploring the causes and consequences of the marginalization of women focusing on the domains of sexual assault and the underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership and STEM fields. Claire is also actively engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning and is always looking for new ways to challenge and improve best practices in teaching.