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Instructional Strategies


The Basics

“Lecturing is not simply a matter of standing in front of a class and reciting what you know. The classroom lecture is a special form of communication in which voice, gesture, movement, facial expression, and eye contact can either complement or detract from the content. No matter what your topic, your delivery and manner of speaking immeasurably influence your students’ attentiveness and learning.”

The above quote is from “Delivering a Lecture,” a chapter in Barbara Gross Davis’ classic text Tools for Teaching. That chapter is an excellent resource for learning how to lecture well. 

When planning a lecture, keep in mind that you have control or influence over several elements of your classroom:

  1. Visual Message – The slides and other visual aids you use can either complement or confuse your verbal message, depending on how you design them. Consider how photos and other images might function as metaphors that make your points more memorable. 
  2. Physical Presence – While some instructors are naturally gifted public speakers, we can all be more aware of and leverage our physical presence to better communicate to our audiences. (Watch “The Act of Teaching: Theater Techniques for Classrooms and Presentations” for great advice from Harvard University’s Nancy Houfek on improving your physical presence in the classroom.)
  3. Verbal Message – Whether you prepare typed lecture notes or just improvise in the classroom, the words you say are an integral part of your lecture.
  4. Students’ Notes – Students can often spend more mental energy taking notes during class than thinking about your content. Consider ways you can make it easier for your students to take notes so they can focus more on engaging with your material.
  5. What Students Think – As Angelo and Cross say in their classic book Classroom Assessment Techniques, “teaching without learning is just talking.” How can you help your students mentally grapple with your material during class?
  6. What Students Say and Do – Keep in mind that even in a so-called lecture class, you don’t have to lecture the whole time. Consider small-group and whole-class activities that might enhance your students' learning.

Effective Visuals

Garr Reynolds’ book Presentation Zen is a great introduction to effective use of slides in presentations. Garr also maintains a great blog on presentations. Some key points from Presentation Zen:

  • Keep it simple. Your slides should complement your verbal message, not detract from it by unnecessary visual clutter. In many instances, students should be able to take in your slides in a second or two, then focus on you.
  • Limit bullet points and text. Keep in mind that slides probably shouldn’t function as your own personal teleprompter. Your slides are for your students’ benefit. If your slides say just about everything that you say, then your students won’t know where to pay attention–to you or to your slides.
  • Use high-quality graphics. The clip art that comes with PowerPoint is certainly convenient (and more visually appealing than it used to be), but there are online sources of free, high-resolution images that can have much greater visual impact. For instance, millions of photos are available for free, educational use under the Creative Commons licenses.
  • Use appropriate charts. PowerPoint is not a great tool at sharing complicated infographics. It’s often helpful to provide them to students as a handout. Simpler, more elegant charts often work better in PowerPoint. Think carefully about which kind of chart (pie, vertical bar, horizontal bar, line, etc.) will best communicate the idea you want to share with your students.
  • Choose your fonts well. Sans-serif fonts are often easier to read on slides than serif fonts. Too many different fonts in a slide or a presentation can be distracting, so try to limit yourself to one or two. Font size matters, too. Be sure that your fonts are large enough to be read at the back of the room. And if you’re keeping your slides simple and limiting your use of text, you can usually use very large fonts.
  • Spend time in the slide sorter. This is the PowerPoint view that shows you up to 20 or 30 of your slides at once. As you start to design your presentation, this view is more useful than the default one-slide-at-a-time view for structuring and organizing your content.

For more thoughts on these and other suggestions by Garr Reynolds, along with example PowerPoint slides, see his Top Ten Slide Tips.


Interactive Lectures

“Given that students have an attention span of around 15 to 20 minutes and that university classes are scheduled for around 50 or 75 minutes, instructors must do something to control their students’ attention. We recommend building a ‘change–up’ into your class to restart the attention clock.”

