Active Learning: How to Engage Students in Your Course

students interacting in class
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Tracy Zanolini is a Cengage Faculty Partner and Mathematics Instructor at Rowan Cabarrus Community College. Here she discusses Active Learning in her courses and provides tips to help you add Active Learning strategies to yours.


When our boys were young, our pediatrician told us to consider their diet over the course of a week instead of focusing on each individual meal. In that same sense, when I think about active learning, I focus on the combination of strategies that I can use to engage students and get them invested in their learning over the course of the semester. Ultimately, my goal is to shift students’ mindsets from trying to complete the course to trying to learn the content. Once I can get that shift to happen, students participate in the class in a more meaningful way.

In my courses, I try to create a culture where we focus on learning from day one. I’m honest and upfront about some of the ways that I structure my class and my reasons for doing so.


Student Mindset Is Key

I firmly believe that for students to be actively engaged in the learning process, you must help them shift from the mindset of “completing the course to get the credits” to “learning the content.” Once you get them focused on learning, active learning will follow. In STEM classes, it takes being actively engaged to really learn the content so you must consider how you’ll get your students to do so. For me, this provides a continual opportunity to practice prior content, because some students will take longer to learn it than others. I don’t just teach something and move on regardless. I make sure students know it’s okay if they need a bit of extra practice on the material.

I provide them that extra practice so that by the end of the semester they’ll feel proud of the progress they made from beginning to end. 

Here are some tips you can apply to your course today.


Utilize “quick quizzes” at the beginning of every class

I give students in my in-person classes “quick quizzes” at the beginning of every class meeting. These quizzes are very short (3 questions) but will cover content from the entire semester. As a class, we talk about how it is important for us to continually review the content. This gives me the opportunity to answer any remaining questions. It also helps me make sure students remember what we learned throughout the semester.

One trick that I keep in my back pocket when students are getting ready to turn these quizzes in is to announce, “you can work with a partner for the next two minutes.” 

The deep conversations during those two minutes (which I usually extend because of the great interactions going on), even from those who shy away from group work, are amazing. Each time I use this strategy, I can also see my students becoming more comfortable participating in the group work that we do at the end of our class meetings.


Add a few problems to the end of each homework assignment that cover prior content

I also add three to four problems at the end of each homework assignment that cover content from earlier in the semester. In class, we talk about the fact that even if a student struggled with a problem at the beginning of the semester, we’re not just going to stop and leave it at that. I give them opportunities to practice the content because I have an unwavering belief that they can tackle even the most difficult concepts when given enough time and practice!


Provide additional opportunities for practice in class

Active learning is different in STEM-focused courses because students will not be able to “get by” just by watching the instructor work through problems.

Ultimately, students must work through the problems on their own so that they can practice thinking about how to get started—and the various routes to take to get to the answer.

A few years ago, I had an “aha” moment while trying to update my lecture notes. I realized that my students are not going to learn the content better by watching me work through another example or two. That semester, I dramatically cut the lecture portion of my classes down and added in a group work portion to the end of each class where my students work in groups to complete extra problems.


Use group work to develop deeper understanding

I realized that if students were working on these additional problems alone, some would get stuck and just sit there confused. Therefore, the extra practice problems that I give my students to work on at the end of class are given as group work. I believe that all students, regardless of their knowledge level, benefit from working in groups in a meaningful way. It is fun to see the differences in dynamic from group to group. I also implement labs throughout the semester where students can take advantage of technology and other resources to view the content in a different light.


Use short videos for online courses

I’m not going to lie—the pivot to all online classes was hard for me. After years of tweaking, I had finally found different strategies to get my students comfortable with actively participating in groups. I saw that it almost always leads to them having more confidence to participate in the class overall. Navigating group work and trying to create that sense of community in the online environment can be especially difficult. Ultimately, though, I find that giving students access to me and letting them know that I genuinely care about their learning has become my starting point.

I now create short videos to post at the beginning of each week. Many times, these videos include reminders about their assignments, but I also talk through one or two problems that I noticed the group struggled with on their homework. I want my online students to know that, although the class is online and they are working from home, they are not working from home alone. The more they can see my face and hear my voice, the better.

Start by cultivating the right mindset and then engage students by incorporating active learning into your courses. These small changes can have a large impact on your students’ learning experience and can be tailored to any course.


Looking for More Tips?

Keep in mind the following resources that are available to you.