Good active teaching – preparing, running and managing the active learning classroom

The active classroom delivers time on task. Time on task delivers deep learning, learner fluency, and confidence.

The Active Learning Classroom is usually set out for groups, for example using cabaret style, active learning lab or SCALE UP (see the Classroom Configurations page).

Active learning strategies for facilitators

  • Circulate around the room and ‘drop-in’ with each table frequently;
  • Stay with groups long enough to acknowledge good contributions and provide useful insight;
  • It is usually best to set up groups yourself, rather than allowing the students to work with friends because they can fall into comfort zones.
  • Be aware that sometimes effective student groups will have been established by other tutors. It is often better to stick with groups that are already established. However, note that some active classroom approaches are very particular about group size and group roles so you will need to bear this in mind.
  • Using assigned team roles, regularly monitor group progress, but also check that individuals within groups understand what is being learnt – it can be easy for students to focus too much on performing their roles and not enough on learning;
  • Stand back and just listen to teams and tables talking – you might not be needed and your presence can disrupt productive work.

The active approach to student engagement

Questioning and discussion activities are defining parts of an active learning strategy. They,

  • promote student-teacher interaction;
  • signal the value of peer co-operation;
  • value what students know already;
  • generate feedback through collective interaction;
  • value diversity in knowledge, skills and perspectives;
  • set realistic challenges;
  • adapt to the situation;
  • promote time on task and the development of confidence.

Preparing to establish the session

Think about how you will,

  • arrange a suitable space that is conducive to holding a purposeful, focused discussion;
  • learn or remind yourself of student names if you don’t know them yet;
  • gain the trust and attention of the whole class or groups within it;
  • reassure students who don’t want to look silly in front of their peers;
  • deal with heckles and attempts at disruption;
  • delimit the discussion in terms of its scope and time;
  • clearly communicate the objective of the discussion, the value of the students’ engagement, and the supportive and appreciative basis for discussion.

Maintaining the session

You will,

  • address each student by name;
  • adopt a question style that is inclusive, positive and supportive and does not imply criticism;
  • capture key ideas during the discussion;
  • listen intently to contributions whilst at the same time facilitating the situation;
  • keep a conversation alive by being positive, yet looking for alternative possibilities;
  • develop uncertainty and curiosity;
  • use conversation to produce something together e.g. some principles, a process, a way of remembering important information, etc.
  • move amongst the class and make eye contact with every student in the room to acknowledge their participation (even if it is silent so far!);
  • value contributions by connecting one good idea or question to another.

Resolving the session

Think about how you are going to,

  • use key ideas captured during the discussion to form conclusions or to inform later sessions;
  • note the students who have not contributed so you can talk to them informally. You will need to ask them what would encourage them to contribute and agree on a suitable strategy with them for involving them in the future on that basis;
  • in summarising, acknowledge some of the people who contributed points, even if it is to acknowledge them by looking at them.

Managing the session

Take time to establish ground rules with a cohort – e.g. at Level 4, dedicate time to discussing and agreeing what learning involves at university and how this is different to school or other situations. Ensure the students’ expectations are the right ones.

Create an ‘engagement charter’ – agree through class discussion what is important for creating a successful learning environment when you first meet. Think about both the teacher role and the student role. Publish your agreement as a list of bullet points to the VLE for your future reference.

Make attendance worthwhile – keep attendance records to clarify the importance of participating. Issue something valuable in each session e.g. handout, feedback, task briefings, ‘heads up’ to future activities, a regular pertinent news item relating to the course, subject or profession. Use case studies or scenarios for small group work, providing them with examples they can use for revision.

Highlight the importance of punctuality and lead by example! – make the beginnings of sessions worthwhile and consistent e.g. create a regular short session icebreaker activity or challenge to bring activities into focus. Make links across weeks or sessions in your icebreakers and introductions that are both fun and pertinent to the module narrative.

Be clear – carefully brief group activities and take questions for further clarification.

Be organised – set up the room, update and distribute handouts in a timely fashion to avoid undermining momentum at the outset of an activity, be aware of the time, etc.

Be realistic – do not overload sessions. Be selective about what you will cover in class. Refer to and provide links to other information for their independent use.

Be observant – monitor group conversations for confusion, pre-empt difficulties and clarify. Clarify those points with the other groups too.

Be leaderly and facilitative – address disruptions on behalf of the cohort.

Address non-participation and be inclusive – sensitively manage participation by bringing in quieter voices and challenging dominant voices. Find opportunities to encourage participation and listen to reticent students.

Be frank and direct sometimes – don’t have a conversation about everything! Don’t tie yourself up in knots when the simplest action may be to give information, ask what is wrong or what can be improved.

Value difference – appreciate alternative ideas and perspectives, not just those that clone what you say.

Learn from peers – keep talking with your colleagues about what is working for you and what is not working.

Learn from students – talk with and listen to your students as much as is possible to see the world from their perspective and to get a sense of how well you are doing – especially if you are innovating in your approach. Consider pitching innovation as a collaborative responsibility and investigation.

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