The above quote is from “The ‘Change-Up’ in Lectures,” an article by Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish. The article describes more than 20 practical strategies for breaking up lectures with activities that help keep students engaged and foster active learning. Here are just a few:

  • Write a Question – Instead of just saying, “Are there any questions?”, ask all of your students to spend a minute or two reflecting on the lecture thus far and writing down one or two questions on paper.
  • Think-Pair-Share – After posing a sufficiently difficult question, instead of asking for volunteers to answer the question, have students think about the question silently for a minute. Then have them pair up and discuss the question with their partners. Then ask for students to share their perspectives with the whole class.
  • Finding Illustrative Quotations – Ask students to reread the text for the day to find quotations that support particular arguments. You might have all students address the same argument or different students look at different arguments.
  • Brainstorming – As a segue to a new topic, have students share any thought, idea, story, etc. that occurs to them in relation to the new topic. Record these ideas at the board without analyzing them. After the ideas have been surfaced, then move on to more critical discussion.
  • Practice Homework Problems – After lecturing on a particular type of problem, give students a problem to work at their seats that resembles the kinds of problems they’ll see on their homework. After giving students a few minutes to try to work through the problem, discuss the problem with the class.

The Flipped Classroom

“Flipping the classroom” has become something of a buzzword in the last several years. In essence, “flipping the classroom” means that students gain first exposure to new material outside of class, usually via reading or lecture videos, and then use class time to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge, perhaps through problem-solving, discussion, or debates.

In terms of Bloom’s revised taxonomy (2001), this means that students are doing the lower levels of cognitive work (gaining knowledge and comprehension) outside of class, and focusing on the higher forms of cognitive work (application, analysis, synthesis, and/or evaluation) in class, where they have the support of their peers and instructor. This model contrasts from the traditional model in which “first exposure” occurs via lecture in class, with students assimilating knowledge through homework; thus the term “flipped classroom.”

What is it?

Flipped Classroom

The flipped classroom approach has been used for years in some disciplines, notably within the humanities. Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson promoted the use of this approach in their book Effective Grading (1998). They propose a model in which students gain first-exposure learning prior to class and focus on the processing part of learning (synthesizing, analyzing, problem-solving, etc.) in class.

To ensure that students do the preparation necessary for productive class time, Walvoord and Anderson propose an assignment-based model in which students produce work (writing, problems, etc.) prior to class. The students receive productive feedback through the processing activities that occur during class, reducing the need for the instructor to provide extensive written feedback on the students’ work. Walvoord and Anderson describe examples of how this approach has been implemented in history, physics, and biology classes, suggesting its broad applicability.

Inverted Classroom

Maureen Lage, Glenn Platt, and Michael Treglia described a similar approach as the inverted classroom, and reported its application in an introductory economics course in 2000. Lage, Platt, and Treglia initiated their experiment in response to the observation that the traditional lecture format is incompatible with some learning styles.1 To make their course more compatible with their students’ varied learning styles, they designed an inverted classroom in which they provided students with a variety of tools to gain first exposure to material outside of class: textbook readings, lecture videos, Powerpoint presentations with voice-over, and printable Powerpoint slides.

To help ensure student preparation for class, students were expected to complete worksheets that were periodically but randomly collected and graded. Class time was then spent on activities that encouraged students to process and apply economics principles, ranging from mini-lectures in response to student questions to economic experiments to small group discussions of application problems. Both student and instructor response to the approach was positive, with instructors noting that students appeared more motivated than when the course was taught in a traditional format.

Peer Instruction

Eric Mazur and Catherine Crouch describe a modified form of the flipped classroom that they term peer instruction (2001). Like the approaches described by Walvoord and Anderson and Lage, Platt, and Treglia, the peer instruction (PI) model requires that students gain first exposure prior to class, and uses assignments (in this case, quizzes) to help ensure that students come to class prepared. Class time is structured around alternating mini-lectures and conceptual questions. Importantly, the conceptual questions are not posed informally and answered by student volunteers as in traditional lectures; instead, all students must answer the conceptual question, often via “clickers”, or handheld personal response systems, that allow students to answer anonymously and that allow the instructor to see (and display) the class data immediately. If a large fraction of the class (usually between 30 and 65%) answers incorrectly, then students reconsider the question in small groups while instructors circulate to promote productive discussions. After discussion, students answer the conceptual question again. The instructor provides feedback, explaining the correct answer and following up with related questions if appropriate. The cycle is then repeated with another topic, with each cycle typically taking 13-15 minutes.

