Another Look at Active Learning, part 5: Active Learning in Large Classrooms

by Sheryl L. Love and Jeff Rients

In the previous three installments of this series, we’ve proposed a variety of active learning techniques that you can implement in your classroom. A common faculty response to some of the active learning techniques we’ve outlined is that they do not scale up, i.e. the claim is that these strategies may function admirably in a typical classroom, but they don’t work in a lecture hall. In this post we will be sharing some active learning techniques with proven track records in large classes as well as discussing the mental disposition needed for faculty to take the leap of faith into active learning.


Each of the following techniques are designed to encourage student engagement with the lecture by providing an additional way of interacting with the material. Used repeatedly, they also help build the sense of community sometimes missing in lecture-based learning environments. This sense of community directly contributes to student motivation to succeed.

Neighbor Check-In

Ask students to talk with their neighbors to see if they have the same/correct understanding of a new concept. Working in a small group helps students to see that they are not alone in having questions and misunderstandings. After a few minutes of discussion, ask them to share any unresolved questions that the group still has.

Note Comparison

Invite students to pair up and take a few minutes to compare the notes they’ve taken with another student nearby. Pairs will be able to fill in gaps in each other’s notes. Invite students to share any point of disagreement, giving you the opportunity to clarify misunderstandings. Done regularly, this activity also encourages note-taking.

Interactive Polling

After a lecture segment use a polling tool like Poll Everywhere to ask students a multiple choice question. Then give the students an opportunity to talk in small groups, sharing their answers and justifying it to the other students. Without revealing the answer, repeat the poll. You will see that the students with the correct answer will have convinced many of their peers. Finish by explaining the answer for the benefit of those who still got it wrong.

Pass the Answer

Students write the answer to a prompt on an index card. They then swap answers with a nearby colleague. Turn and repeat swapping with someone else. Then swap one more time with someone else nearby. The instructor then calls on students to read the answer they are holding. This makes it easier for students to speak out in a large lecture hall, because they are offering someone else’s answer rather than their own. This also works well when soliciting student questions.

Two-Stage Quiz

Have students complete a quiz or solve a problem individually. Then, ask students to compare their answers with other students in small groups, come to a consensus on their answer(s)/solution(s) and commit to a final answer using Poll Everywhere, IF/AT scratch sheets [samples available at the CAT], index cards, etc. This activity works best if group responses can be reviewed during the class period.

For more ideas on active learning techniques, try our 3-page handout on Active Learning in Large Classrooms, which is split between simple, easy-to-implement strategies and those techniques that require more time and preparation.


In addition to having the right technique at your disposal, it is also important to approach the active learning lecture hall with the right frame of mind. Lecturers often experience a sense of loss of control the first time they ask students to perform an activity. The movement of students and the general hubbub as they work on a task makes the normally orderly lecture hall feel like a chaotic place. We argue that, although the feeling is quite real, the control was always at least partially an illusion. 

In a standard lecture environment student silence can be interpreted as successful teaching. In fact, since a lecture is a one-way act of communication, there’s no easy way to determine whether the students are learning. At least, not in the moment. The following cartoon nicely illustrates the problem.

Cartoon depicts lecturer's thought balloon is different from students'.

An active learning lecturer welcomes the seeming chaos of an energetic classroom engaging in an activity as an opportunity to directly monitor student learning. By stepping away from the podium and patrolling the room, the instructor can view student learning while it is still forming and intervene when needed. Thus, the learning activity is not just a break from lecturing and an opportunity to re-establish waning student attention, it is a chance to informally assess students before we find out what they have learned via high stakes assessments such as exams and papers.

In the next installment of this series, online teaching expert Emtinan Alqurashi will share her thoughts on implementing active learning in both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments. In the meantime, if you want to discuss how to build more active learning into your Temple courses, please email the Center for the Advancement of Teaching or schedule an appointment for a one-on-one consultation with one of our pedagogy specialists.


Sheryl L. Love is Associate Professor of Instruction in Temple University’s Department of Biology, where she serves as the Lab Coordinator for Biology 1011 (General Biology I) and Biology 1012 (General Biology II) for non-majors.

Jeff Rients is Associate Director of Teaching and Learning Innovation at Temple’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Adjunct Associate Professor for Temple’s College of Education and Human Development.

