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Center for Teaching & Learning: Active Learning Strategies for the Classroom

Supporting the MCPHS faculty and staff in their commitment to excellence and innovation in teaching and learning


A Think-Pair-Share exercise is a great, easy tool for getting students to make connections between assigned readings and what you focus on in class that day. You're giving individual students space to reflect on their learning, discuss the topic with a few classmates, and then practice sharing with the larger class.




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  1. Ask the students to reflect, in writing, on one reading and one topic from the class. (1-3 minutes)
  2. Once everyone has written something, ask the students to turn to their neighbor and share what they wrote. (10 minutes)
  3. Gather the class back together and have the pairs report back on a connection they discussed. (20 minutes)

Optional: After the students have paired up, you can have them form small groups prior to reporting back to the whole class.

Additional Resources

The Chronicle of Higher Education's article by George Williams on The Simplicity of "Think-Pair-Share" is a quick read to help you get started.

Engaging Students in Large (and Small) Classes: The Peer Instruction Method presentation describes a study at University of Colorado, Boulder. They used clickers to collect responses. It isn't quite as open-ended in terms of the students' answers, but it does students an opportunity to explore their individual rationale.

The Think-Pair-Share page from the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College provides a list of advantages, challenges, examples, and further reading.

Minute Papers

The Minute Paper is an easy approach to formative assessment, both in-class and online. It provides rapid feedback on whether students understand the concepts and which areas need further learning. When your students reflect and write their responses, they are actively engaging in the content, and that enhances their long-term learning transfer. Minute papers are low-stakes - not graded. However, some faculty use the Minute Paper to assess points for participation. Reading these should be fast too, about four papers per minute!

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On a piece of paper (or an index card supplied by you), ask students to respond in writing to the following questions:

  1. What was the most important concept you learned in class today?
  2. What was the ‘muddiest’ or most confusing concept covered in today’s class?
  3. What do you still have questions about?

The important guideline is that they have one minute to complete this.

Tip: Tell students at the beginning of class that they will be doing this exercise.



In this version consider giving your students one to five minutes depending upon your approach to the questions.

  1. Create a small “one five-minute” quiz at the end of each learning module.
  2. Use multiple choice or matching to evaluate your students' understanding of the module's essential concepts.
  3. Use short answer questions to examine students' higher-level thinking and understanding.
  4. Be sure to focus on immediate reflection of the current topic.
  5. Use 3-5 questions, remember this is a quick survey of their understanding and needs.
  6. Students should be encouraged to look back at their notes from the week and review.
  7. Use this at the end of the module for summary or the beginning of the next module for prior knowledge recall.

Additional Resources

The Center for the Enhancement of Learning & Teaching at Tufts University has prepared a handout on this strategy. In this handout, you will find sample instructions.

UCF's Dr. Kelvin Thompson adapts the one minute paper idea for collecting formative feedback from students in his online graduate course in educational technology.

Classroom Assessment Technique: Muddiest Point (video + transcript)  This is the simplest version of one-minute paper. Minute papers work well with large lower-division courses.



Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K.P. (1993) Classroom Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, Second Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from

Jigsaw Discussion Groups

" "A Jigsaw Discussion is a fun and active group organization model that supports peer teaching and cooperative learning. Using this student-centered approach, each student studies the topic materials. Then, they work in groups to share ideas, debate different views and teach each other. Plus, jigsaw discussions can be assessed in a variety of ways to suit your teaching style and your students' needs.

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  1. Divide the class into home groups of 3-5.
  2. Divide the lesson (readings, videos, or presentations) into 3-5 segments. If possible, match the number of segments to the number of students in the home groups.
  3. Assign each lesson segment to one student per home group. Depending upon the number of students, you might need to assign the same material to a few students - but they'll bring different perspectives to the discussion.
  4. Ask your students to first study the material on their own.
  5. Next, your students should form new groups for each segment – the expert groups. They'll work together to identify key points in the material.
  6. Once your students have become experts, they’ll rejoin their home groups. In their home group, students take turns sharing their new expertise by presenting their segments.

Optional: For a quick assessment, have your students take a short quiz before they join their expert groups to check for individual understanding.

Additional Resources

Amador, J.A. & Mederer, H. (2013). Migrating successful student engagement strategies online: Opportunities and challenges using jigsaw groups and problem-based learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(1). Retrieved from

Gonzalez, J. (2016, April 15). The jigsaw method. [Video file].

Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence. (2007). Jigsaw strategy. Retrieved from

Project-Based Learning

Profile of a person's head with a question mark inside.Project-Based Learning is a highly immersive student-centered approach the allows students extended time, often over the entire semester, to investigate an authentic problem or question while developing knowledge and skills. The project culminates in sharing their information with a "real-world" audience through a final presentation, video, or report for example.