Theoretical basis

How People Learn, the seminal work from John Bransford, Ann Brown, and Rodney Cocking, reports three key findings about the science of learning, two of which help explain the success of the flipped classroom. Bransford and colleagues assert that

“To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application” (p. 16).

By providing an opportunity for students to use their new factual knowledge while they have access to immediate feedback from peers and the instructor, the flipped classroom helps students learn to correct misconceptions and organize their new knowledge such that it is more accessible for future use. Furthermore, the immediate feedback that occurs in the flipped classroom also helps students recognize and think about their own growing understanding, thereby supporting Bransford and colleagues’ third major conclusion:

“A ‘metacognitive’ approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them” (p. 18).

Although students’ thinking about their own learning is not an inherent part of the flipped classroom, the higher cognitive functions associated with class activities, accompanied by the ongoing peer/instructor interaction that typically accompanies them, can readily lead to the metacognition associated with deep learning.

What are the key elements of the flipped classroom?

1. Provide an opportunity for students to gain first exposure prior to class.

The mechanism used for first exposure can vary, from simple textbook readings to lecture videos to podcasts or screencasts. For example, one professor might provide screencasts of content using YouTube, while another posts lecture videos to the LMS. The pre-class exposure doesn’t have to be high-tech. Textbook reading for first content exposure is effective also..

2. Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class.

Students need to complete a task associated with their preparation through first content exposure. Often having that task associated with points is helpful. The task or assignment can vary from online quizzes to worksheets to short writing assignments, but in each case the task should provide an incentive for students to come to class prepared. In many cases, grading for completion rather than effort can be sufficient, particularly if class activities will provide students with the kind of feedback that grading for accuracy usually provides.

3. Provide a mechanism to assess student understanding.

The pre-class assignments that students complete as evidence of their preparation can also help both the instructor and the student assess understanding. Pre-class online quizzes can allow the instructor to practice Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT; Novak et al., 1999), which basically means that the instructor tailors class activities to focus on the elements with which students are struggling. If automatically graded, the quizzes can also help students pinpoint areas where they need help. Pre-class worksheets can also help focus student attention on areas with which they’re struggling, and can be a departure point for class activities, while pre-class writing assignments help students clarify their thinking about a subject, thereby producing richer in-class discussions. Importantly, much of the feedback students need is provided in class, reducing the need for instructors to provide extensive commentary outside of class (Walvoord and Anderson, 1998). In addition, many of the activities used during class time (e.g., clicker questions or debates) can serve as informal checks of student understanding.

4. Provide in-class activities that focus on higher level cognitive activities.

If the students gained basic knowledge outside of class, then they need to spend class time to promote deeper learning. Again, the activity will depend on the learning goals of the class and the culture of the discipline. Activities such as experiments, discussions, debates, data analysis, or synthesis activities. The key is that students are using class time to deepen their understanding and increase their skills at using their new knowledge.


Berrett D (2012). How ‘flipping’ the classroom can improve the traditional lecture. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 19, 2012.

Anderson LW and Krathwohl D (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Bransford JD, Brown AL, and Cocking RR (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Crouch CH and Mazur E (2001). Peer instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics 69: 970-977.

DesLauriers L, Schelew E, and Wieman C (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science 332: 862-864.

Fitzpatrick M (2012). Classroom lectures go digital. The New York Times, June 24, 2012.

Hake R (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics 66: 64-74.

Lage MJ, Platt GJ, and Treglia M (2000). Inverting the classroom: A gateway to creating an inclusive learning environment. The Journal of Economic Education 31: 30-43.

Mazur  E (2009). Farewell, Lecture? Science 323: 50-51.

Novak G, Patterson ET, Gavrin AD, and Christian W (1999). Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Pashler H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D, and Bjork R (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9: 103-119.

Walvoord BE, and Anderson VJ (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


1Although there is widespread belief that matching students’ preferred “learning styles” to instructional formats promotes learning, a 2008 review by Pashler and colleagues finds no evidence that this strategy promotes learning.

Cite this guide:

Brame, C., (2013). Flipping the classroom. Retrieved [todaysdate] from
Brame, C., (2013). Flipping the classroom. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [todaysdate] from

Active Learning

What is it?

