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Using Class Time Well

Students learning to take blood pressureActive Learning

Teaching is developmental rather than directive or presentational.

Active learning involves the implementation of “learning experiences in which the students are thinking about the subject matter” (McKeachie, 2002). It is based on the premise that students must do more than just listen to fully comprehend new information. They must read, write, discuss, and problem solve. By employing active learning in your classes, you will increase the effectiveness of your teaching and your students’ learning.


One suggestion for encouraging active learning is the use of the Treasure Hunt technique (Magnan, 1990). This strategy is based on the premise that if you’ve assigned a reading, there must be something valuable for the students in it. Choose several pages or sections, and then ask students to find the most important point, idea, or argument and write it down, along with a sentence or two justifying their selection. If you choose assigned passages well, you can increase understanding and participation immediately.


John C. Bean suggests several ways to incorporate writing into a class, including:

  • Writing at the beginning of class to probe a subject: Ask students to write short answers to a question that reviews previous material or stimulates interest in what’s coming.
  • Writing during class to refocus a lagging discussion or cool off a heated one: When students run out of things to say, or when a discussion gets too hot, ask students to write for a few minutes.
  • Writing at the end of class to sum up a lecture or discussion: Give students a few minutes to sum up the day’s lecture or discussion and to prepare questions to ask at the start of the next class.


While the most common approach to encouraging active learning in the classroom is the use of discussion, not all discussions are created equal, and there are other methods in which to achieve the difficult task of drawing students into lectures, discussions, and readings. One suggestion for engaging students in active learning is using the Thumb’s Up technique (Ukens, 2000). To implement this technique, ask students to form groups of six to ten people, with each group sitting in a circle. Participants will discuss topics within their groups. To keep everyone involved, each person is to extend his or her fist toward the middle of the circle. Once discussion begins, each member is to share, in any order, one idea or piece of information on the topic. As each person shares, his or her thumb will go up. A person may not share again until all thumbs are up. Then, members can begin again and continue the process. After about five minutes, stop the discussion. If you wish, repeat with new topics.

Another method to employ asks the students to frame the discussion, or determine the direction of the discussion. Ask students to identify one question from their readings that they would like to have answered in class. Ask them to share their question with three peers, and then have the group pick one of the three questions to present to the instructor. Allow each group to ask its question.


Invite students to use Think-Pair-Share: To help them better understand a lecture, stop for a moment. Ask students to think about a question or problem that relates to the lecture material, turn to a peer, and explain their answer or solution. This is a great way to apply and reinforce key ideas.

For more information, also see First Day of Class.


Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McKeachie, W.J. (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 11th Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Magnan, R., Ed. (1990). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Magna.

Stocking, S.H. et al. (1998). More quick hits. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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students and professor examining and artifactTeaching Inductively

Inductive teaching, also known as inquiry or discovery teaching, centers around the idea that knowledge is dependent on an individual’s experience and interaction with the material. The instructor provides examples from which students are encouraged to seek patterns and applications, explore and extend the material, and make connections, thus inductively learning the concept that these examples indicate. This is opposite of deductive teaching, in which the concept is defined by the teacher, and the class is then exposed to examples on this previously learned concept.

Structuring your class such that it requires students to inductively process the course material is outlined in the Teaching for Understanding framework (Wiske, 1998). In this framework of guided inquiry, the role of the teacher is to direct students’ attention and analysis through focused and often ongoing assignments. These assignments should attempt to increase the “uncoverage” of a subject, which requires that students receive “lessons that enable them to experience directly the inquiries, arguments, applications, and points of view underneath the facts and opinions they learn if they are to understand them. Students have to do the subject, not just learn its results” (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). This manner of teaching is beneficial for all instructors whose course goals include the sentence, “I want my students to be able to think like a ________ (scientist, mathematician, writer, etc.).” In this way, Wiske recommends shaping the assignments such that they increase in complexity across the semester, as well as move from group projects to more independent learning tasks. Learning thus occurs through observation and guided performances, and assessment of students’ increasingly honed inductive reasoning skills occurs through on-going assignments. However, a “culminating performance” is often used at the end of a course or unit, which requires independent application of inductive thinking, synthesis, and a demonstration of understanding that extends beyond the learning which was attained from group work.


Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Wiske, M.S., Ed. (1998). Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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professor leading a discussionLeading Discussions

Leading discussions requires us to maintain a balance between using our voices and encouraging students to use theirs. Some ideas for sparking discussions include:

  • Frame discussions around students’ questions.
  • Have students write their answers to a sentence completion exercise, then share their ideas: What most struck me about the reading was… A question I’d like to ask the author is … The idea I disagree with most strongly is … The part of the lecture/reading that made the most sense to me was…
  • Ask students to respond to a contentious opening statement or an illustrative quote.
  • Have students recall an experience in their lives that somehow connects with the topics.

A suggestion for increasing the number of student responses you get in discussion comes from John Woodcock from the University of Indiana at Bloomington. He suggests breaking up your presentation by giving students two or three minutes to discuss a question with the person sitting next to him or her. Rather than having students report on their own ideas, ask them to report on their discussion partner’s good ideas. Woodcock states that when he tried this, “Three times as many hands went up, and the reports had a consistently better energy.” This technique can work with any size group, in almost any teaching situation.

One strategy that several KU faculty members have found useful is called the fishbowl, a discussion format in which part of the class forms a discussion circle and remaining students form a listening circle around the discussion group. 

In a large group discussion, once it is moving along, questions that can keep it going include questions that ask for more evidence or clarification. Ask How? or Why? Pose questions that link or extend the discussion, that address the cause and effect, and that ask for synthesis or summary of the material. Other ways to encourage discussion are by affirming student comments and being silent when appropriate. In his book Teaching Tips, W.J. McKeackie (2002) notes that many lecturers check student understanding by asking if there are any questions, waiting 3-5 seconds, and after receiving no response conclude that everyone understands. But this is often not the case; the students just have not had enough time to process the material. So McKeachie recommends, “If you really want to know, give students a minute to write down a question, then have them compare notes with students sitting near them before asking for questions. You’ll get some.”

If discussions are not going well because no one is talking, consider the following questions:

  • Did students complete preparatory assignments?
  • Have you modeled public critique of your ideas?
  • Is the discussion focused on an open-ended question of sufficient complexity and ambiguity?
  • Have you ensured that you’ve avoided answering the question you’ve posed, either implicitly or explicitly?
  • Have you linked the topic to a critical event in students’ previous experiences?
  • Is my talking preventing students from contributing, or is discussion faltering because I don’t speak enough?
  • What am I doing to build continuity and a sense of collaborative engagement?

When it comes time to conclude a discussion, end with a summary so that students know what important points were covered. A summative statement also allows the instructor the opportunity to fill in points that weren’t covered and praise the class for the quality of their responses.

For more suggestions regarding leading discussions, see Active Learning.


Brookfield, S. & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McKeachie, W.J. (2002). Teaching tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 11th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Andrea Greenhoot talks with student groupsUsing Group Work

Dan Spencer, of the KU School of Business, provides some recommendations regarding the use of groups:

  • Create groups (5-7 people each) that are diverse in terms of gender, style of learning, interpersonal abilities, class grades, nationality, outside work experience, and the type of degree they are pursuing. Also, combine people in groups who do not have previous knowledge of each other, and who have complementary schedules for meeting outside of class.
  • Select group work that requires team members to collaborate and that allows as much time for group interaction as possible in order to encourage valuable interactions.
  • Allow the groups to determine individuals’ roles and the goals of their teamwork. Have the roles of the individuals in the group rotate throughout the project.
  • Establish classroom behaviors that encourage group interactions, such as the sharing of information between teams and student cooperation during the learning process.
  • Include evaluations that measure teamwork, such as tardiness, preparation for classes, and grades on group work.
  • Before assigning complex projects, engage the class in icebreaker and bonding exercises, as well as assigning projects that increase in complexity.

A suggestion for initiating group work in the classroom that does not involve an extended group project is the creation of Listening Teams. First, divide the class into four teams, then give the team members different role assignments:

  • Questioners—This group will ask at least two questions about the material covered.
  • Agreers—This group will tell which points they agreed with, or found helpful, and explain why.
  • Nay-sayers—This group will comment on what points they disagreed with, or did not find helpful, and explain why.
  • Example-givers—This group will give specific examples or applications of the material. Present your material.

