What’s Cooking? : Recipes for Active Learning

active learning

You are making a new dish and you have all the ingredient lined up and ready to go. You patiently follow the steps to put everything together. It looks like the dish turned out exactly how you thought it would until you taste it, and then you realize you forgot that special ingredient – the salt, of course!

Just as salt brings everything together in a dish, engagement makes a learning experience whole and wholesome. You can have all the right conditions; great classroom, technology, teaching assistants, motivated students but if you fail to engage, it’s as if you have left out the salt in a dish.

In Teaching What You Don’t Know, Therese Huston, Faculty Development Consultant at Seattle University, explains that “for most of us, it’s [not] clear whether our students are thinking in class or what they’re thinking about.” Active learning allows students to clarify for themselves what they are learning and helps instructors understand where the knowledge gaps are. To get time-pressed faculty into the active learning mindset, she provides a very helpful list of active learning “recipes” that can enhance student engagement in your daily classroom. You can pick one or two, or more, depending on your big questions, educational objectives, and of course, time:

Comparative Note-Taking

Preparation: None
Structure:  Pairs
In-Class time:  Two – Five minutes

Steps: Research suggests that attention spans lapse in a standard lecture every fifteen to twenty minutes, so try to schedule this activity every twenty minutes where students take one or two minutes to compare their notes with a neighbor.  This activity can also be used after covering a particularly difficult concept.

Benefits: This activity will give students an opportunity to revisit and refine their understanding of the concepts while the information is still fresh in their minds, and instructor the opportunity to provide instant feedback.

Participation Prep

Preparation: Minimal
Structure:  Individual
In-Class time:  Two – Five minutes

Steps: Pick a question that requires some thoughtful analysis and not just rote memory. Tell the students to write down an answer which they will be asked to share with rest of the class. This activity will give students time to structure, evaluate and even rehearse their answers.

Benefits: Since students get time to write before they speak this activity will help boost their confidence and create space for new voices.

Intentional Mistakes

Preparation: Some
Structure: Individual or pairs
In-Class time:  Two – Five minutes

Steps: Present students with an inaccurate statement, incorrect proof, weak argument, or illogical conclusion, and ask them to jot down the original question with a reasoning.  The purpose is to draw attention to a common mistake that students are likely to make on an item.  After students have taken a few notes ask them to share suggested corrections and reasons the original is wrong.

Benefits:  This activity will challenge students’ set notions and beliefs and help them develop their analytical and persuasive skills.

Suggestions for Preparation: Creating an erroneous statement will take a little time. If you’ve taught the topic before then you might know some common mistakes from previous exams, but if the subject is new it may take some researching and time.

Peer Instruction or ConcepTests

Preparation: A good deal
Structure: Pairs or small groups
In-class time: Seven-Fifteen minutes

Steps:  Students are given a conceptual question on a PowerPoint slide and four or five multiple-choice answers. They have a few minutes to generate an answer. They can compare their answer with that of their neighbor, before solidifying their answer.  Bring the class back together to discuss the correct answer. You can use a clicker (student response device) or some other method so that the whole class votes simultaneously.  You can do vote-discuss-vote cycle or just discuss and vote cycle.

Benefits: This exercise will help you determine gaps in students’ understanding of the content.

Suggestions for Preparation:  Budget time for generating a good conceptual question, an answer, and a few plausible but incorrect alternatives. If you are using clickers, it’s advisable to do a practice session.

Category Building

Preparation: Some to a great deal
Structure: Individual or small groups
In-class time: Fifteen-Thirty minutes

Steps:  Give students two or three concepts and a long list of features. Students work in pairs or small teams to sort the features into those categories. To encourage higher-order thinking, you can also include categories like ‘Both’ and/or ‘Neither’.  You can provide feedback as students work on this task.  After the activity, make sure to review the correct answers and discuss the items that were hardest to categorize. Students should be given a way to record the answers for future reference.

Benefits:  Through observation of student discussion you can get a clear picture of the learning paths students are taking, and by providing instant feedback you can re-direct them. This process will help your students re-evaluate and correct their approach before it’s too late.

Video Predictions

Preparation:  A great deal
Structure: Small groups
In-class time: Fifteen-Thirteen minutes

Steps: At times when you play a video in class what students learn and recall may be very different from what you hoped they would learn and recall.  Students end up focusing on what’s called the ‘seductive details’ and not the concepts you intend to get across.  This activity will help you correct this disconnect.  Students, preferably in teams, are asked to predict very specific and particular parts of the video. For example, if you’re watching a documentary about labor practices at Walmart, you can let students know that they are about to watch a manager interviewing a job applicant for an entry-level management position, and this person has made it through the initial paper-screening. Ask students to work in small groups to generate written predictions about what they expect to see.  Ask for specific details, preferably concrete measurable details. What gender, race, and age do they expect manager to be? How about the applicant? How long do they expect the interview to last? Do they expect it to be public or private?

Benefits:  This activity provides a platform for co-construction of knowledge, encouraging students to re-think their beliefs and value system in a safe and collegial environment.

Suggestions for Preparation: Selecting a video that fits the learning objectives, generating questions that will help focus student’s predictions, directing the group work and discussion so everyone stays on-task will require a lot of time and some practice and patience.

Fishbowl (Concentric Circle Discussion)

Preparation: Minimal
Structure: One medium group and one large group
In-class time:  Thirty-Sixty minutes

Steps: A fishbowl consists of two concentric circles of students: an inner circle of six to ten students having a discussion around a table, surrounded by a larger group of students who listen to the smaller group’s discussion.  Provide the inner circle with discussion questions and time limit. Give the outer ring the job to observe and take notes and debrief the class after the discussion.  Alternatively, the students in the outer circle can join the discussion by “tapping in” where student from outer circle replaces the student from inner circle. This may require some rules about how long a student needs to wait before he can tap in or how much time a student will be given before he is ‘tapped out.’

Benefits: In many traditional discussion classes, a few students dominate while rest of the class remains silent. Through this activity you can encourage engagement of a wider section of the class.


For more context, you can read the eBook of Teaching What You Don’t Know for free via the UH library. Read the Ebook

Also, Thurston gave an insightful interview on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast about this same topic.


Anjana Singhal
Instructional Designer at

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