In their seminal work Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, compiled in 1991 for the Association for the Study of Higher Education and the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, Bonwell and Eison defined strategies that promote active learning as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing” (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). Approaches that promote active learning focus more on developing students’ skills than on transmitting information and require that students do something—read, discuss, write—that requires higher-order thinking. They also tend to place some emphasis on students’ explorations of their own attitudes and values.

This definition is broad, and Bonwell and Eison explicitly recognize that a range of activities can fall within it. They suggest a spectrum of activities to promote active learning, ranging from very simple (e.g., pausing lecture to allow students to clarify and organize their ideas by discussing with neighbors) to more complex (e.g., using case studies as a focal point for decision-making). In their book Scientific Teaching, Handelsman, Miller and Pfund also note that the line between active learning and formative assessment is blurry and hard to define; after all, teaching that promotes students’ active learning asks students to do or produce something, which then can serve to help assess understanding (2007).

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) provides a very simple definition: active learning involves “students’ efforts to actively construct their knowledge.” This definition is supplemented by the items that the AUSSE uses to measure active learning: working with other students on projects during class; making a presentation; asking questions or contributing to discussions; participating in a community-based project as part of a course; working with other students outside of class on assignments; discussing ideas from a course with others outside of class; tutoring peers (reported in Carr et al., 2015).

Freeman and colleagues collected written definitions of active learning from >300 people attending seminars on active learning, arriving at a consensus definition that emphasizes students’ use of higher-order thinking to complete activities or participate in discussion in class (Freeman et al., 2014). Their definition also notes the frequent link between active learning and working in groups.

Thus active learning is commonly defined as activities that students do to construct knowledge and understanding. The activities vary but require students to do higher-order thinking. Although not always explicitly noted, metacognition—students’ thinking about their own learning—is an important element, providing the link between activity and learning.

What’s the theoretical basis?

Constructivist learning theory emphasizes that individuals learn through building their own knowledge, connecting new ideas and experiences to existing knowledge and experiences to form new or enhanced understanding (Bransford et al., 1999). The theory, developed by Piaget and others, posits that learners can either assimilate new information into an existing framework, or can modify that framework to accommodate new information that contradicts prior understanding. Approaches that promote active learning often explicitly ask students to make connections between new information and their current mental models, extending their understanding. In other cases, teachers may design learning activities that allow students to confront misconceptions, helping students reconstruct their mental models based on more accurate understanding. In either case, approaches that promote active learning promote the kind of cognitive work identified as necessary for learning by constructivist learning theory.

Active learning approaches also often embrace the use of cooperative learning groups, a constructivist-based practice that places particular emphasis on the contribution that social interaction can make. Lev Vygotsky’s work elucidated the relationship between cognitive processes and social activities and led to the sociocultural theory of development, which suggests that learning takes place when students solve problems beyond their current developmental level with the support of their instructor or their peers (Vygotsky 1978). Thus active learning approaches that rely on group work rest on this sociocultural branch of constructivist learning theory, leveraging peer-peer interaction to promote students’ development of extended and accurate mental models.

Why is it important?

In addition to the evidence that active learning approaches promote learning for all students, there is some evidence that active learning approaches are an effective tool in making classrooms more inclusive. Haak and colleagues examined the effects of active learning for students in the University of Washington’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) who were enrolled in an introductory biology course (Haak et al., 2011). Students in the EOP are educationally or economically disadvantaged, are typically the first in their families to attend college, and include most underrepresented minority students at the University of Washington. Previous work had demonstrated that the researchers could predict student grades in the introductory biology course based on their college GPA and SAT verbal score; students in the EOP had a mean failure rate of ~22% compared to a mean failure rate of ~10% for students not in the EOP. When multiple highly structured approaches to promote active learning were incorporated into the introductory biology course, all students in the course benefited, but students in the EOP demonstrated a disproportionate benefit, reducing the achievement gap to almost half of the starting level. Given the pressing need to make U.S. college classrooms more inviting and productive spaces for students from all backgrounds, these results provide another compelling reason to incorporate active learning approaches into course design.

