Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title How Do I Encourage Active Learning?
Originator Clive Agnew
Department Department of Geography, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP, UK
Tel. +44 (0)171 504 4271
Fax +44 (0)171 380 7565

This case study is based upon ideas from Charman & Fullerton (1995) and Jenkins (1992), but see also Brown (1997), Cryer & Elton (1992) and Gold et al. (1991).


To encourage active learning through student participation, particularly in large classes.


Gibbs & Jenkins (1984) argue that student learning in lectures will improve if each period of listening by students is no more than 20 minutes. It follows that breaks and activities need to be introduced. These need not be long pauses or non-activity but should be used to stimulate students into thinking about the new knowledge they have just acquired. The advantages of small group teaching have long been understood and have recently been re-emphasised with the growth of 'enterprise' in HE and the development of students' transferable skills. There is now recognition that small-group teaching techniques can be employed even in large classes, but that this does present particular challenges. The examples cited here, the use of buzz groups and class discussion, are but two examples of possible approaches that range from role playing simulations and debates through to public enquiries (see Anderson, 1994; Gibbs & Jenkins, 1992 for a large number of ideas and suggestions).


Using buzz groups


Buzz groups are named after the hubbub and chatter created by small groups of students engaged in discussions during the lecture. Buzz groups should not be used merely to revive attention, rather they should engage students in thought as well as discussion. This can be encouraged by asking for a minute's quiet individual reflection before the buzz commences.

The technique is to suggest some activity and then to divide the class into a series of small groups. This is easiest when students are already arranged around tables but even in a raked large lecture theatre it is possible.


Arranging students into buzz groups in rooms with fixed seating (from Cryer & Elton, 1992)

Much depends upon the type of activity required. This must be tailored to the students' ability and knowledge - it is no use presenting them with complex data or problems beyond their comprehension. Use an image, a brief piece of writing or video extract.

Students need to appreciate the purpose of using buzz groups. They need clear instructions on what to do, how long to do it and what is expected from them at the end. These instructions must not just be oral; they should be on the OHP.

Arranging groups:

Students will normally be sitting next to someone they know so there is usually no problem in getting them to talk to one another. Sometimes, especially at the start of the year, this may be more difficult. So begin with a simple task requiring students to introduce themselves to the person sitting on either side by stating which is their most and least favourite meal/drink/country/town, or simply their name and where they come from.

In Practice: (see table below)

It may be that the discussion is so animated that it is difficult to stop the process. Agree beforehand the signal for discussion to cease possibly by turning on/off the lights.

In a large class there will not be time for all the groups to respond. Ask two or three volunteers for their thoughts and then ask for any other groups who would like to add anything new. Don't respond immediately to any of the reporting back, just make encouraging signals, a nod of the head, 'that's interesting, good points'. Any response, especially if it is critical, is best depersonalised and incorporated into the subsequent lecture. It is essential to time-limit the discussion and tell students when they have to complete the task, plus when there is one minute to go and whether they will have to report back.


A class on Central Place Theory (from Gibbs &Jenkins, 1984; Jenkins, 1992)

Stages Time Activity
1 5 mins All: a revision OHP is displayed of previous work class has done on the topic while students enter and sit down.
2 9 mins Lecturer: a revision talk on previous work
3 5 mins Students: display the question "What aspects of C.P.T. can be used to analyse the number and location of shopping facilities in towns? Students discuss the question in small groups.
4 7 mins Lecturer: short talk on set question with student questions
5 4 mins Students: a new task is set employing data displayed on the screen
6 6 mins Lecturer: summarises using feedback from some student groups
7 6 mins Students: set a harder task interpreting and examining changes in locations of towns through time using C.P.T., working in pairs.
8 1 min Lecturer: answers part of the question leading to a more advanced issue
9 2 mins Students: continue to work in groups
10 3 mins Lecturer: complete the analysis in short lecture
11 1 min Students: class is set an open question with insufficient time to answer
12 6 mins Lecturer: reviews the material in the handbook
13 2 mins Students: write a brief summary of the lecture


