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Teaching Guide for Graduate Student Instructors
GSI Teaching & Resource Center

Teaching Discussion Sections

Active Learning Techniques

Research shows that when students engage with each other in learning tasks, they remember material better and they figure out how to apply and extend their new knowledge more effectively. In addition, this approach promotes learning among students from diverse backgrounds and who have diverse learning styles. Active learning strategies are also simply more interesting, for the instructor and for the students. Some kinds can be done with relatively little preparation; others require more careful logistical preparation.

To use active learning techniques effectively, think through the learning objectives you want the students to reach, and pick a goal-appropriate activity. Be sure to plan the logistics of the activity in advance. You’ll also need to estimate how much out-of-class preparation and in-class time the activity will take for the students. (GSIs often underestimate how much class time the activity requires.) Lastly, how will you wrap up the activity once the students have done their part?

Below is a selection of active learning techniques you can use in your section.

Peer Instruction

Objectives: To move the site of teaching and learning from the instructor to the students. To have students connect or apply concepts by explaining to another student or trying to convince another student. To enable students to evaluate their understanding of the instructor’s explanation. Peer instruction can be used in review sessions to move students to a higher learning level, beyond their concern over what to memorize.

Description: Peer instruction has been well developed in physics, but the format can be adapted for a number of other disciplines. The instructor introduces a question that requires students to reason out a problem using immediate course content, and provides a few alternative answers, A, B, and C. (This is a low-tech version. Many faculty members use an electronic classroom response system such as i-clickers or a phone app for this.) Students raise their hands to indicate which alternative they think best answers the question. Students are then asked to work in pairs, each student trying to convince the other of his or her explanation of the answer. After one minute, the instructor brings the class back together and polls the class again. Usually there is some shift toward the correct response, showing that the students who got it have effectively taught those who didn’t. You can wrap this activity up by having someone explain the correct answer. Everyone will be curious and want to compare notes with those who have reasoned it out correctly. Of course, if there are still gaps in the students’ explanations, you should fill those in.

Example: Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy, asks,

Why does the Sun shine?

  1. Nuclear reactions in the center release energy.
  2. Chemical reactions: the Sun is “burning.”
  3. Slow gravitational contraction releases energy.

Students raise their hands when prompted to indicate they believe the answer is A, B, or C. Professor Filippenko knows by the show of hands approximately how many students don’t know the answer and could use more instruction. The next step is not to tell them the answer, but to have each student turn to a partner to explain why he or she chooses A, B, or C. After one minute of mutual explanation and persuasion, Professor Filippenko repeats the question for another show of hands. In general, those who have answered the question correctly have been able to convince their partners of why their answer is correct. However, some misunderstanding may remain. Professor Filippenko then gives the correct answer with an explanation, or he has a couple of students give the explanation.
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Class Debate

Objectives: To encourage students to organize their thoughts in a critical or argumentative way that takes into account the complexity of issues and the existence of alternative and opposing views. To increase students’ public speaking and presentation skills, including the ability to think quickly on one’s feet. Class debate can also be used to develop students’ research skills and give them a chance to become experts on a particular subject.

Description: This technique can be used with either large or small groups. In either case, it is often best to begin with a brief class discussion of the issues involved in the debate topic. This provides a context for the debate, a sense of the sub-issues involved, and a gauge of class feelings on the issues. At this time the instructor should also make clear the rules of the debate, including time allotted to each side and rules for speaking. (Several websites offer formats and rules for various kinds of debates.) If a small group format is used, divide the class into groups and give them time to choose their topic and resolution. (Debates are often won or lost in the wording of the resolution, so it is important that the students have some leeway in deciding upon this wording.) After the sides and resolution are decided, the students will need time to prepare their arguments and tactics. If the class is to perform the debate as a large group, the instructor usually serves as moderator. In this case, the two sides should also be given some time to develop their positions and their strategies of argument before the debate begins. In either a small- or large-group format, students may be instructed to argue for their own beliefs or against them, depending on the instructor’s objectives. Likewise, the instructor may choose to have students argue first an affirmative position and then a negative one. Some instructors prefer to summarize the debate at the end; this can clarify the information presented and direct students to focus on the key points derived from the exercise. Other instructors refrain from summarizing students’ contributions, thereby preserving the variety of opinions and perspectives that were expressed over the course of the debate.

Examples: In an American Political History course, the class was discussing the relative merits of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. As the discussion began to polarize and to heat up, the course instructor decided to formalize the process in a debate. She divided the class roughly in half according to their stances on the issue. The students on one side of the issue sat together on one side of the room, and students with the opposing view sat on the other side. The students were asked to argue the position opposed to their own beliefs because the instructor wanted them to become more familiar with the other side’s arguments. They were given one and a half class periods to work together on their strategies and arguments, and the debate lasted one class period. The debate took place under a simplified version of Robert's Rules of Order with the teacher serving as the chair. (Click to view an example of a simplified version of Robert’s Rules of Order.)

Similarly, in a statistics course, the instructor encouraged the class to debate competing methods of solving certain kinds of problems. The class was allowed to polarize and was then formally separated to give the students time to work together to prepare their arguments. Then they were brought together in a semi-formal debate to argue which method was better.

Finally, in a course on oral argumentation, students were routinely assigned two debates. In the first debate they debated one-on-one; in the second one they debated two-on-two. They were allowed to choose their own topics and resolutions, both of which had to be approved by the instructor, but they worked on their arguments outside of class. Students were given two weeks after choosing their resolutions before beginning debate in class. If a student debated the affirmative side of the issue in the first debate, he or she was required take the negative side the next time to get an understanding of the different strategies and tactics on the other side.
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Objectives: To increase student awareness of the interconnectedness of knowledge and the subtle complexities of a situation. To include affective learning as well as cognitive understanding. To expand personal experience by simulating a situation. Role-playing can be used make learning more active.