Lorenzo, Crouch, and Mazur also investigated the impact of active learning approaches on the difference in male and female performance in introductory physics classes (2006). They found that inclusion of active engagement techniques benefited all students, but had the greatest impact on female students’ performance. In fact, when they included a “high dose” of active learning approaches, the gender gap was eliminated. This result supports earlier work suggesting that women particularly benefit from active learning approaches (Laws et al., 1999; Schneider, 2001).

What are techniques to use?

Brief, easy supplements for lectures

The Pause Procedure— Pause for two minutes every 12 to 18 minutes, encouraging students to discuss and rework notes in pairs. This approach encourages students to consider their understanding of the lecture material, including its organization. It also provides an opportunity for questioning and clarification and has been shown to significantly increase learning when compared to lectures without the pauses. (Bonwell and Eison, 1991; Rowe, 1980; 1986; Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1980)

Retrieval practice—Pause for two or three minutes every 15 minutes, having students write everything they can remember from the preceding class segment. Encourage questions. This approach prompts students to retrieve information from memory, which improves long term memory, the ability to learn subsequent material, and the ability to translate information to new domains. (Brame and Biel, 2015)

Demonstrations—Ask students to predict the result of a demonstration, briefly discussing with a neighbor. After the demonstration, ask students to discuss the observed result and how it may have differed from their prediction; follow up with instructor explanation. This approach asks students to test their understanding of a system by predicting an outcome. If their prediction is incorrect, it helps them see the misconception and thus prompts them to restructure their mental model.

Think-pair-share—Ask students a question that requires higher order thinking (e.g., application, analysis, or evaluation levels within Bloom’s taxonomy). Ask students to think or write about an answer for one minute, then turn to a peer to discuss their responses for two minutes. Ask groups to share responses and follow up with instructor explanation. By asking students to explain their answer to a neighbor and to critically consider their neighbor’s responses, this approach helps students articulate newly formed mental connections.

Minute papers—Ask students a question that requires them to reflect on their learning or to engage in critical thinking. Have them write for one minute. Ask students to share responses to stimulate discussion or collect all responses to inform future class sessions. Like the think-pair-share approach, this approach encourages students to articulate and examine newly formed connections. (Angelo and Cross, 1993; Handelsman et al., 2007)


How should you get started?

Start small, start early, and start with activities that pose a low risk for both instructors and students. The Pause Procedure, Retrieval Practice, Minute Papers, and the Think-Pair-Share technique provide easy entry points to incorporating active learning approaches, requiring the instructor to change very little while providing students an opportunity to organize and clarify their thinking. As you begin to incorporate these practices, it’s a good idea to explain to your students why you’re doing so; talking to your students about their learning not only helps build a supportive classroom environment but can also help them develop their metacognitive skills (and thus their ability to become independent learners).

As you consider other active learning techniques to use, use the “backward design” approach: begin by identifying your learning goals, think about how you would identify whether students had reached them (that is, how you might structure assessment), and then choose an active learning approach that helps your students achieve those goals. Students typically have positive responses to active learning activities that are meaningful, appropriately challenging, and clearly tied to learning goals and assessments. 


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Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: a handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Barkley, E. (2010). Student engagement techniques: a handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. (2015). Test-enhanced learning: the potential for testing to promote greater learning in undergraduate science courses. CBE Life Sciences Education, 14, 1-12.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Carr, R., Palmer, S., and Hagel, P. (2015). Active learning: the importance of developing a comprehensive measure. Active Learning in Higher Education 16, 173-186.

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Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, 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 USA 111, 8410-8415.

Haak, D.C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., and Freeman, S. (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science 332, 1213–1216.

Hake, R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics 66, 64-74.

Handelsman, J., Miller, S., and Pfund, C. (2007). Scientific teaching. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Hyman, R.T. (1980). Improving discussion leadership. New York: Columbia University Teachers College Press.

Laws, P., Rosborough P, and Poodry, F. (1999).Women’s responses to an activity-based introductory physics program. American Journal of Physics 67, S32–S37.

Lorenzo, M., Crouch, C.H., Mazur, E. (2006). Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom. American Journal of Physics 74, 118–122.

Lumpkin, A., Achen, R., and Dodd,R. (2015). Student perceptions of active learning. College Student Journal 49, 121-133.

