5. Active Learning

‘What I hear I forget’

‘What I see I remember’

 ‘What I do I understand’                Chinese proverb


1) Think about your classes for a moment. During the lesson, what are your students doing? Choose from the following suggestions and then add some of your own:

  • Sleeping
  • Daydreaming
  • Chatting                             
  • Listening
  • Copying what you write
  • Reading
  • Looking at pictures/diagrams
  • Watching videos
  • Field trips (e.g. trip to market)              
  • Watching a demonstration
  • Answering questions
  • Being actively involved in an activity
  • Working with other students
  • Making models
  • Discovering the topic (as opposed to being told it)

2) Think about when you do an activity where the class gives you responses. For example, asking them questions.

a) When your students are giving you responses, how many students are involved? One? Two? The whole class?

b) If some students are not involved in the activity what are they doing?

3) Critical thinking: Think about the activities from Question 1). Which activities do you think would be the most useful for learning? Why?

Didactic learning

Most of us grew up with teachers who taught in a didactic style. Wikipedia[1] defines didactic teaching as: ‘In didactic method of teaching, the teacher gives instructions to the students and the students are mostly passive listeners. It is a teacher-centred method of teaching and is content oriented. The content or knowledge of the teacher is not questioned. The process of teaching involves the teacher who gives instructions, delivers content, and provides necessary information. The student activity involves listening and memorization of the content… lecture method which is one of the most commonly used methods.’

In a didactic classroom, some students may learn very well. However, many daydream, switch off or mess around which means they don’t process and understand the lesson. Research into teaching and learning shows that didactic teaching is one of the least effective ways to learn.

The following table shows one suggestion for the percentage of information retained by students being taught by different methods:

This table shows us that to improve student retention of information, students need to be more active in lessons. It is very difficult to eliminate didactic teaching methods, some things just need to be told to students and unless good textbooks are available, students need to make good notes of what they are learning to review later. However, I would encourage you to attempt to gradually increase your active teaching.

I can’t teach without some didactic teaching. Students need good notes on a topic and some things are very difficult to teach without a lecture. However didactic teaching can always be processed by students doing something active. For example, you could use active note taking to turn most didactic activities into active activities.

Active learning

One source[2] defines active learning as:

  • The attainment of knowledge by participating or contributing.
  • The process of keeping students mentally, and often physically active in their learning through activities that involve them in gathering information, thinking, and problem solving.
  • The process of having students engage in some activity that forces them to reflect upon ideas and how they are using those ideas.
  • Requiring students to regularly assess their own degree of understanding and skill at handling concepts or problems in a discipline.

Active learning engages most of a class in the learning experience. Classroom activities are designed to make all students think and process information. There are many benefits:

  • Can improve student test scores up to 15%.
  • Increases in student attention.
  • Improvement in retention of knowledge.
  • Helps students learn how to learn for themselves.
  • Makes learning more enjoyable.
  • Teaches skills that are more than just copying, listening and remembering.

Learning to teach in an active style takes time, particularly if you have not experienced it yourself. But it’s worth the effort!

Active learning activities

This section will give you lots of different activities you can use in your classes to get students active. Once you’ve tried some out, try and invent some that fit your subject.

Think Pair Square Share

Often questioning in class looks like:

Teacher: ‘Jack, tell me about how mountains are formed?’

Jack: [wakes from slumber] ‘Sorry Sir, can you repeat?’

Teacher: ‘How are mountains formed?’

Jack: [embarrassed and awake] ‘By rain sir.’

Teacher: ‘Wrong. Lili, what’s the answer?’

With Think Pair Square Share, the whole class answers the question:

Teacher: ‘I want you all to think about how mountains are formed’

[leaves one minute thinking time, write question on board]

Teacher: ‘I now want you to tell your partner as much as you can about how mountains are formed.’

[leaves two minutes for discussion, students learn off each other what they know. If there are students without pairs, put them in groups of three]

Teacher: ‘I now want you to join pairs into groups of four and share what you discussed’.

