Active Learning and Student Engagement Strategies

Our pod focused on methods of improving student engagement in the classroom, in both virtual and in-person modalities. We collected and analyzed engagement strategies from a sample of academic publications and institutions, professional chat rooms and blogs, and our own experiences. One product was a database of strategies, tagged to indicate for each approach/strategy how much pre-planning it requires, the types of learning outcomes to which it is best suited, whether it needs to integrate with the semester-long course design or can be done on-the-fly on a given day, etc. We hope this information can eventually be compiled into a searchable format on CTE’s website so that users can search these tips by learning outcomes or pedagogical strategy. For this initial forum, we compiled a smaller set of some of our favorite strategies, with a short, readable explanation for each.


Description: This strategy involves four steps:

  1. Teach new content asynchronously through recorded videos. Task: record video of the new content under consideration and make it available to students prior to the class meeting.
  2. In class: Ask students at the beginning of class to summarize briefly the new concepts they learned in the video. Teacher asks for volunteers or calls up students.
  3. Then put students into break-out rooms and give them a specific instruction to solve related problems in small groups.
  4. Then come back to the whole group and ask each group to report on what they solved and what difficulties they encountered.



  1. Professor spends less time in direct instruction but listens to students at the start of class and in small groups. This process helps professor identity, and then address, where students are struggling. 
  2. Allows professor to clarify concepts in a targeted way and assists students in small groups in grasping the new concepts.

Description: This strategy involves two steps:


  1. Professor prepares a photo, painting, drawing, something visual that represents a connection to the topic/new concept to be learned in the class meeting. The artifact can be sent in advance or at the beginning of class to the students. They are then asked to respond to the artifact in writing. The teacher gives students the following questions to help them to write about what they see:

a.     What are you looking at?

b.     What makes you say that?

c.     What do you notice (see/feel/know)?

d.     What more can we uncover?

e.     What does the artifact make you wonder about?

f.      How to you see the artifact relate to the topic/new concept?


  1. The professor asks students to read their writing out loud one by one or selectively (depending on the size of the online class) and takes the reports from there to the learning of the topic/new concept.



  1. Non-threatening visual element connects to topic/new concept under consideration.
  2. Helps professor to see where students are at in their thinking about the topic/new concept.

Description: This strategy involves two steps:

  1. Students are placed into partner break-out room while students are in the process of producing their project. They are asked to tell each other about their project, talk about their situation of getting the project done, and share what they like/dislike about their project, and give each other first-time responses on their work.
  2. After the pair of students talked with each other, they are asked to present their own projects through five-minute screencasts to the full group.
  3. Then they are also required to give feedback to the projects of at least two other students.
  4. Then report back on the entire project. The expectation is that students will be engaged in discussing their projects and the process in a lively manner.



  1. During the virtual classroom time or additionally scheduled time, student learn to develop their projects within a “process.”
  2. The feedback process develops peer-review skills.
  3. Teacher is there to help students give each other quality feedback on the emerging projects.

Description: All students are required to read the assigned readings prior to class and post a reaction to the readings on a discussion board (e.g., Canvas). The reaction can be structured (e.g., responses to questions) or unstructured (e.g., general reactions). One student is assigned or selected to serve as the discussion leader for the readings. After students post their initial reactions, the discussion leader is responsible for reading the reactions and responding. The response should elicit further discussion through posing probing questions, providing alternate viewpoints, or connecting with other course content. The student then comments on the discussion leader’s posting. The session concludes with the discussion leader holding a live class discussion. During the class discussion, the discussion leader shares themes from the discussion posts, highlights differing viewpoints, and/or pulls out relevant examples of connections with other course topics.


Applicable scenarios: This assignment is planned prior to the start of the semester and can be incorporated into the grading scheme. Because it involves posting to a discussion board, some aspects of this activity are asynchronous. However, class time (either online or in-person) is needed to provide a rejoinder to the discussion posts. This activity can support a variety of learning objectives, but is most useful for exploring different perspectives and deepening thinking about a topic.