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Group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively

by Cynthia J. Brame and Rachel Biel

Many instructors from disciplines across the university use group work to enhance their students’ learning. Whether the goal is to increase student understanding of content, to build particular transferable skills, or some combination of the two, instructors often turn to small group work to capitalize on the benefits of peer-to-peer instruction. This type of group work is formally termed cooperative learning, and is defined as the instructional use of small groups to promote students working together to maximize their own and each other’s learning (Johnson, et al., 2008).

Cooperative learning is characterized by positive interdependence, where students perceive that better performance by individuals produces better performance by the entire group (Johnson, et al., 2014). It can be formal or informal, but often involves specific instructor intervention to maximize student interaction and learning. It is infinitely adaptable, working in small and large classes and across disciplines, and can be one of the most effective teaching approaches available to college instructors.

What can it look like?

Informal cooperative learning groups
In informal cooperative learning, small, temporary, ad-hoc groups of two to four students work together for brief periods in a class, typically up to one class period, to answer questions or respond to prompts posed by the instructor.



The instructor asks a discussion question. Students are instructed to think or write about an answer to the question before turning to a peer to discuss their responses. Groups then share their responses with the class.

Peer Instruction

This modification of the think-pair-share involves personal response devices (e.g. clickers). The question posted is typically a conceptually based multiple-choice question. Students think about their answer and vote on a response before turning to a neighbor to discuss.  This approach is particularly well-adapted for large classes.


In this approach, groups of students work in a team of four to become experts on one segment of new material, while other “expert teams” in the class work on other segments of new material. The class then rearranges, forming new groups that have one member from each expert team. The members of the new team then take turns teaching each other the material on which they are experts.

Formal cooperative learning groups

In formal cooperative learning students work together for one or more class periods to complete a joint task or assignment (Johnson et al., 2014). There are several features that can help these groups work well:

  • The instructor defines the learning objectives for the activity and assigns students to groups.
  • The groups are typically heterogeneous, with particular attention to the skills that are needed for success in the task.
  • Within the groups, students may be assigned specific roles, with the instructor communicating the criteria for success and the types of social skills that will be needed.
  • Importantly, the instructor continues to play an active role during the groups’ work, monitoring the work and evaluating group and individual performance.
  • Instructors also encourage groups to reflect on their interactions to identify potential improvements for future group work.

What’s the theoretical underpinning?

The use of cooperative learning groups in instruction is based on the principle of Constructivism, with particular attention to the contribution that social interaction can make. In essence, Constructivism rests on the idea that individuals learn through building their own knowledge, connecting new ideas and experiences to existing knowledge and experiences to form new or enhanced understanding (Bransford, et al., 1999). The consideration of the role that groups can play in this process is based in social interdependence theory, which grew out of Kurt Koffka’s and Kurt Lewin’s identification of groups as dynamic entities that could exhibit varied interdependence among members, with group members motivated to achieve common goals. Morton Deutsch conceptualized varied types of interdependence, with positive correlation among group members’ goal achievements promoting cooperation.

Lev Vygotsky extended this work by examining the relationship between cognitive processes and social activities, developing the sociocultural theory of development. The sociocultural theory of development suggests that learning takes place when students solve problems beyond their current developmental level with the support of their instructor or their peers. Thus both the idea of a zone of proximal development, supported by positive group interdependence, is the basis of cooperative learning (Davidson and Major, 2014; Johnson, et al., 2014).

Cooperative learning follows this idea as groups work together to learn or solve a problem, with each individual responsible for understanding all aspects. The small groups are essential to this process because students are able to both be heard and to hear their peers, while in a traditional classroom setting students may spend more time listening to what the instructor says.

Cooperative learning uses both goal interdependence and resource interdependence to ensure interaction and communication among group members. Changing the role of the instructor from lecturing to facilitating the groups helps foster this social environment for students to learn through interaction.

What are approaches that can help make group work effective?


Articulate your goals for the group work, including both the academic objectives you want the students to achieve and the social skills you want them to develop.

Determine the group conformation that will help meet your goals.