Description: Role plays may be done as a whole class or in small groups. The instructor begins by describing a context and a situation within that context. Students are either given roles or allowed to choose them. Students are given some time to prepare, and then they enter their roles and act out the situation. Some instructors add student observers to the situations. These observers do not act out a role in the situation, but they observe and analyze the performances of the actors and provide feedback both to the actors and to the instructor and class. Role plays may be used even in fields which do not involve human beings directly: e.g., students may play the roles of cells, molecules, economic forces, and abstract philosophies in addition to historical figures, characters in a novel, etc.

Examples: In an introductory biology class, the instructor used role plays to help students more actively grasp the formation of protein chains. The class was divided into groups and each group was assigned to play the role of a particular type of atom. Each member of the group would be an atom of that type. They were to study the behavior of these atoms and then act them out in class. Once the role play began, some atoms would bond with others at particular angles to form simple molecules. Other atoms would repel each other and make certain formations difficult to achieve. Simple molecules would form into larger ones, and eventually protein chains would evolve.

In a physics course, a small ball became an electron. The electron was passed from one student to another to demonstrate electron transfer and oxidized/reduced states. Later in the course, the students were able to name the components of an electron transport chain that they built by passing the electron.

In a Shakespeare course, students studied Shakespeare’s plays intensively for a few weeks. Then they chose scenes and roles from a set of scenes selected by the instructor. They analyzed their chosen characters, then acted out the scene for the class. Finally, they wrote a short essay explaining the motivation they ascribed to their characters.
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Case Studies

Objectives: To facilitate intuitive and integrated understanding of complex, interconnected issues. To encourage students to integrate theory with practice. Case studies can be used to enliven the material by making it concrete and relating it to the lived world.

Description: Students are given specific cases to study that illustrate genera theories presented in the course. Students may be asked to write an analysis of the case, to report on it orally, or to be prepared for detailed questions from the instructor.

Examples: In a physics methodology class, students were given unsigned research reports by famous physicists. They were divided into groups and asked to critique the research methods used in the cases they had been given. Each group presented its findings orally in class. Only at the end of the exercise did the students learn the names of the researchers.

In a political science class, after a unit in which the lecturer presented information on ruling styles, the class was given biographies of a number of rulers. The class was divided into groups and each group was assigned a biography. Each group was to determine what kind of ruling style the leader used and whether it was an effective style of leadership according to the criteria laid out in lecture.
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Creative Scenarios and Simulations

Objectives: To encourage students to extrapolate beyond the information they receive in class. To stimulate creative and original thinking by forcing students to look at their knowledge from a new perspective. To foster a greater awareness of the interdependence of theories and facts. Creative scenarios and simulations can also be used to make students more active in their learning and to increase their research skills.

Description: Creative scenarios and simulations are connected by the fact that they both depend on counter-factual assumptions. In addition, both often combine several aspects of role-playing and case studies. In creative scenarios, students are familiarized with a particular configuration of knowledge and reality. The instructor then specifies a hypothetical change to this configuration and asks the students to discuss the effects of this change on a specific area of interest. In simulations, students are put in situations which are set up to be analogous to “real” situations of interest to the course. Students are then asked to act out the simulation as if it were the real thing.

Examples of Scenarios: In a public health class on hospitals, the class studied the various factors influencing the economics of their operation. The class was then asked to work out what the effects would be on those economics if a cheap vaccination against AIDS were developed tomorrow.

Students in a geography class were studying the impact of nuclear radiation on ecosystems. They were asked to predict what the effects would have been had Chernobyl’s reactor melted down into the ground water underneath the reactor core.

Examples of Simulations: Students in a business class were studying entrepreneurship. As their final project for the semester, they were asked to simulate how they would go about starting their own company. Students were put into groups and told that they had a set amount of venture capital to work with. They then took whatever steps they thought wisest to establish their own company and turn it into a profit-making entity. They had to develop a comprehensive plan which included what product they would manufacture, who would manufacture it, how much it would cost, how they would finance production, how they would hire personnel, how they would market their product, and how they would manage their company. In one class, the professor arranged with a private venture capital company to actually provide funding in the specified amount to the group that came up with the best plan.

Students in an upper division engineering class were asked to write up their final projects as if they were being submitted to a journal for publication in order to practice professional writing within the discipline. They were allowed to choose which journal they would like to submit their results to; then they had to study that journal to discover what kinds of articles it accepted and what the rules concerning format and submissions were. Finally, they wrote their article following the standards they themselves had discovered.

In a math course, the students often played Math Jeopardy in lieu of a quiz. The instructor provided a list of three math topics such as Wacky Integrals, Simple Proofs, and Limits, as well as one non-math topic such as Bay Area Trivia or Famous Dead Rock Stars. Math questions were assigned dollar values of $10, $25, $50, or $100, while the non-math questions were worth $1, $5, $10, or $15. Students would take turns picking questions, then everyone would be given five minutes or so to write down an answer. The game would end after ten questions were picked and answered. The instructor found this game helpful not only as a fun learning tool for the students, but as an informational device for his teaching. If all of one topic disappeared quickly, then he was confident that the students understood that subject. If another topic remained virtually untouched, then he knew what he needed to discuss in the next section.

In an upper division biology class, students were assigned journal articles to read either individually or in small groups. They were then asked to design the next step of experiments that would further this research topic and present their work in the form of a mini-grant proposal.
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