Testing Assignments in ChatGPT

Jeff Rients and Jennifer Zaylea

As our understanding of artificial intelligence and its uses in higher education grows, we continue to expand our faculty guide to A.I. Previously, the Center for the Advancement of Teaching produced a video introduction to prompting in ChatGPT. Our newest A.I. resource is a short demonstration on testing an assignment using the tool.

This video only provides a brief introduction to how to think about testing the tasks that you give your students. You may need to develop additional prompts and/or make additional uses of the Regenerate Response option in order to thoroughly understand how ChatGPT can respond to each of your assignments. 

Need additional help wrestling with the challenges posed and opportunities offered by A.I.? The CAT is here to help! Send an email to or book an appointment for a one-on-one consultation.

Another Look at Active Learning, Part 2: The World’s Easiest Learning Activities

Jennifer Zaylea and Jeff Rients

Hearing fellow faculty talk about their activities in class might beg the question, “How do you deliver all of your content if you are “playing” during class time?”  Yet, if you really think deeply about it, isn’t the application of the content the real goal?  Ensuring that the students are able to conceptualize and apply the information in meaningful ways is what we strive for as faculty. As mentioned in the introduction to this series, a meta-analysis of 225 studies, put forth by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), revealed that STEM courses taught using active learning methods showed an increase of approximately 6% higher exam scores than non-active lecture courses and that the failure rate was 1.5% higher in traditional lecture courses (p. 8410). 

A common concern we hear is that active learning techniques take up class time that should be spent on covering the vast list of required content for the course. Rather than being overly concerned with covering content in class, we can provide students the opportunity to cover at least some of the content outside of class. This allows for time to implement and practice the concepts during in-class activities where students can receive immediate feedback from their peers and faculty.   

Using active learning techniques in-class does not mean that you are less needed.  In fact, if you have designed your activities to help build the students’ self confidence in the material, then you’re actually very busy with facilitation of the activity and feedback or guidance.  The learning is happening in real-time rather than a few hours, days, weeks after an assignment has been submitted.  This approach affords you the opportunity to see where students might need additional support or where they have mastered certain content. 

Below are a few basic active learning activities that are easy to implement in the classroom as you begin your exploration of new methods that can support an engaging learning environment.

  • The Strategic Pause – Following 10 or 15 minutes of lecturing, announce something like “Before moving on, I am going to pause for a minute to allow you to catch up with your notes and decide if you have any questions.” This allows time for reflection, assimilation and retention of class material. Note that the first time you use this simple technique a full sixty seconds will feel like forever. 
  • Think-Pair-Share – One of the simplest but most effective ways to improve classroom discussions, a Think-Pair-Share begins with the instructor posing a question. Students individually contemplate this question for a minute or two (the Think step), then share their thoughts on the topic with the person sitting next to them (the Pair step), and conclude with a whole group discussion (the Share). This method gives students time to think their own thoughts and test them out in private, leaving them better prepared to participate in a class-wide discussion.
  • Polling – Polling can be used in a variety of ways, such as asking your students to quickly offer a new idea on a topic, and the responses can be seen in real-time by the class. A single question poll following the presentation of a difficult topic can allow you to see if the students are ready to move on or if they need additional instruction on the current topic. Polling can be done with a simple show of hands, but more anonymous options, such as using or colored index cards, ensures more accurate results.
  • Gamification/Challenges – Temporarily turning your classroom into a Jeopardy game or an online scavenger hunt provides an opportunity for students to engage in friendly competition while flexing their learning and building social connections. 
  • Concept Mapping – Students, using their own words and diagrams, make a visual that maps out the connections between course content. Concept mapping activates learning and retention of knowledge by requiring students to organize content in their own unique way. A concept map can be used as an additive organizational structure to build upon prior knowledge, brainstorming, conceptualizing connections. Asking students to compare concept maps or collaborate on creating one often reveals gaps in learning. Concept maps can be hand-drawn, produced with various graphic applications, or built with online whiteboard tools such as or

An example of an elaborate concept map.

  • One-Minute Paper – A quick written task asking the students to summarize what they learned during the class and/or what they do not understand. One-minute papers can be completed on index cards and are usually low or no stakes. Consider asking students not to put their name on their One-Minute Paper, as you will get more honest and revealing answers to prompts focusing on where the students are still struggling. 

