Tired of bored faces staring back at you in lectures? Looking for a way to get students to participate, think critically, and retain the material you are presenting them?

Look no further than active learning.

We know that active learning is extremely beneficial to student learning, understanding and retention (see Bodet’s post from September for the advantages of active learning), but sometimes we don’t know where to start. You may already be familiar with case studies, group discussions, and debates, but there are many other ways to incorporate active learning into both large and small classes.

Here are my top 5 versatile, low-or-no prep, student-approved active learning exercises:

1) Ball Toss

I teach on Mondays and Fridays at 8:00am, so my students may still be half asleep when they come into class. So, I always start lectures with a review using the ball toss. I toss a ball (beach balls or soft foam balls work best to avoid the inevitable disasters caused by my bad aim) to a student and have them answer a review, definition or warm-up question on the screen (I tend to let them choose which question they answer, not necessarily in order, to make it a bit easier). When they are done, I get them to toss it to a classmate to answer another question. This can also be done at the end of class to reinforce what has been discussed.

Pro tip: Remind students to make eye contact before throwing the ball, to avoid hitting their classmates in the head (though that always wakes them up!)

2) Pass-a-Problem

A great review activity or pause between topics. Have each student write a review question or discussion question about a reading or the lecture topic on a piece of paper, and then instruct them to pass it along to the person to their left/right. The next student then answers this question. The paper can then be passed along again for a critique or additions to the response.

Pro tip: Give examples of appropriate questions on the screen before you launch into their first pass-a-problem, to avoid yes/no questions or irrelevant questions. My students needed a few tries before they got the hang of it. You may also suggest that you’ll collect them and put some of them on an exam to increase the stakes.

3) Teach the Class

They say one of the best ways to learn is to teach others. Organize students into small groups and instruct them to teach the class about an assigned issue or topic that they had read about in that week’s readings. This works best for smaller classes where everyone can take part in the presentation. You may also want to find a variety of ways for students to participate, such as writing key terms or definitions on the board or serving as note-taker.

Pro tip: Forewarn the students ahead of time that this will happen, so they have the necessary materials with them to prepare to teach the class.

4) Think-Pair-Share

Nothing is more classic than the good old ‘think-pair-share’ – a tried and true option for large and small classes alike. Have students think about a question you provide on the screen alone. You may instruct them to write a few sentences or a paragraph on it. Then, instruct them to pair up with a partner to discuss their answers. Finally, recap in a large group.

Pro tip: students may be unlikely to volunteer their answers when you recap as a group. Instead, as the students if anyone thought their partner had a particularly good answer and get them to share it with the class.

5) Snowball

An active learning exercises that tends to delight students! Have every student write a response to a question on a small piece of paper. For example, it may be an essay question or a thesis statement for an assignment. Get all the students to crumple it up and toss it around the room (ie. a snowball fight). Each student then picks up one of these pieces of paper and critiques the response on it. It keeps the critiques anonymous, so students may tend to be more open and honest with their responses.

Pro tip: keep the groups small (so if you have a large class, break them into groups of 5-8). Also reveal the instructions step-by-step to avoid premature snowball fights.

Once you’ve tested these strategies out, try googling ‘active learning ideas’ for a myriad of additional options and ideas. You can also check out my list of active learning suggestions here. Active learning has done wonders for making my 8:00am classes livelier and students more engaged in their learning. It also keeps me on my toes to continually innovate with new strategies and ideas to incorporate active learning into my classes.

Dr. Holly Ann Garnett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada. Her latest book is Electoral Integrity and Political Regimes: Actors, Strategies and Consequences co-edited with Margarita Zavadskaya (2018) and published by Routledge.