  • In informal group learning, groups often form ad hoc from near neighbors in a class.
  • In formal group learning, it is helpful for the instructor to form groups that are heterogeneous with regard to particular skills or abilities relevant to group tasks. 
  • Groups from 2-6 are generally recommended, with groups that consist of three members exhibiting the best performance in some problem-solving tasks (Johnson et al., 2006; Heller and Hollabaugh, 1992).
  • To avoid common problems in group work, such as dominance by a single student or conflict avoidance, it can be useful to assign roles to group members (e.g., manager, skeptic, educator, conciliator) and to rotate them on a regular basis (Heller and Hollabaugh, 1992). 

Choose an assessment method that will promote positive group interdependence as well as individual accountability.

  • In team-based learning, two approaches promote positive interdependence and individual accountability. First, students take an individual readiness assessment test, and then immediately take the same test again as a group. Their grade is a composite of the two scores. Second, students complete a group project together, and receive a group score on the project. They also, however, distribute points among their group partners, allowing student assessment of members’ contributions to contribute to the final score.

Helping groups get started

  • Explain the group’s task, including your goals for their academic achievement and social interaction.
  • Explain how the task involves both positive interdependence and individual accountability, and how you will be assessing each.

Monitoring group work

Regularly observe group interactions and progress, either by circulating during group work, collecting in-process documents, or both. When you observe problems, intervene to help students move forward on the task and work together effectively. 

Assessing and reflecting

In addition to providing feedback on group and individual performance (link to preparation section above), it is also useful to provide a structure for groups to reflect on what worked well in their group and what could be improved. 



Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Bruffee, K. A. (1993). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cabrera, A. F., Crissman, J. L., Bernal, E. M., Nora, A., Terenzini, P. T., & Pascarella, E. T. (2002). Collaborative learning: Its impact on college students’ development and diversity. Journal of College Student Development, 43(1), 20-34.

Davidson, N., & Major, C. H. (2014). Boundary crossing: Cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25 (3&4), 7-55.

Dees, R. L. (1991). The role of cooperative leaning in increasing problem-solving ability in a college remedial course. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 22(5), 409-21.

Gokhale, A. A. (1995). Collaborative Learning enhances critical thinking. Journal of Technology Education, 7(1).

Heller, P., and Hollabaugh, M. (1992) Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups. American Journal of Physics 60, 637-644.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2006). Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom (3rd edition). Edina, MN: Interaction.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Holubec, E.J. (2008). Cooperation in the classroom (8th edition). Edina, MN: Interaction.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journl on Excellence in College Teaching 25, 85-118.

Jones, D. J., & Brickner, D. (1996). Implementation of cooperative learning in a large-enrollment basic mechanics course. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference Proceedings.

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Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Discussion can take place in a variety of contexts and disciplines across the university, from seminars to labs to lectures. Engaging students in discussion deepens their learning and motivation by propelling them to develop their own views and hear their own voices.

Basic Principles

Effective discussion-leading is more than simply asking questions and letting students answer; it involves a nuanced set of roles and skills. This complexity is captured well by C. Roland Christensen, who pioneered teaching by the case method and taught at the Harvard Business School for 50 years:

[E]ffective preparation for discussion classes takes more time, because instructors must consider not only what they will teach, but also who and how. And the classroom encounter consumes a great deal of energy; simultaneous attention to process (the flow of activities that make up a discussion) and content (the material discussed) requires emotional as well as intellectual engagement. . . . The discussion teacher is planner, host, moderator, devil’s advocate, fellow-student, and judge-a potentially confusing set of roles. Even the most seasoned group leader must be content with uncertainty, because discussion teaching is the art of managing spontaneity.

Specific Tools and Strategies


Learning Student Names
Knowing and using student names is an oft-overlooked but vital foundation for an effective discussion. This article, published in the National Teaching and Learning Forum, is a compendium of 27 concrete tips from faculty across the country on learning and remembering student names.

The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start
by historian Peter Frederick, points out ten ways to jump-start a discussion, from having students generate concrete images or illustrative quotations from the reading, to engaging in debates or role play. This website summarizes those strategies.

Questioning, Listening, Responding

It is important to think about what kinds of questions to ask, of whomat what point in the discussion. There are many ways to categorize kinds of questions, as explained in the following resources.

About this Guide

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License and was developed from content from Vanderbilt University.

Contact CIDD

The Center for Instructional Design and Delivery is available by phone at 301-447-5084 or by email at