Active learning strategies

Sketch of students around a table

© Jacinth Nolan, RMIT University

Posted by: Thembi Mason, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Have you ever handed out an assignment to students and heard the response: ‘But how do I go about doing it?’

Part of any assignment or project students undertake is the thinking involved in how to break down the tasks and how they might approach each of these sub-tasks. There are always students who can do this very well. They are the ones who get the good grades. However, there are also many who struggle to conceptualise what is required. So how do you help students to be able to do this?

I have come across a number of learning and teaching tools or strategies that can be used to actively engage students in their learning and to engage them in higher order thinking, both individually or as part of a group. They can help students to do things like organise their thinking, analyse ideas, problem solve, brainstorm, develop creative ideas, plan, reflect and evaluate, collaborate and make decisions. They are thinking routines which students will internalise if they use them regularly and they can be used both individually and in a group.

Many of these tools or thinking strategies can be done online or with pen and paper, for example, brainstorming or Plus/Minus/Interesting (PMI). Brainstorming can be introduced in class and then students can develop concept maps from this. Alternatively, PMI is a useful strategy for analysing and creating new ideas. Given the new collaborative learning spaces being designed in universities, these strategies (which can be online or on paper) enable students to work together to create their understanding.

Another example is the KWL Chart which is essentially a graphic organiser that allows the student(s) to discern their learning needs. The process allows students to record what they know about a topic (K); what questions they have (W); and ultimately what has been learned (L). The KWLH Chart adds another question, how can we learn more (H).

Students draw a chart with three or four columns:

What do I/we already know? What do I/we want to find out? How can I/we learn more? After appropriate research, what have I/we learned?

I have also discovered a number of other nifty tools online that you might like to use with students too, especially if you are lucky enough to be teaching in a new generation learning space, which are designed to encourage group work, collaboration and active learning.

The Ingenium tool is one such example. Whilst this tool is still in development, it does offer a creative problem solving process guide for students and has many other resources, including online mindmapping software and idea generation tools. This tool is part of an Office for Learning and Teaching collaborative project led by the University of South Australia. If you are interested in trialling this tool with your students at RMIT in Semester 1, 2013 there is still opportunity to do so. Please contact for more details.

Technology offers great possibilities for active learning. Blogs and wikis enable students to talk with each other outside of class and to connect with and build their prior learning before they come to class. Other tools where students can collect information or ideas that they might like to use for a project on a particular topic (over time) are Pinterest ( and Wallwisher ( Pinterest allows students to ‘pin’ interesting sites or images to a pinboard and can be done both individually or as a group. It is a bit like an online scrapbook or pinboard. Students can add comments too to remind themselves why they have selected that particular site/image to pin. Other students and you can comment on and critique those choices.

Wallwisher is a site that allows students to put up sticky notes related to a topic and can be good for brainstorming – especially for online classes. These notes can also be moved around or bundled by theme or idea. You might ask students to brainstorm ideas for a particular problem and then get them to bundle them into concepts or themes in class. Perhaps then each group could take a theme to research in more detail and report back to the rest of the class?

The important thing about all these ideas is that thinking is documented and that these explicit strategies enable all students to develop the thinking routines which the ‘very able’ have internalised and are performing automatically. It is important therefore when reflecting on the completed work that students look at the learning strategy or tool they used including the purpose of the strategy/tool and the thinking focus it encouraged. When students have increased their knowledge, competence and confidence in using these strategies/tools they can then independently begin to use them in other contexts.

Share your thoughts about other techniques to make thinking visible in the comments below!

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