* It's also important to know that project-based learning and problem-based learning are not the same.

Learn more

Try It Now

  1. Create a “need to know” with your students through activities and discussion that interests them.
  2. Develop a driving question that focuses and frames their study as it relates to the course.
  3. Facilitate your students’ project design and give them choices.
  4. Provide regular feedback that supports reflection and revision.
  5. Give students the opportunity to deliver their final project to an authentic audience.

Additional Resources

Project-Based Learning 7-Phase Model and The 7 Essentials is a handy infographic the highlights the features of designing the project and provides the rationale.

Essential Project Design Elements Checklist is a quick tool to guide you as your develop your teaching plan for the project.

Project-Based Learning vs Problem-Based Learning  explains the differences between the two.

Reflective Reading Responses

Reflective Reading Responses engages the students’ critical thinking and analytical abilities. It allows students to record their personal insights about their learning. Students consider the process of their learning and their conscious efforts to understand and apply their reading.


Try It Now

  1. For online or face-to-face students, use the Journal in Blackboard.
  2. Give your students a focused writing prompt with clear guidelines.
  3. Allow enough time for them to write.
  4. When you assess them, consider options like points for completion or building on the reading responses to support other writing (like the Synthesis Paper).

Additional Resources

Reflective Learning Journal Teacher Guide (MS Word document, automatically downloads.)

From UNSW Sydney, Examples of Reflective Writing. Types of reflective writing assignments log vs journal vs diary vs self-assessment etc.

Tomasek,T. (2009). Critical reading: Using reading prompts to promote active engagement with text. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21 (1), 127-132.

Synthesis Papers

Discussion Synthesis Papersintegrate and connect online or face-to-face student discussions with course papers and projects. Student use their classmates’ research or experiential discussion posts as evidence for their arguments when writing papers. This is a little different than the traditional discussion forums – use them as a collection point for the students’ responses.

Try It Now

  1. Post experience/reflection prompt in a discussion board.
  2. Ask students to write their initial posts, but don’t respond to each other.
  3. Assign a synthesis paper and ask student to use other students’ experience postings as “data” and make explicit connections between the “data” and the course material.

Additional Resources

Coffin, Caroline, et al.(2005). Teaching academic writing­­: A toolkit for higher education. London: Routledge.

Fishbowl Discussions

The Fishbowl Discussion is a teaching strategy that encourages full student participation, reflection and depth of knowledge. Students take turns "in the bowl" and "out of the bowl". Students in the bowl participate in a lively discussion, often about opposing views or controversial topics, Students outside of the bowl listen and reflect on the alternative viewpoints. And then...they switch!


Try It Now

In Class:

  1. Two to five students sit in the center of the class. They will be discussing or debating the instructor's question.
  2. The rest of the class sits around the small group and they will be silently observing and evaluating the discussion using notes or a rubric.
  3. Give your students the question and allow a small amount of time (5-10 minutes) for students to individually gather their thoughts before beginning.
  4. When setting the time consider your students' abilities and level of expected discussion when you set this time.
  5. At the end of time, the class should debrief.


  1. Assign students to two teams.
  2. Create a discussion forum for the class.
  3. Select a a discussion question for your fishbowl topic
  4. Provide the question to each team and allow students some time to prepare their thoughts
  5. Provide the rules and expectations for all the "in the bowl" and "out of the bowl" groups
  6. The "in the bowl" students" lead the online discussion forum.
  7. The "out of the bowl" students read the posts and evaluate the discussion.
  8. Once the discussion period is over - in an online class that may be three days or more, the other students will post their thoughts on the discussion content.
  9. The groups can switch or the instructor can debrief the class.

Additional Resources

The Art and Science of Successful Online Discussions This is not specific to student-led discussions, but it provides a good explanation of the reasons for discussions. This can help students understand the purpose.

Group & Cooperative Learning; Students as Classroom Leaders  This resource from Harvard Graduate School of Education explains the benefits using academic citations.

The Fishbowl from Edutopia This handout provides clear and specific instructions on the structure of the discussion question, the expectations for the students in the fishbowl and for those who are the observers on the outside the fishbowl.

Active Learning Strategies: Fishbowl Discussion from Baruch College This resource describes some alternate ways of using the fishbowl strategy.

Student-Led Discussions

Group of people with leader standing in frontA Student-Led Discussion is student-centered learning activity. Students are assigned or self-select the role of discussion leader each week. They pose the questions and guide the discussion. Your student leaders are likely to share examples that are more relevant to their classmates' experiences. This form of social learning encourages student participation and response and can be used in the classroom and online.