Using interactive lectures

This approach was used to teach a geographical concepts course where problems had been encountered in the past when consideration was given to perspectives in physical geography. The traditional lecturing approach had not been successful and it was felt students needed more help to develop their understanding of theoretical ideas and their significance. The aim was promoting deep learning by increasing the amount of time students spent thinking. The approach employed was:
Handbook Students were issued with notes at the start which identified key points covered in each lecture
Discussions Students were asked to work in small groups at intervals within the lecture:

    10 min Questions from students about previous lecture
    10 min Introduction to class
    10 min Case study explored by students in small groups
    15 min Feedback from students
    10 min Review by students individually and in groups.
    (you will note that the formal presentation by the lecturer is significantly reduced)

Question Box Students who did not want to speak out in the classroom could ask questions by placing them in a question box placed by the door. These questions were answered at the beginning of the next lecture.


Both approaches used small-group discussion to promote active learning in a lecture room. The organisation of the time was broadly similar with the lecturer acting more as a facilitator as students were encouraged to investigate issues.


Through the use of discussion groups it is believed that students develop their understanding of a topic, they develop communication skills, the attention span in a lecture is extended and deep learning is facilitated. There are constraints including suitable accommodation and the preparation of handouts and suitable tasks and activities. It may also be rather intimidating requiring students in a large lecture theatre to be organised into groups and then required to complete an assignment.

The use of buzz groups requires additional preparation time. The tasks have to be achievable, the questions answerable and set in the context of the lecture. It may be that images, data, multiple answers have to be prepared as handouts or an OHP transparency. The time required, however, is modest, perhaps a couple of hours including the planning. There is some gain in the time spent preparing for the lecture in that the lecture has to contain less material. There is a major gain for the students learning and their confidence to converse with colleagues and lecturers. It is also a very pleasant teaching experience to engage a large audience in conversation and to work together towards greater understanding of a topic. There is only a modest resource cost.

The evaluation of student responses carried out by Charman & Fullerton (1995) revealed a high degree of student satisfaction with only 3% feeling they preferred the more traditional lecture format. Although the typed notes were appreciated almost 60% had not read them before the lecture and only 19% ever asked a question in class. Overall it was felt that lectures had become more stimulating for students and more rewarding for teachers. It was noted however that the low audience participation needed further consideration and the lecturer needed to be able to move amongst the student discussion groups.


These are not a new ideas but require confidence to be used with large classes. Doubts such as 'will the students do what I ask of them?' are bound to be felt. There is then much need to prepare the student audience properly and to persuade them of the benefits of this approach.


Anderson, L.W. (1994) Lecturing to Large Groups (Birmingham: Staff and Education Development Association Paper 81).

Brown, S. (1997) The art of teaching small groups, New Academic, 6(1), pp.3-6.

Charman, D.J. & Fullerton, H. (1995) Interactive lectures: a case study in a geographical concepts course, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 19(1), pp.57-68.

Cryer, P. & Elton, L. (1992) Active Learning in Large Classes and with Increasing Student Numbers (Sheffield: CVCP Staff Development Unit).

Gibbs, G. & Jenkins, A. (1984) Break up your lectures: or Christaller sliced up, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 8(1), pp.27-39.

Gibbs, G. & Jenkins, A. (1992) Teaching Large Classes in Higher Education (London: Kogan Page).

Gold et al. (1991) Teaching Geography in Higher Education: a manual of good practice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).

Jenkins, A. (1992) Active learning in structured lectures, in G. Gibbs & A. Jenkins (Eds.) Teaching Large Classes in Higher Education, pp.63-77 (London: Kogan Page).


Active learning
Buzz groups
Discussion groups
Interactive lectures
Student participation

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Lecturing in Geography"

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