Scheduling: This assignment takes time to implement, and there are three deadlines prior to the course discussion: (1) students need to post their initial reaction on the discussion board, (2) the discussion leader provides a response, and (3) students close the conversation with another post. These steps must happen before the class discussion.


Example: I recommend using this assignment for readings that elicit differing viewpoints or can be integrated with other course topics in multiple complementary or divergent ways. (Leanne Ketterlin Geller)

Description: Online discussion boards can be used as a component of other strategies (see “Reciprocal Discussion Leader”) or independently. These can be very effective, but can also be pointless and treated (often accurately) as “busy work” by the students if the use and role of the discussion board is not well conceived. The key with successfully using discussion boards for engagement and as a form of “active learning” is to carefully structure them according to several basic guidelines:

  1. Questions/topics should be those genuinely open for productive conversation, without a clear right or wrong answer. Examples would include (but not be limited to) issues of opinion, interpretation, and constructive critique of peer work. Discussion board uses that generally do NOT effectively foster engagement (though they may potentially serve other roles) are uses such as “reading quizzes” (e.g., “post something from the reading”) or contexts in which every post is independent, rather than responding to other posts.
  2. The instructor must write up clear guidelines for what each post needs to include. These guidelines should relate to the intended aims of that particular discussion board assignment and be explicit about what is expected (e.g., “offer a clear counterexample to the argument made in the prior post and suggest how you would modify it”). Simply saying “post here about topic x” is not generally effective.
  3. For effective integration into the course, students should be required to contribute to the discussion board, with grading penalties for not posting, or not posting in a constructive way following the provided guidelines. Depending on the topic and discussion structure, quantitatively the requirement may be to make x posts in response to other comments in an ongoing discussion, or to make at least one post on each of several topics at various times in the semester.
  4. Think carefully about how involved the instructor should be in each particular discussion, as this can vary depending on the topic and goal. Generally it is good for the students to see the instructor interacting with their comments, but you want to be careful not to stifle discussion or as offering the “right” answer with which everyone will then simply agree.

Applicable scenarios: Discussion boards can find use in virtually any type of course (even an introductory math course could have a discussion board about “math in current events” or something similar); that said, their most obvious value is in areas such as the humanities, arts, and social sciences. They can be used in support of a variety of learning objectives, but are most useful in encouraging deeper thinking and varied perspectives on a subjective topic, and in peer feedback situations.


Scheduling: Discussion board assignments generally should be planned prior to the start of the semester so they can be factored into the grading scheme, but can also be built and integrated on-the-fly when needed, for instance by factoring student posts explicitly into an extant “participation grade” or by adjusting the weight of other assignments in a category (e.g., if there were already three discussion board assignments totaling 10% of the final grade, a fourth could be added mid-semester while keeping the 10% total (so each of the assignments goes from being ~3.3% of the grade to 2.5% of the grade). Discussion boards do not directly take up “live” classroom time, though often for maximum impact it is worth the instructor taking a small amount of time to comment on the online postings (both to show they are being read, and to highlight important points that came out of the discussion).


Example: I use discussion boards in my film production courses for students to give each other feedback on early drafts of their work. So after an initial deadline for everyone to post their current draft (script, treatment, rough cut, etc.) then everyone has a couple days to post on their peers’ work (depending on size of the class, sometimes it’s to post on everyone else’s projects, other times they are assigned specific peers whose work they should critique). The explicit post guidelines for those responses are designed to ensure they engage with each others’ work and that each student gets useful constructive feedback. So for instance on a script draft discussion board, each post might be required to explain what the reader thought the themes of the story were, what parts of the script best supported that theme, and 3 suggestions for substantive story/character/plot changes to the script to better support that theme. This type of assignment does not require a lot of back-and-forth but often does lead to some – the original writer will comment back with questions about other areas of the script, or why a reader interpreted the script a particular way, and their respondents will follow up with more detail. It also leads to a lot of online cross-commentary between various students about each script – if two respondents disagree about the direction to take a character or story, their explanations to each other are invaluable to the writer. Finally, I always post my own notes about every script, including commentary on the discussion that has already happened... but wait a couple days after the student post deadline, so the students have all had a chance to weigh in and post back to each other first (without my views as the instructor skewing those of others who may have thought differently but assume I’m “right”). (Mark Kerins)