[leaves two minutes for discussion, students share what they discussed. If there is a pair that doesn’t fit into a group of four, make them into a group of six]

Teacher: ‘Group one, tell me something you discussed’

[Group one shares, confident now that they’ve already shared with each other a couple of times. Teacher corrects if wrong, or encourages if correct]

Teacher: ‘Group two, tell me something you discussed’

As you can see, this method ensures every student in class is involved in the discussion about the question. This works with any size of class too!

This method also encourages shy students to answer in front of the class. Once they have discussed the answer with a partner, they often have more confidence to share their answer with the whole class.

You can omit discussing in pairs or in groups of four if you need to save time.


This is a great activity for asking true or false questions. It is also great for assessing whether your class understands a lesson or not.

Students can communicate with you and the class by giving one of the gestures shown on the right.


Teacher:‘True or False: Durban is the capital of South Africa? I want you to think for 10 seconds and then give me thumbs up for true, thumbs on the side for I don’t know and thumbs down for false.’

[The teacher then scans the class to check for answers and asks students whose vote they cannot see to make their vote clearer. Finally, the teacher tells the class the right answer]

Teacher: ‘Show me how well you understood today’s lesson. Thumbs up means really well, thumbs on your side is so-so and thumbs down means terribly.’

[The teacher then scans the class to check for answers. The teacher asks further questions if students didn’t put their thumbs up, for example ‘what did you not understand’. This will help the teacher plan a future lesson to help the students or if the student has a simple problem to sort it immediately.]

I recommend using this as a quick check to see that students followed your lesson at the end of every lesson! Don’t feel bad if your students don’t always understand your lesson fully. Sometimes topics are challenging and not all students will understand fully. Other times you may have explained the lesson poorly and need to improve your explanations.

Fist to five

Like thumbs, except there is a larger range of answers that makes this activity useful in different circumstances.

Students can display the numbers 1–5 on one hand (or 1–10 on two hands).

This can be used in many ways:

a) To answer multiple choice questions, as a class e.g. What is NOT required for fire:

   1) Oxygen

   2) Water

   3) Fuel

   4) Heat

(the answer is 2)

b) To answer numerical questions e.g. What is 5×2-1? (answer is 9). I often use this as a first activity after teaching a new equation in Physics, e.g. F=ma; If the mass is 5kg and acceleration 0.4 m s-2, what is the force? (answer is 2 Newtons)

c) To give a strength of feeling about something: e.g. How much do you like Toamasina where 1= hate it, 3=neutral, 5 = love it?

d) To identify the names of different parts of a diagram, for example a diagram of a cells (biology). Write down a numbered list of cell parts. If you can, involve the class by asking them to tell you the names of all the parts of a cell. Then draw the cell, and as you add each part students show the number of the part you have just drawn.

If the question you are asking is very challenging, you could combine this activity with think pair square share, where the group can discuss the answer first.


It is often hard to understand how things work that we can’t see. For example, what a cell looks like, or how a volcano works. To do this we often use models.

A model is a simplified representation of a real thing. For example, a toy car is a model of a real car. In some ways it is similar. It has wheels, a body and windows. It can ‘drive’ on a road. In many ways it is different. It has no engine. There is no steering. It has no lights.

A toy car could be used to teach someone who has never seen a real car what a car is like. It gives someone something they can touch and see. It helps them think about what a car does and looks like.

You will use models already in your teaching, often drawn diagrams. However here I’m going to propose active modelling, where students are involved in the model, either making the model or being part of the model.

An example: An electric circuit with a battery and light bulb. This example is shown on the book cover.

Theory: Electrons flow around an electric circuit that contains a battery from the negative terminal to the positive terminal.

The Model activity:        

1) Show students a real electric circuit, with a battery, wires and a bulb that lights up (if possible).

2) Give every student a small stone, or piece of paper that is crunched up into a ball. The stone or ball of paper represent electrons.

3) Have the class stand in a circle. You may need to go outside to find space.

4) Place the ‘electron’ in their left hand. Instruct them their left hand will not move.

5) Instruct them to pick up the ‘electron’ with their right hand then pass the electron to the left hand of the person to their right. (Stand in the circle and model this). This moves their electron along to the next person.

6) Once they have got the basic idea, ask them to move their electron when you say ‘pass on’.

7) Repeatedly pass on electrons until students get the idea of electrons moving in a wire.