A Helpful Hint

Don’t immediately try to implement every activity in every class.  You will become frustrated and so will your students. Use the activities as they relate to and enhance your content and its implementation.  Some activities will be less successful than others in your particular learning context, and this is part of learning what works for your students and your course objectives. But also keep in mind that facilitating learning activities is a skill and, like any skill, practice leads to improvement.

Temple Faculty who would like assistance planning a learning activity for their students, please remember that the CAT is here to help! Make an appointment to speak with one of our pedagogy specialists.


Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okorafor, 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 (PNAS), 111(23), 8410-8415. 

Jennifer Zaylea is Digital Media Specialist at Temple’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT). Jeff Rients is Associate Director of Teaching and Learning Innovation at the CAT.

Cell Concept Map image by M.U.Paily made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Grouping by Strengths

by Meg Steinweg and Melanie Trexler

Faculty frequently design team projects to enable students to accomplish tasks they cannot complete alone and to build teamwork skills. The latter, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), is one of the top eight career-readiness skills that students need to learn in college (NACE 2022). Yet, instructors face a common challenge: How do you put students in groups that work well together?

The following activity helps instructors create groups that incorporate students self-determined strengths, student choice, and instructor matching-making. Additionally, the assignment invites students to reflect on their strengths and express agency in choosing their group members.

Part I: Strengths Assessment

  1. Access – Select “Find Your Top Strengths”
  2. Take the 100 question High5 Test. (8–15 minutes) Answer as best you can.
  3. Read and reflect on your results.

Part 2: Write the Paper

Reflect critically on the five strengths as they relate to your life and to your role in a group. For each of the five strengths:

  1. State the strength
  2. Describe it. Copy and paste the paragraph about your strength from the High5 website.
  3. Write a paragraph noting where you see this strength appear in your own life and in how you work in groups. Use examples of group work in other classes, on teams (ex: sports, volunteering, etc.), and/or in internships or jobs.
  4. Conclusion: Do you think these describe your core strengths as an individual? Why?

Part 3: Presentation

Present your strengths to the class in a 2–3-minute presentation.* Highlight at least 2 strengths you possess. How do you use these strengths in a group? Why are you a valuable team member? What are strengths you are looking for in a group member? Why?

*This could be recorded, and presentations viewed by students outside of class.

Part 4: Listening and group member selection write-up

As you listen to your peer’s presentations consider how peers’ skills and strengths compliment your own. You do have a voice in choosing potential group members, though the instructor determines which groups work together. You will be in a team with at least one person you select.

  1. In order, list four group members you would like to work with. 
  2. In one paragraph per person (3–4 sentences), explain:
    • How do your strengths complement each other in a group project?
      • What is one possible way your strengths could clash and how could you overcome that challenge?

Meg Steinweg is Associate Professor of Biology at Roanoke College. Melanie Trexler is Associate Professor of Religion at Roanoke.

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This article was released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license as part of the Teaching Messages Collection 2023-24.

Snack Baskets for Better Learning

Wren Mills, PhD

For many years, I have brought a snack basket with me to my classes.  Some colleagues have given me side-eye for this, but food insecurity on college campuses is a real problem, and it appears (in my experience) to have been made worse by the pandemic.  We have known for a long time that school children have problems concentrating when they do not have proper nutrition, hence free breakfast and lunch programs nationwide.  College students are no different. While many institutions require on-campus students to purchase meal plans if they live in the residence halls, struggling students usually purchase the bare minimum, which might be as little as one meal per day. Some students stack schedule their classes with no breaks (especially common with first year students) and sometimes forget to grab their own snack to tie them over before they head to class for the day.  Other students work all day and come to night classes without time to grab something to eat before their long night classes. With food insecurity and forgetfulness in mind, my snack basket began.

On the first day of class, I bring and talk about the snack basket, about food insecurity, and that I never want anyone to sit in my class hungry and thinking about what or when they will next eat or trying to ignore their rumbling tummies.  I want them to take a snack if they need it, but if they don’t, please leave it for those who do. It is rare that anyone takes what I’d call “more than a fair share,” but sometimes they do. If I notice a student doing that, I ask them privately after class if they know about the food pantry on campus (which is conveniently across from my building). [At Temple, the appropriate resource to refer students is The Barnett & Irvine Cherry Pantry, located in room 224A of the Howard Gittis Student Center. -Ed.]

