Active learning: Tips, tricks, and ways to build student engagement

Close up side view of five college students looking at a professor

El Niño and La Niña, known for their cycles of warm and cold sea surface temperatures, could be a metaphor for the types of students in today’s classrooms. Some students on the engagement scale are warm (or even hot!), while others are definitely cold. What are some of the best practices that encourage student engagement, thus helping them become active learners? Al Trujillo, professor of oceanography at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, shares some of his tips, tricks, and active learning techniques. Plus, watch one of his active learning modules in a recorded webinar at the end of the interview.

Q. With many types of students in today’s educational environment, what do you think is at the heart of being able to engage students?

Trujillo: One word: Passion! As an instructor, don’t be afraid to show the passion you have for your subject matter, including what you find extremely interesting. Bring up current events in class and let students know why you think that information is fascinating. If you’re not enthused by what you teach, how can we expect our students to be? It’s great to be able to say in class, “I wanted to show you this because I think it’s way cool…” or “Look what just happened in the news, it’s related to our course content!”

Q. Where did you first learn about active learning?

Trujillo: I have been using active learning in my classes since I first started teaching more than 25 years ago, I just didn’t know it had a name! I just thought it was a fun and interesting way to engage students, have them interact, and analyze course content. Active learning is defined as a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving, that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content. It’s just getting students to interact with the concepts, principles, or processes of your course content.

Then about six years ago I attended an On Course training workshop for faculty at my college that was facilitated by Dr. Skip Downing, the founder of On Course. On Course is a method of student success used in college success courses, but it also applies to life in general. There, I found a cohort of instructors who use and promote active learning techniques to improve retention and help student achieve success in college and beyond.

Q. How do you create an active learning classroom environment?

Trujillo: I think it’s surprising that many instructors are uneasy about using active learning techniques in their classrooms. There is an extensive body of educational research over the past 20 years or so that shows that active learning has substantial benefits in student retention, learning, and success. Active learning necessitates that instructors let go of the standard idea of simply explaining things to students…and wondering why they don’t get it. But I understand that not every instructor is comfortable doing new, novel things in their classrooms.

I also think that if an instructor infuses their class with active learning, it needs to start on Day 1 of class. Do an activity that involves students interacting. For example, use a quick icebreaker or two early in the semester to help students become comfortable with one another and to set expectations for an interactive class. You can even cover your syllabus in an active way by using a technique called “Station to Station.” Early on in the semester, assemble students into groups called “Success Teams” and let students know your expectations of working in groups. Also, explain the benefits for using active learning techniques and connect the activity to student learning outcomes for the class.

A few active learning techniques that are fairly easy to implement throughout your course are the “one minute paper/muddiest point” and “think-pair-share” techniques.  The one-minute paper is a 1-minute writing assignment at the end of class that might answer one of these two questions: “What was the best thing you learned today?” and/or “What is still unclear in your mind from today’s class?” (e.g. the muddiest point, which you can use to see if students are really “getting it” and can follow up at the next class meeting to clarify a point or two). [Editor’s Note: An example of the “think-pair-share” technique is described below.]

Additionally, a colleague of mine uses this clever active learning technique: She has a few slides in her daily PowerPoint presentation that are “Figure It Out” slides that have a question related to course content that students solve in groups. You might also consider using personal classroom clickers or the low-tech equivalent, which are laminated voting cards. And there’s even a host of smartphone polling apps to use in class as well.

Q. In your recent webinar you talked about El Niño and La Niña, and in that context you had webinar participants engage in an active learning technique as if they were students, similar to what you do in class. What did you have them do?

Trujillo: For the webinar,  I used a modified “think-pair-share” technique. After I present El Niño characteristics in a face-to-face classroom, I have students work in groups to analyze two different figures: One showing El Niño conditions and the other showing normal conditions. Students examine the two figures and determine what’s different. It’s purely an observational exercise, kind of like those two pictures that are shown in some celebrity magazines: One picture shows the celebrity at a function, then the other picture is similar but has been photoshopped and has some slight differences. How many differences can you find? It’s kind of like that, students work on the differences, then report out to the class. Instead of me telling my students what the differences are, they discover them with their group.

They also do the same for La Niña conditions versus normal conditions. I modified the activity for the webinar because I couldn’t have the participants easily work in groups. So I had the participants work individually and send in comments to the moderator about what they noticed about the differences between the two figures. The moderator read the comments, which gave me the opportunity to explain each of the differences to the participants, just like I do in class. If you would like to see how it worked, a link to the recording of the webinar is shown below.

Q. Will you give us a few tips for active learning?

Trujillo: I think most importantly, you should start off small. Choose one simple technique to try in one class. Then do another, building on what you’ve learned so that you can incorporate more robust active learning techniques as you need them. In some of my classes, we spend the entire class time working in groups on a project related to course content. Think about a subject in your course that you know students have a difficult time understanding. Build toward breaking that down with a series of active learning exercises. I think you’ll be surprised and pleased with how students do.

Also, for active learning to be done right, it has to be prepped out. Think about how you will facilitate the process each step of the way. How will you introduce the activity? Do you need to provide visual aids with directions? Maybe some sort of physical model? How much time will you give students? How will you debrief? How will you handle large groups? Is the classroom conducive to active learning, where students can move desks and chairs to face each other?

One of the big challenges I face is to design effective learning activities that  allow students to engage with each other and the course content one or more times during a class session. The more active learning tools you know about, the better off you are to develop new activities in class. So I would suggest attending professional development workshops on active learning, such as this upcoming conference in October that Palomar College is offering. And, at least for those of you who use the latest edition of my oceanography textbook, I have included a new active learning exercise for each section of the text. Here’s one example: Working with another student in class and the Internet, come up with a list of eight different marine organisms in each of the three main categories of marine life: plankton, nekton, and benthos. Do not duplicate any examples of organisms found in the text. Share your list with the class.

One of the side benefits for an instructor is that using active learning techniques is quite enjoyable in class. I always look forward to implementing them. And lastly, don’t be afraid to experiment with new active learning techniques! I think you’ll be pleased with the results.



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About Al Trujillo
Al Trujillo

Al Trujillo

Al Trujillo began teaching oceanography at Palomar College in San Marcos, California in 1990. In 1997, he was awarded Palomar’s Distinguished Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, and in 2005 he received Palomar’s Faculty Research Award. Al knows his students and has mastered the skill of engaging them using active learning techniques. Al is also the author of the market-leading college-level textbook Essentials of Oceanography, 12e and a contributing author for Earth and Earth Science of the Tarbuck/Lutgens franchise.