After you are done, give the teams a few minutes to complete their assignments.

One reason that listening teams are successful is because they create an environment in which each student feels as though their contribution to the group and their individual contributions are important and rewarded. Structuring group work with this in mind will increase the quality of student participation and the effectiveness of the group exercise.

Ruth Federman Stein and Sandra Hurd outline several justifications for the use of student teams and group work in Using Student Teams in the Classroom (2000). Besides increasing learning and preparing students for the environment of teamwork in industry and other organizations, teamwork and peer discussions help students more easily construct a knowledge structure that is scaffolded upon their previous experiences (Fosnot, 1996). Group discussions also help students use and become familiar with the language of a profession or discipline. Evaluations of student understandings are usually structured to assess their ability to comprehend questions and provide convincing responses. These skills are more likely to develop if students are allowed to discuss these topics themselves, as opposed to only receiving passive exposure to this new language. Teamwork is also more useful than lectures when teaching practical knowledge or material that is evaluated based on social context. Finally, Stein and Hurd argue that group work helps students absorb the behaviors and way of thinking needed for success in the classroom.


Spencer, D. (2004). Using groups. KU CTE handout.

Stein, R.F. & Hurd, S. (2000). Using student teams in the classroom: A faculty guide. Bolton, MA: Anker.

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professor lecturingDeveloping Positive Classroom Interaction

Wilbert McKeachie offers several suggestions for ways to encourage students to be active in classroom interactions. Create an expectation of participation early in the semester, by defining the various facets of the course and explaining why participation is valuable. Understand that boredom, lack of knowledge, passivity, cultural norms, and above all, fear of being embarrassed, may contribute to keeping a student from not talking in class. To reduce a fear of embarrassment, use small groups and help students get to know each other. Ask questions that have no wrong answers to help students get used to participating. Call students by name (see suggestions for learning students’ names under First Day). Ask students to take a couple minutes to write out answers to questions. A shy person will be more likely to respond to being asked, “What did you write?” Get to know those students who don’t participate in class interactions so you’ll find any special knowledge they may have; ask them to contribute it at appropriate times.

In some scenarios, students may assume some negative roles. If we deal successfully with these situations, we can preserve a positive classroom environment. If the student assumes the Prisoner role, be clear about the benefits of the course. Ask the whole class to brainstorm 12 reasons why they shouldn’t be there. Review this list with the class, and tell them that you can see why they may not want to be there. Then, promise you’ll do your best to make the course worthwhile, and ask students to meet you halfway. Sometimes asking the student to help (e.g. passing out handouts) to show that you trust them, or engaging in a one-on-one talk, will bring the student around.

If the student assumes the role of the Introvert, use small group projects or employ group-generated questioning. This will give shy students a chance to succeed, and may make them more willing to participate in a large group in the future. This can also be achieved by asking for written responses to a question or problem. Most importantly, allow students to participate at their own comfort level; forcing an introverted student into an uncomfortable situation will probably cause him or her to retreat even further.

Finally, if the student assumes the Domineering role, make sure that you establish ground rules that discourage domination. Use small groups and don’t give the floor to a domineering person; while in these small groups, rotate group membership and leadership. And be proactive about the situation; if you can tell early on that someone will be a monopolizer, speak privately with him or her. Say you’ve noticed that others aren’t participating much and ask for help drawing them out. This gives the student a positive role to play, rather than a negative one.

If a few of your students still refuse to participate in classroom interactions, after you have made numerous efforts to engage them, keep in mind that the majority of your students are engaged. “If some students opt out, don’t let it bother you—it’s their loss, not yours” (Felder & Brent, 2003). Focus on the fact that most of the students are engaged, and move forward.


Felder, R.M. & Brent, R. (2003). Learning by doing. Chemical Engineering Education, 37 (4), 282-283.

McKeachie, W.J. (2002). Teaching tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 11th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Pike, B. & Arch, D. (1997). Dealing with difficult participants. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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