Description: This is not a specific type of active learning activity, but rather a way of structuring a synchronous (remote or in-person course). First, you begin the class with a short lecture, providing the new information that will be the focus of the day and/or framing the issue/problem to be considered. Second, you do a small group active learning exercise which can be one of any number of approaches (jigsaw, think/pair/share, debate, etc.); this portion should take up the majority of the time allotted to the topic. Third and finally, each group reports back on their results/decisions/outcomes, and the instructor offers feedback on those results. The core idea is that the bulk of the time is spent with the students actively engaging with each other and with an idea/concept, but that group work is “sandwiched” between the instructor providing appropriate context and framing on the front end, and then “lecturing” briefly again at the end (about the results of the group work), ensuring that concepts are properly understood and contextualized at the end.


Applicable scenarios: This is really a class-day-structure strategy, so can be applied to just about any topic where the instructor can also devise a small group activity. Thus it can be productively employed in just about any discipline for all sorts of topics, anything from learning a new mathematical formula to analyzing a work of art to building a business plan. The only real restriction (which is a feature, not a bug), is that it doesn’t work in a situation where the instructor wants to just lecture for the entire class period – but the point of the learning sandwich is precisely that simply lecturing the entire length of the class is not usually the most effective pedagogical strategy. Though it is designed for synchronous use, a modified version of the “learning sandwich” could be employed (though not in as elegant a fashion) in an asynchronous course, with the instructor providing a pre-recorded lecture/video at the beginning of a module, an asynchronous group assignment related to the topic following, and then the instructor recording a follow-up lecture after reviewing the group work turned in.


Scheduling: This strategy obviously requires pre-planning how a particular class day is going to go, but beyond that can be utilized at any time. It does not require integration into course grading, other than to whatever extent the small group work is graded as its own category or assignment.


Example: When my video production students are first learning lighting, I give a brief lecture on lighting strategies and the equipment they’ll be using, then put them into small groups to try to achieve specified lighting looks. Near the end of the class I’ll stop the groups and we’ll go around to look at the lighting setups each group created, where I can explain what they did well, what’s not working, and what they might have done differently to achieve their objectives better. I have found this “sandwich” style more pedagogically effective than either me just lecturing and demonstrating what to do, or having them do lighting assignments in small groups and talking with each group but never bringing the whole class back together for a wrap-up analysis. (Mark Kerins)

Description: This is both a meta-cognitive and content-based learning tool that works for both in-person and online teaching. It helps students become aware of their conversation patterns, and to learn how to conduct an engaged, dynamic, productive, content-rich discussion. Use this tool to guide students in a discussion after they have prepared a reading for class (and I recommend using an active reading notation tool to help students learn how to read closely).

  1. Divide students into two groups, discussants and observers.
  2. Set up discussion procedural rules for talk time, active listening skills, keeping the conversation thread alive, civil discourse, et al.
  3. Provide instructions for the observers to track during the discussion (you might choose to create a form for the students to fill in):
    • Content of conversation threads
    • How conversation threads are changed
    • Order of speakers and talk time
    • Style of conversation: interactive and idea-based vs serial reporting or agree/disagree reactions
  4. Provide a discussion prompt based on the assigned reading and give students 5-10 min to discuss it.
  5. Observers share their notes with the class. Then each student jots down what these observations demonstrate or lessons learned, to be analyzed later.
  6. Switch groups and repeats steps 4-5.
  7. Professor analyzes the lessons learned from both sets of observers and provides additional observations and lessons for the students.

Applicable scenarios: In-person or online. Best for reading-oriented thematic courses.


Scheduling: This strategy requires very little pre-planning and can be deployed at any time. It does not require integration into course grading, other than to whatever extent participation is graded as its own category or assignment.