My snacks are varied. I ask on my information sheet if there are any food allergies, too, so that if we have someone with a peanut allergy, for example, I can share with the class as a whole to avoid the things that might set off their neighbor.  (Students usually happily “out” themselves and their allergies and let people know if it’s a “not in the room with me, please” or a “just make sure I’m not next to you” allergy.)  I always have a breakfast bar or granola of some kind.  I also include chips, cookies, and trail mix.  There are suckers.  There is chocolate.  There are gummies and hard candies.  There are applesauce sleeves.  I get cheese and crackers, too.  It is rare that a hungry soul can’t find something to help them out.

How do I afford this?  Like probably all of you, I’m certainly not wealthy or reimbursed.  I watch the clearance areas of my local groceries—they often put boxes there that are damaged, but the food inside is perfectly fine and 75% off or more.  I use coupons.  I watch for sales.  I live for the weeks after Valentine’s, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas!  If I bring fresh fruit, I do so on Mondays so that hopefully it’s gone by Friday. And I remind the students that this is out of my own pocket, and that I do my best to keep the snack basket full, but sometimes it might be a bit empty.  I’ve had students bring things to contribute that they bought (or their parents did) and decided they don’t like.  I’ve had colleagues contribute, too.  (The student workers and graduate assistants always know they can come and get a snack, too, if they need one).

I know not everyone will be interested in doing this. Some will say this isn’t part of their job.  And it’s not—it does go beyond normal teaching, service, and scholarly duties.  Alternatively, it would only take a moment of your time to look up what help is available on your campus and in your community for food-insecure students.  Most campuses now have food pantries. In my city, the churches near campus offer meals and food pantries to our student population just as they do everyday folks just trying to make ends meet.  Having a resource sheet that you can hand students will be appreciated and remembered by them.

Articles of Interest

College student hunger statistics and research. (n.d.). Feeding

McCoy et al. (2022). Food insecurity on college campuses: The invisible epidemic. Health Affairs.

Wren Mills is Assistant Professor in the School of Leadership and Professional Studies at Western Kentucky University.

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Using Reading Prompts to Promote Students’ Academic Reading

Zeenar Salim

Do you have concern around students attending classes without pre-reading? Ever wondered how you can make them read? Students in higher education are expected to comprehend the text, connect their prior experiences with the text, evaluate the text, and consider alternative view-points to the text. Reading prompts are considered to be a way to motivate students to read. It improves students’ comprehension and critical thinking skills by engaging them actively with the reading material. 

Provision of reading cues/prompts helps the learners to actively read as well as analyze their own thoughts during and after reading to expand, clarify or modify their existing thinking about the concepts or idea at hand. The reading prompts can be categorized into six categories a) identification of problem or issue b) making connections c) interpretation of evidence d) challenging assumptions e) making applications, and f) taking a different point of view. Sample questions for each category are as follows:

  1. What is the key issue/concept explained in the article? What are the complexities of the issue? (Identification of problem or issue)
  2. How is what you are reading different from your prior knowledge around the issue/topic? (Making connections)
  3. What inferences can you draw from the evidence presented in the reading? (Interpretation of evidence)
  4. If you got a chance to meet the author, what are the key questions that you would ask the author? (Challenging assumptions)
  5. What are the lessons for your practice that you have drawn from this reading? (Application)
  6. If you wrote a letter to your friend who has no expertise in this subject area, how would you explain to him the theoretical concept presented in the article? (Taking a different point of view)

Generally, students are asked to complete the reading prompts before the next class by writing a paragraph-long response to each question. Teachers may ask some or all questions depending upon the learning objectives of the session and may adapt the question(s) to gauge specific information around the text. For more sample questions and detailed literature around reading prompts, please read Tomasek (2009). 


Tomasek, T. (January 01, 2009). Critical Reading: Using Reading Prompts to Promote Active Engagement with Text. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Retrieved from

Zeenar Salim is a Fulbright PhD Candidate at Syracuse University, where she works at RIDLR (Research in Design Learning Resources).

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