Designing Active Learning Activities

Designing Active Learning activities offers enormous possibilities for personal innovation and invention. Here is a chance to create something really new, and highly effective. The list of possible Active Learning activities is infinite! So be daring and have some fun. Don’t wait for someone to invent your Active Learning lessons. The following discussion is intended to help you build your own Active Learning activities.

Examine the following chart and think of it as an anatomical model of an Active Learning activity. It has, potentially, three parts, but at least two. Let’s also keep in mind that Active Learning activities can lie between simple and complex. This model can apply to even the simplest activities, such as a spontaneous in-class think-pair-share, but it is more valuable when you are designing Active Learning activities which are larger.

Let’s take the writing of a research paper. I am going to discard the prevailing model which seems to go like this:

As you know we always do a research paper in this course. It is due in 4 weeks. It must be …. in length and use APA citation. Plagiarism will be punished by lethal injection. You must use at least three refereed articles and no more than one reference to the Internet. Late papers will be penalized at the rate of .5% per weekday of lateness up to a maximum of 12 marks unless this amount should exceed the deduction for the ineffective use of English…

I will be available during office hours in case you have any questions. When the papers have been submitted I will trudge home with them and spend more time marking your paper than you probably spent writing it. I will return it with abundant comments and you will tell me you were only interested in the mark.

If we repeat this activity enough times you will eventually be a good research paper writer.

So let’s try a different approach. First of all writing a research paper is a process and that’s what we hope students will learn. So let’s be honest about what the process is. Your idea here may be somewhat different that someone else’s. That’s OK. What are the five (or are there six?) steps to writing a good research paper, according to you?

One of the major problems with large activities is that students often find them overwhelming, right from the start. In addition, they don’t really know the process, the steps to go through. Furthermore, they get no helpful feedback until the end.

The model below shows the many ways any activity can be constructed. One of the best ways to find out how well prepared students are to undertake the work is to have a Planning step. The model shows several possible outputs from this step depending on the activity. For our research paper we might have students design a research strategy. This could involve a pre-designed form which helps the student articulate important decisions like how the topic has been or will be arrived at, why is the topic interesting or important, what sources have been or will be examined, what will be the subsequent steps to completion.

The model below next shows the possibility of feedback which can take several forms: self, peer, teacher, formative, or summative. As the arrows indicate there is a possible return to the Planning stage in order to make corrections. While this may seem time-consuming a good plan can shorten the time required later and produce better results.

The Actualization step is shown as one unit, during which the main work is completed. This can, and should, be subdivided into an appropriate number of sub-steps. There will be drafts and revisions and it might be worthwhile having students write a projected abstract in which they sketch what they expect the results to be. There will also be the refining of the references and citations. All of these Actualization steps offer the possibility of feedback and looping back for corrections.

All good Active Learning activities have some form of output. Without it the activity lacks authenticity. The passing of assignments between student and teacher is a school invention and is an activity disconnected from the world outside. So let the output be as public as possible. Electronic media offer many possibilities. Output from larger activities should be polished. This means that students should go through one or more iterations of feedback and correction before publishing their work.

The model below shows over 17,000 possible variations on the design of an activity. It is here that teachers can express their creativity and carefully design activities that lead students to discover the real process that lies behind the skill. The teacher is ubiquitous in the process: checking, advising, verifying, coaching. It should also seem obvious that the degree of ongoing interaction of the student with her teacher and her peers in these activities renders any form of cheating or plagiarism ineffective.

As we build activities with more and more authenticity we can wish for the departure of all the mindless obsessing over these two academic felonies.


AL Activity Design

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