8) The model can be extended by:

  • Having one student whose job it is to be the switch – they say ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’ to start and stop the electron movement (with a little prompting from the teacher).
  • Another student could be a battery – turn the battery round and the electrons will go in the opposite direction.
  • Increase the speed of the electrons being passed on – this simulates an increase in current.
  • Have a student count the number of electrons passing a point. This is a bit like using a coulomb meter to count how much charge has passed a point.

9) Draw the circuit diagram at some point in this activity, so students can connect the diagram with the model and the real circuit.

10) Discuss with the class how the model is similar and different to the real thing:

Similar: electrons move from negative to positive; when the switch is off the electrons don’t move;

Different: there are many more electrons in real life; many more ‘electron carriers’ in a real wire; electrons move very slowly around a real circuit.

12) You should ask a few students ‘what are you representing in this model?’ The correct answer is the wires.


Models are a very powerful tool to help students understand something they can’t see.

There are three types of model:

  • Models drawn on paper.
  • Models can be physical models like toy cars. If students can make these models in groups, it is great for their learning.
  • Models can involve people, like the model of a circuit above.

Think: What models could you make for your subject? Try to think of models that groups can make, or the whole class can participate in. Discuss with other teachers and try the models out in lessons.


Giving a class a set of questions helps students engage with the topic and learn the important points. After a didactic teaching session, you should leave time at the end of the lesson for students to answer a set of questions about the important points. This makes students review the important points from the lesson, strengthening their memories.

A few points to note when writing questions:

  • Include easy questions that review the key points of the lesson.
  • Don’t only ask the questions where students will repeat knowledge. Ask harder questions that get students thinking. See the later chapter on Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • Remember in many questions there may be no right answer or more than one correct answer. A couple of things I’ve observed in Madagascar:
    • Teachers can mark students wrong if they use a different correct method for solving a problem in mathematics. This is bad practice!
    • Teachers can give bad grades in art when a student has been creative rather than simply copying the teacher’s drawing. This is bad practice!
  • Include a more challenging question or two at the end of any set of questions to challenge the stronger students.
  • Modelling answers: Often harder questions will be too difficult for students the first time you ask them. You might have to help them to understand how to think about and answer harder questions.
  • Open questions allow multiple answers (‘Tell me about your day’), and closed questions have only one answer (‘What is the capital of Madagascar?’). Try and include open questions in your teaching.

Card sort

Children learn very well through games. A card sort is a game where students take a pile of cards and match them up.

In the example below, students cut along the lines and then match the word with the definition:

ModellingThe whole class can display an answer, using their hands.  
Think Pair Square ShareAsking students to answer questions in their notebook.  
Fist to FiveCreated to help understand a complex or invisible system.  
Thumbs    Giving some students some structure to help weaker students or to help with more difficult questions.
Questioning  Students think alone, then share with a partner, share with a group of four and finally share with the whole class.
ScaffoldingA method by which students can indicate true/false or how well they understood a lesson.

You could handwrite or print a card sort and get your class to cut it up.

Card sorts take a long time to make, however you could print them on card or laminate them. Once finished get your students to jumble the cards up then pack them neatly with a paper clip or in an envelope. You can then reuse them. If well designed, students will enjoy this activity and find it a useful knowledge review.


Scaffolding is a technique teachers use to make it easier for students to answer a question or solve a problem.

Students often get stuck when they answer a question that requires long answers or contains multiple steps. Scaffolding splits the task up into smaller, more manageable tasks that help students who are finding it difficult to complete the task.

For example: Imagine an essay question like ‘Write a one page essay detailing electricity production in Madagascar. Include recommendations for future generation’.

Weaker students will get stuck and not know where to start. Help them to structure their answer by breaking the task down into smaller chunks. You could ask them to answer the following questions in order:

a) What types of electricity production are there in Madagascar?

b) For each type of electricity production write down:

i) How much electricity is generated.

ii) What the pros and cons of this type of generation are.

iii) Where you can find this type of electricity generator.

c) Discuss the pros and cons of each type of electricity generation.

d) Suggest how Madagascar should develop electricity generation further.

