The Ultimate Guide to Active Learning in the College Classroom: Part 4 – Short Active Learning Exercises that Make Lecture More Effective

We’re back with more installments of The Ultimate Guide to Active Learning in the College Classroom, our deep dive into practical ideas and strategies to transform your classroom.

If you need to catch up, read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3.

Now, let’s move on to Part 4: Short Active Learning Exercises that Make Lecture More Effective.

– – –

Research shows that after just 10 minutes into a lecture, students’ retention rate drops dramatically. The fastest way to incorporate active learning into a lecture-based course is to insert short, 5-10 minute exercises, that require students to reflect on the material they have just covered.

5 Active Learning Techniques for Individuals

For large classes or lecture halls, try these exercises that require only individual input or can be done easily with two students sitting near each other. They can usually be finished in under 5 minutes.

  • Pause: After about 10-15 minutes of lecture, ask students to review their neighbors’ notes. Often this leads to peer instruction to clarify difficult points.
  • Exit Ticket: Before leaving class each day, ask students to reiterate a point they learned from the lecture. This can also double as a way of taking attendance.
  • Muddiest Point: Ask students to write down what they think is the least clear point of a lecture. If you find a significant consensus, you can follow up with clarification between classes or in the next lecture.
  • One-Minute Paper: Students spend a short amount of time answering a discussion question at the end of the topic or class. Use it to help start a class discussion or have the students turn it to get more feedback.
  • What’s Missing? Challenge students to guess what is missing from a series, graph, diagram, or picture that relates to the material. This works especially well before building on the material for the topic.

Incorporate Technology:


Use a tool like Poll Everywhere to get students to use their phones to answer discussion questions in class or react to a statistic, true-false statement, or video.

Live Tweeting:

Create a hashtag that you can change for each class. Allow the students to live tweet as a form of note-taking. This gives the entire class access to each others’ notes and creates a searchable record for the lecture.


For business courses, Marketplace Live’s Microsimulations provide a quick way to test the students’ knowledge through online game-like exercises.

Small Group Active Learning Exercises:

These exercises still work for large lecture classes but require the students to form groups of three to four. They take slightly longer than the individual exercises.

  • Devil’s Advocate: Ask the students to discuss a topic, with one person taking a view that goes against the material. Alternatively, you can involve the entire class by playing the role yourself.
  • Three-step Interview: Divide students into groups of three with one as the subject of an interview, one as the interviewer, and one as a notetaker.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Have students reflect on a question or a section of the reading material for a minute before discussing it with a partner. Then, ask each pair to share their thoughts with the class for a larger discussion.
  • Think-Pair-Share Debate: Take the think-pair-share to the next level by asking students to come up with their best answer to an open-ended question. Students must agree on an answer in their pair, then foursomes must agree, groups of eight, etc. until two halves or three-thirds of the class are debating.
  • Case studies: In groups of four to eight, have the students review a case study that shows a real-life application of the topic. Students should try to come up with a better solution and present their answers to the class.

Incorporate Technology:

Social Media Survey: Ask students to create their own surveys to post to their social media accounts outside class. Have the students discuss any differences or similarities in the results in small groups.

Experiential Learning Techniques that Involve the Entire Class:

For classrooms with more flexibility or in classes that have 30-50 students, these exercises can segment and reinforce a lecture. You can limit these to 10-15 minutes or turn them into a class-long exercise.

  • Rotating discussion: For this take on the traditional classroom discussion, the student calls on the next speaker. Students can’t respond after their turn in the rotation, spurring more equal participation.
  • Fishbowl: Pose a question for a small group of students to discuss in front of the class. After five minutes, bring the class into the discussion and assess any topics the small group missed.
  • Question-only Discussion: Students are only allowed to make points or contribute to the discussion through questions. If someone makes a statement, the rest of the class should yell ‘Statement!’ This helps students listen more closely and think more critically about their comments.
  • Brainstorming Challenge: Give each group of students a time limit to come up with the most solutions they can to a problem. Gather the class back together to analyze and prioritize the ideas. Bonus: give extra credit to the teams with the most ideas and/or the best idea.
  • Chain notes: Split your class up into 6-8 groups and give each an essay question, with five minutes to make a point and list supporting evidence, complete sentences not required. Then, pass the responses between groups to help build a more complete understanding.

Incorporate Technology:

 The ‘Ah-Ha’ Wall: Encourage students to record and explain the moments when a concept fully ‘clicks in’ for them, such as during a lecture or as a response to the reading. Use a tool like Padlet or or create a Facebook page for the class to create a wall where students can post these thoughts. You can choose posts to start a class discussion or expand on points in a lecture.

Once you’ve tested out some of these exercises and know what works for your teaching style and your course, you’ll be ready to conquer the next big hurdle: flipping your classroom for a day. We’ll cover that in our next post of the Ultimate Guide to Active Learning in the College Classroom series.

Next up for Part 5, How to Flip Your Classroom for a Day.