Example: Contrary to popular perception, engaging in deep, meaningful, productive discussion is not instinctive. Students actually have to learn this skill. I teach a Medieval Studies course where lectures and discussion take place on separate days. This tool worked very well to help students become aware of the complexity and challenges of high quality, deep discussion and to teach them how to engage in this type of discussion. I thought the talkers would be self-conscious about being observed, but they quickly forgot and acted normally. They were surprised how easily they gravitated toward agree/disagree reactions, which prompted a great discussion about ways of thinking and the limits of binariness. I was surprised that the discussion pattern and style of the first group vastly differed from the second, which prompted another wonderful discussion about the roles played by individuality and personality, as well as group dynamics, including gender and peer pressure. I felt like I was channeling Deborah Tannen! (Shira Lander)

Description: This strategy helps students analyze and allows them to demonstrate and apply their knowledge. Ask students to explain why alternative incorrect multiple choice test answers are incorrect. This strategy works in many formats: discussion, small groups, written work, polling, et al. Students can engage actively when reviewing a multiple-choice quiz already taken. It deepens their learning by considering possibilities and providing rationales rather than thinking right/wrong.


Applicable scenarios: In-person or online. After you’ve graded a multiple-choice test, this is a useful and productive strategy to use for going over the test while also engaging the high-scorers.


Scheduling: This strategy requires very little pre-planning and can be deployed at any time. It does not require integration into course grading, other than to whatever extent participation is graded as its own category or assignment. The strategy has to be coordinated with the syllabus to provide sufficient time for it following a test.


Example: This is my go-to technique for test review. I don’t merely “go over the answers,” which is a mind-deadening exercise for me and the high-scorers. (Shira Lander)

Description: These are games that can be used for extra credit, games, or just review. It is a multiple choice game that makes reviewing a bit more fun.

I have used the webpage, but you could do them as a regular power point presentation, polling, or clicker. The advantage of the kahoot site is that you can see who answered first, and it keeps the score. It works really simple: the question will appear on a screen and students log in as participants. The students who log in see the possible answers on their phone.

Having said that, I have used a similar idea simply using power point. I have given a graph and asked questions about it. In the zoom chat I can see who answered the question correctly first, and keep track of scores on a piece of paper.


Objectives: Kahoot games are recommended for reviewing topics, specially simple concepts/ideas that we want to know as instructors whether students are grasping the general idea.


Example: I usually ask 10-15 questions and I stop after each question to see what were the common mistakes, why those are not correct answers, and why the correct answer is the best answer. I like to play this game the day before an exam. This allows students to see what topics will be covered and what they don’t understand as well as they thought. You can accomplish this while the students have fun.

You can also plan a “game” like this after a “bad exam.” This would allow students to get some more points while you can review concepts the students have shown not to understand. It allows you to stop when a test shows you students are not ready for the next step.

I met a previous student of mine a few days ago. I asked him what class he had taken with me. He replied: “Econometrics. I remember the Kahoot games.” I guess it makes the classes even memorable! (Marcela Giraldo)


Applicable scenarios: They can be done in face-to-face or online class formats. It would even work for hybrid teaching.

Description: As the name indicates, they are quizzes or any for grade activity that is done in groups. The objective should be clear and a very specific product should be expected. A group quiz is not a group project. This is an activity meant to be finished within the class period. It is important that students know exactly what they need to do, how it will be graded, and how each member is expected to contribute (this last point is usually decided among the students, but not always). You (the instructor) is expected to supervise, answer questions and make sure progress is occurring.


Applicable scenarios: It can be used for in person classes, or virtual classes. The method of grading might have to depend on the size of the classroom.


Objectives: evaluation of in depth material in which collaboration might be beneficial. I use these activities to ask difficult questions I am not sure most students could solve by themselves. The final goal is that students learn from each other and build relations in class.


Examples: I have used group quizzes in two formats. Mostly, I give 1-3 questions that should take students 45 minutes to answer. I grade as you would grade any quiz and give the same grade to all members of the group. I have found 3 members to be optimal. I have also given students 1 long problem to solve. Each group chooses one person to present the answer. This way the other groups get to see how every problem is solved. The down side is that grading can take a full class period. I write the grade on a paper and show the students what their grade is (I do not make it public). (Marcela Giraldo)