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Creating Variety in Learning Activities

Active learning has been shown to improve student learning (see Freeman 2014, Hake 1998, Prince 2004, Ruiz-Primo 2011, Schneider 2017, and Theobald 2020). Broadly speaking, active learning is anything that engages students with course content and makes them an active part of the learning process. However, it is useful to use a variety of active learning strategies over the course of a semester so that students have opportunities to engage with content and one another in different ways.

A recipe for active learning

The learning activities we use in class should be in support of our class learning outcomes, the things we hope students will learn during that class session. To build an activity, we first choose a method, what students will actually do, and then a format, how students will collaborate and/or be arranged to do the activity. This document includes numerous examples of both methods and formats.

Methods: What students are doing

The method describes the particular activity students are completing. For example, students might be doing simulations, engaging in a debate, responding to a poll, working on a case study, creating a concept map, or solving problems. Although we include a list of methods above, there are undoubtedly other ways that instructors engage students during class.

Formats: How students are configured

The format in which students are learning describes both who they are working with and how they are arranged in the room. For example, students might be working individually and in their seats. Students might also be working in small groups, either at their tables or at the whiteboards. Students might be working in standing pairs which rotate every few minutes. Each of these is a different format.

Active learning = class learning outcome + method + format

To create a specific learning activity, we thus start with the class learning outcome and then select a method and format that would allow students to work toward that class learning outcome. Here are a few examples:

Class learning outcome for Spanish 101: Students will be able to explain relationships between family members in Spanish.

Activity: In small groups (the format), students will do a role play (the method) where they pretend that they are with family members when they run into a friend. They will then practice introducing their family members and explaining their relationship.

Class learning outcome for Biology 227: Identify the function of each part of the pulmonary system.

Activity: In pairs (the format), students complete a matching activity (the method) where they match up the names of the parts of the pulmonary system with the function of each component.

Benefits to creating variety in learning activities:

Mixing up the kinds of active learning strategies we use has several benefits, including:

  • Activities which allow students to engage with content and one another in different ways will naturally accommodate students with different preferences for how they learn. This is aligned with the principles of Universal Design for Learning.
  • Activities that vary over the semester will be more motivating to students.
  • As instructors, we can be more creative with how we mix and match methods and formats to create engaging learning experiences.

When creating an active learning environment, it is important to first start with the learning outcome in mind. Once a learning outcome has been identified, numerous and varied activities can be created by mixing and matching methods and formats. It can be helpful to have the list of methods and formats on hand to inspire the creation of activities that go beyond what one regularly uses during class! And while not every method and format lend themselves to all courses (because of the size, discipline, and/or physical space), there are still a lot of ways to mix and match in order to add variety to your course.


226 active learning techniques from Iowa State University

Active Learning by Cynthia Brame from Vanderbilt University

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K., and Mayer, R.E. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: a handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111, 8410-8415.

Hake, R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics 66, 64-74.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education 93, 223-231.

Ruiz-Primo, M.A., Briggs, D., Iverson, H., Talbot, R., Shepard, L.A. (2011). Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science 331, 1269–1270.

Schneider, M., & Preckel, F. (2017). Variables associated with achievement in higher education: A systematic review of meta-analyses. Psychological bulletin, 143(6), 565.

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., et al. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 17(12), 6476-6483.


Dr. Megan Frary, Coordinator for Graduate TA Support, Center for Teaching and Learning and Associate Professor, Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering, Boise State University

Dr. Tasha Souza, Vice Provost, Faculty Success, Sacramento State