Other types of scaffolding include cloze passages (sentences containing blanks for students to fill in) which are ideal for reviewing key points and teaching vocabulary. For example: A _________ is like a monkey, except it lives in Madagascar.

There are many other ways of scaffolding.


‘Fady’ is Malagasy for ‘taboo’. Another game. This one is for learning words and their meanings.

1) Write a list of words that students should know on a piece of paper.

2) Ask a confident student to come up to the front of the class. Show them a word and ask them to describe (to the class) what the word means. If the student is struggling, scaffold by asking some questions to prompt them. The word the student is describing is fady which means the student is not allowed to say it.

3) The class then guess what the word is by shouting out or putting hands up.

4) Pick another student and give them another word. You could pick the student with the correct guess but ensure a variety of students take part.

Opinions line

Students love to share their opinions on a topic, and this activity is a great way to generate some discussion among your students.

Consider the question ‘Do you think that the government is doing a good job of education?’

Ask the students to stand on the left of the classroom if they think the government is doing a good job and the right if it is doing a bad job. And if they think it is doing an average job, students should stand in the middle.

Then ask students to discuss with those around them why they have that opinion.

Finally pick individual students to share their opinion with the class. They should try and convince the other students of their opinion. Students should move places if they change their opinion.

As a teacher, you need to be careful to express a balanced opinion or none on controversial questions like this one.

Active note taking

Use this method as an active learning replacement for a lecture or reading a book.

1) Ask students to make notes of the important points in a lecture or something they read.

2) Ask students to share what they think the important points are. Write the correct points down. All students should be listening to the answers and checking they have the important points written down.

3) Add anything they have missed.

This ensures that the weakest students get help spotting the important points while the strongest students get to work them out for themselves.

A variation for a weak class might be to write notes in cloze form where there are blanks that contain key words that need to get filled in by the students. If the students are finding the blanks hard to fill, give them a list of words they could use. Ensure you always give them the right answers at the end of the lesson, so their notes are correct.


Play is important for children, particularly children in the first few years of school. Through pretend play children learn about themselves and the world, can act out life issues, develop complex social and thinking skills, and review existing knowledge and skills.

For all students play can be motivational and provides excellent opportunities for learning and review. For older students ‘playing’ with numbers, ideas or words can help students gain a greater mastery of a subject. Trying things out and seeing what happens helps people quickly achieve mastery.

Experts recommend young children are given the opportunity to play for an hour a day in school. Teachers can set a topic for the play by providing some simple props, but children need to be then free to create and play as they wish. If the topic is unfamiliar it is unlikely students will engage well with it.

For young children, you might introduce a topic, for example ‘farmers’ and then introduce a few props that are relevant, for example wooden blocks to represent crops or sticks of wood to represent farming instruments, then let children play. Props don’t need to be complex, it is the children’s imagination that is important.

As a teacher, you should engage in their play by asking them to describe what is going on or joining in. When teaching French, you could ask them to play using French only, but make sure you introduce the words they need first!

You might also include chants, songs, rhymes, dances, games, videos, arts and crafts in your lessons. All these can be used creatively by asking students to invent, for example a new song that teaches some French words or a dance that represents plants growing. Arts and crafts help students improve the use of their hands which is a skill young children need to learn. And if you give them the freedom to create new art they will grow in their creativity.


For most teachers in Madagascar, the activities in this chapter suggest a huge change to how you teach. It will take you a long time to put into practice the ideas in this chapter. Work on it bit by bit – you don’t have to change everything at once!

There are many ways of engaging students more in class by getting them active. Actively engaging students in lessons will significantly improve student enjoyment and engagement, teach a wider variety of skills and improve retention of information. The extra effort is well worth it.


1) Why is important to answer some questions or do another active activity after reading this chapter in this book?

2) Which active learning strategies could you use in class easily? Plan some into your lessons this week.

3) Which active learning strategies would you find hard to use in class? Why?

4) There are many other active learning strategies, some which you will use already. Can you think of any?

5) Critical thinking: What are the advantages and disadvantages of active learning?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Didactic_method

[2] Where’s the evidence that active learning works?, Joel Michael, journal of Advances in Physiology Education, 30: 159-167, 2006