Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community


One of the most difficult tasks we face as instructors when designing a course is how to best use the time we have with students. While we want to present important information and make sure that our students are exposed to course content, we must also provide time and space for students to apply the knowledge they obtain in class. This page provides strategies for encouraging active learning in the classroom through reading, writing, discussion, and critical thinking. If you're looking for ways to balance content delivery and student engagement, the following sections should help you begin to enact that balance.

Active Learning

Active learning is based on the premise that students must do more than just listen to fully comprehend new information. They must read closely, write often, discuss ideas with peers, and think critically. By using active, rather than passive, modes of learning, you will increase your teaching effectiveness and your students' learning.

Active learning isn't simply the opposite of lecturing, however. It involves the implementation of "learning experiences in which the students are thinking about the subject matter" (McKeachie, 2002). These learning experiences can take the form of presentations, group work, class discussion, writing prompts, and reading exercises. Active learning motivates students to apply new knowledge in hands-on situations. These applications allow them to engage with the course material in meaningful and formative ways.

The practice of encouraging active learning is linked with the pedagogy of inductive teaching. As opposed to deductive teaching, in which concepts are defined by the teacher, and the class is then exposed to examples on this previously learned concept, inductive 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. KU faculty members Caroline Bennett and Nathan Wood offer more suggestions for optimizing class time in their Two-Minute Mentor discussion, which you can view by following this link

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. In addition, this framework helps to move students toward more complex intellectual tasks, as outlined in Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning.

Moreover, 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.)."


One suggestion for encouraging critical thinking and 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.

Another strategy that allows for active engagement with reading material is close reading. To promote close reading, have your students get into groups, and assign each group a number of paragraphs to summarize and analyze. This exercise works best if you assign the paragraphs in a sequential order, starting from the beginning and working through to the conclusion. This exercise assumes that students can explore an excerpt from a reading in more depth than an entire article or chapter. After 10-15 minutes of group work, have each group report their findings to the class. By guiding the conversation, you can have the students shift from summarizing their paragraphs to synthesizing the major themes and ideas from the reading. With this exercise, you can maintain both an ordered as well as an open discussion of the reading.

For more ideas on how to foster critical thinking among your students, watch this Two-Minute Mentor video with KU faculty members Sheyda Jahanbani and Betsy Brand Six. 


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.

For large lecture-based courses, Bean offers a number of strategies to get students writing; for example, you can break the pace of a lecture using "minute papers," which are essentially free-writes that ask students to explore some aspect of the lecture through writing—they take longer than a minute to write, but you can have students compose them at any point, or minute, in the lecture. You can also ask students to summarize one of your previous lectures. This exercise helps students tap into prior knowledge at the start of a new class.

You might considering designing writing assignments that ask students to question your lectures: ask them to find some aspect of the lecture that they question or disagree with. This kind of writing allows them to draw from prior conceptions, which you can correct if they are misconceptions, and personal experiences. Another strategy Bean offers for lecture-based courses is to design writing assignments that engage directly with your lectures. For example, you can give students a prompt that quotes a previous lecture and ask your students to write responses to that quotation. These exercises provide many opportunities to incorporate writing into large, lecture-based courses, and they can also be applied to smaller course sections that are predominately centered on discussion.

Generating Discussion

The most common approach to encouraging active learning in the classroom is the use of discussion. Here are several methods you can use 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 (or fewer if you're teaching a small class) 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 a certain length of time, stop the discussion. If you wish, repeat with new topics.

Students need time to process material. Class discussion can

provide an opportunity for students to talk through difficult concepts.

You can also ask students to frame the discussion, or determine the direction of the discussion. Have students 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, and encourage other students to provide answers to these questions.

Some additional 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.

Another 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 your talking preventing students from contributing, or is discussion faltering because you don't speak enough?
  • What are you 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.

Working in Groups

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:

Teamwork is more useful than lectures when

teaching practical knowledge or material that is

evaluated based on social context.

  • 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 cooperation 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 ways of thinking needed for success in the classroom.

Critical Thinking

To foster critical thinking, it is important to maintain a student-centered classroom. Providing information in the form of lectures or presentations does not require students to think or engage critically with the course material in class on a consistent basis. Encouraging critical thinking requires you to give students numerous opportunities throughout the semester to apply their knowledge, try out new solutions, fail, succeed, and learn from others, including you. It's impossible to gauge your students' ability to think critically without providing them the time and space to think, read, write, and discuss.

According to Bean, a student who thinks critically:

  • Raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely
  • Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively
  • Comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards
  • Thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences
  • Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems

One way to help students reach these goals in class is to ask 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, reinforce key ideas, and encourage student interaction.

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. 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. This strategy will help both yourself and your students use class time well. Encouraging positive classroom interactions is an important precursor to helping students think critically and engage actively with the course material.


  1. 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.
  2. McKeachie, W.J. (2002). McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 11th Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  3. Magnan, R., Ed. (1990). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Magna.
  4. Stocking, S.H. et al. (1998). More quick hits. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.