Does it have to be so boring? Using active learning to liven up your classroom

Each semester, I open my class by explaining to my students that, as a graduate student adjunct lecturer, I’m in the unique position of simultaneously being a student and a teacher. I understand, I assure them, the fatigue of sitting through a 3-hour lecture class. While that acknowledgement builds a sense of shared experience, it also holds me accountable be more creative in my teaching approach.


But why is it so easy to feel bored in the classroom, and what can we do about it? In the age Vimeo, Vine, Snapchat, and Instagram, educators need to adjust to accommodate increasingly shorter attention spans. Neuroscience research has demonstrated that students can sustain their attention for only ~15-20 minutes before drifting. Students are also increasingly dependent on multimodal presentations of information (Metros, 2008), for example through visual graphics in articles, accompanying pictures in textbooks, and readily available video streams to supplement written material. According to the cognitive-affective theory of learning with media (CATLM; Moreno 2005a), humans have separate neural channels for perceiving information, and we have limited capacity to receive information through the same sensory modality (visual v. auditory v. tactile etc.). Information enters into long-term memory as a joint function of the number of streams in which information enters, along with motivational factors, and emotional salience (Moreno & Mayer, 2007). Taken together, this research tells us that, as educators, we should be incorporating more breaks into our classes, presenting information in multiple ways, and creating a meaningful connection to the material.


In keeping with this research, trends in education have shifted towards active learning. This refers to instructional methods that engage students in the learning process through meaningful activities (Prince, 2004). These methods stand in contrast to the passive learning that occurs when students receive information in a single representation (verbal v. non-verbal material) and single sensory modality (auditory v. visual input) (Moreno & Mayer, 2007). Along the same vein, educators are focusing on collaborative learning, which describes group work where students interact to pursue a common goal. In addition to encouraging more active learning, these strategies incentivize cooperation and more closely mirror the collaborative demands of many work environments. There has also been a push towards problem-based learning in which instructors introduce a real-world problem and provide context and motivation. These strategies often result in self-directed learning as the students seek novel resources and learn to navigate complex problems in a context that feels relevant to career aims.  All of these strategies share a common goal of allowing students to interact more deeply with the material and one another in order to improve educational outcomes.


Over the past several years, the WAC fellows and coordinators have compiled a wonderful collection of active learning strategies that can be applied across disciplines (for some discipline-specific ideas, see: Emerson & Taylor, 2004; Gee, 2003, Knight & Wood, 2005; Metros, 2008). Keep in mind that these activities will likely require some tweaking to fit the needs of your course. In general, it is important to be specific in your assignment, transparent about the activity’s function, and clear about where students can turn for help. When having students engage in group work, be sure to clarify whether they will be graded individually or as a group. Always be mindful of your role as an instructor in each activity. Decide whether you will you serve as facilitator, participant, supervisor etc.


Here is a selection of activities/strategies:


  • Graffiti: Pose a question, quote, or bit of text. Ask students to spend several minutes responding in the form of a free-write. Have students select specific words or phrases from their notes and ask them each to come up and write them on the board. After all the students have written their responses, engage in a class discussion about the range of responses. You can help identify trends across reactions.
  • Chalkboard annotation: WAC fellow Hilarie Ashton uses a similar strategy to graffiti in her classes. She writes a question, quote, or bit of text on top of a large sheet of oak tag or the board. She asks her students to come to the front of the room at the same time and write their responses directly on the sheet. In addition to having her students think more deeply about the material, this encourages them to converse with each other and share ideas in more intimate conversations.
  • Concept maps: Help students engage with a question or topic by depicting the relationships among related concepts pictorially. Students should aim to form connections among arguments, evidence, and themes in order to deepen familiarity with the concept. More information can be found here: (
  • Debate: Pose a controversial or complex argument and split the class into two teams to debate its merits/drawbacks. Debates can be quite formal by requiring preparation and setting high stakes (e.g., extra credit on a quiz or one homework pass), or they can be held informally to encourage extemporaneous reasoning.
  • Role-playing: George Guida, one of the WAC faculty coordinators, recently shared this example from his writing course. In order to help his students learn character composition, he has students come to class “in character”. Classmates will interview the character about his/her life experiences, beliefs, relationships etc. This allows students to deeply consider character traits, brainstorm new directions for their writing, and provide one another with feedback.
  • Instant feedback: Hand each student three post-it notes: red, yellow, and green. After explaining a complex or new concept, gauge student understanding by asking them to stick one of the post-its to their desk: red shows they don’t understand, yellow signifies tentative understanding, and green means they’re good to move ahead.
  • Think-pair-share: Ask students to consider a concept, quote, text etc. and free-write for several minutes. Have them pair up with a partner to share their reflections. Come back together as a group to discuss.
  • Snowball: Open the class by asking students to write questions about course material or homework readings on a piece of paper. Have them crumple their papers and toss them into the center of the room. Towards the end of the class, have each student select a “snowball” and try to respond to their classmate’s question. Randomly select several to review as a class.


For more information about these techniques, be sure to join us for our WAC faculty workshop, Creative Classrooms, on Thursday, March 22 from 1:00-2:15 PM in N601A.




Emerson, T. L. N., & Taylor, B. A. (2004). Comparing student achievement across experimental and lecture-oriented sections of a principles of microeconomics course. Southern Economic Journal, 70(3), 672-93.


Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.


Knight, J. K., & Wood, W. B. (2005). Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biology Education, 4, 298-310.


Metros, S. E. (2008). The educator’s role in preparing visually literate learners. Theory into Practice, 47(2), 102-9.


Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. (2007). Interactive multimodal learning environments. Educ Psychol Rev, 19, 309-26.


Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-31.