Try It Now

  1. Create a discussion forum in Blackboard.
  2. Provide your students with discussion guidelines for interaction, quality of contributions, and support in building a learning community.
  3. Make a list and assign 2-3 students as discussion leads for each week. (Post the list in Blackboard as a reference for your students.)
  4. Ask your student leads to submit their questions the week before their discussions for your approval. Each student's question should facilitate engaged participation by class members and support substantive exploration of the week's subject and course content. Discussion leads should consider themselves the “experts” for the week. That means that the leads should have completed all assigned readings the week before the discussion.
  5. The student leads will post their initial questions They are responsible for responding and engaging with their classmates' responses to their questions.
  6. Your responsibility is to correct misconceptions and help students with struggles on individual basis.

Additional Resources

The Art and Science of Successful Online Discussions This is not specific to student-led discussions, but it provides a good explanation of the reasons for discussions. This can help students understand the purpose.

Group & Cooperative Learning; Students as Classroom Leaders  This resource from Harvard Graduate School of Education explains the benefits using academic citations.

Online Discussions

Text bubbles Online Discussion Forums are one of the most commonly used teaching tools in online teaching. Use them for personal introductions, consensus building, or managing group projects. It is a place for students to post their responses to question prompts, share their reflections on the course content, reply to each other, and contribute to in-depth learning.

The CTL has more!

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From Iowa University of Michigan's Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. 


  • Define clear goals and objectives for the online discussion.
  • Organize the online conference clearly by category and topic ahead of time.
  • Provide detailed instructions for students, including student roles and responsibilities.
  • Establish rules for appropriate and inappropriate behaviors before starting discussions.
  • Require students to log in for a certain number of times each week.
  • Establish clear expectations and standards for assessing student performance in the online discussion.
  • Distinguish between two types of conferences: a) formal and b) informal ones.
  • Create an outline of different types of activities for the online conferencing/discussion.
  • Make online discussion/conferencing an integral part of the course. (Do not separate what is happening in the conference from what is happening in the face-to-face class meetings.)
  • Establish a clear starting and ending time for each discussion topic.
  • Direct students to technology training classes, online tutorials, and any other assistance when necessary.


  • Create a comfortable atmosphere for the online conferencing/discussion, for example:
  • Be an active participant.
  • Challenge the students without threatening them.
  • Use personal anecdotes when appropriate.
  • Bring your own experiences to the discussion.
  • Do not dominate a discussion or let a few students dominate it.
  • Ask questions at different levels (e.g., knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation).
  • Paraphrase a message if it is not clear.
  • Encourage active student participation.
  • Energize the online discussion if needed (e.g., using role-plays, simulations, pros and cons).
  • Bring closure to an online discussion (e.g., summarizing learning points).


Information source : Online Discussions. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan

Additional Resources

Online Discussion Boards: Strategies to Ease Instructor Burden and Promote Student Learning from the Online Learning Consortium gives examples of the types of comments faculty might use to guide the discussions. It also lists recommendations on enriching the discussions.

The Art and Science of Successful Online Discussions breaks down the science (comprehend, critique, construct, share) and the art (engage all students, know their needs, examine possibilities, leading vs. being led).

Designing Online Discussions: Key Questions from the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown walks instructors through setting your discussion goals, writing the prompts, facilitating, and assessing.

How Can I Facilitate Online Discussions? describes a different approach to designing online discussion forums. The recommendations support  discussion forums that more closely resemble the flow of conversation in the synchronous environment of a classroom or webinar. This link is to a blog post of  an excerpt from Torria Davis' book, Visual Design for Online Learning.

10 Tips for Effective Online Discussions to enhance student participation and success.

Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation a 16-page instructor guide to best practices, strategies, and management tips.

Bloom's Taxonomy: Teacher Planning Kit  provides question prompt stems and illustrates how they align with Bloom's. This includes a list of verbs that work well to support a range of thinking skills.

Discussion Boards: Valuable? Overused? Discuss. "Innovative approaches point to the potential for more meaningful online learning experiences."  This includes a list of recommendations on making the discussion boards inclusive

Strategies for Creating a Community of Inquiry through Online Asynchronous Discussions is a journal article discussing integrating the three Community of Inquiry (CoI) presences with online discussions.

Best Practices for Large-Enrollment Online Courses, Part 2: Managing groups, peer review, and other peer-to-peer interactions is from a three-part series on managing large online courses.

Online Discussions: Five Kinds of Forums (requires sign-up to newsletter) Substantive content discussion forum, virtual coffee shop discussion forum, voluntary product-sharing forum, team collaboration forum, and skills forum. or read the original journal article. Smith, T. W. (2019). Making the most of online discussion: A retrospective analysis. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 31(1), 21–31.



Discussion Tips for Instructors

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