Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

 Concrete Strategies for Active Learning

Polling during class to elicit students responses to conceptual questions

  • Department: Social & Decision Sciences and History
  • Course format: lecture
  • Strategy: Adapted an in-class polling system. The in-class version involved using 4 cards in different colors - the instructor would ask a question with the different response options (e.g., multiple choice) assigned to a color, and students could vote by color. Online, this worked the same way, where the options could be shown on a slide and the voting would be done through Zoom polling or Zoom chat (each student would type in the color that represents their vote). A TA could monitor the responses as they came in and could report out the results (e.g. “Majority red”). 
  • Advantages: This keeps up student engagement, and is a great way to get student responses on anything from course material (concept questions) to course logistics (when should we schedule office hours).
  • Considerations/questions for implementation: For larger classes, it is easier if a TA monitors the chat, or if Zoom polls are used. Zoom polls may be set up in advance and even may be built in to a meeting template.
  • Tools: Zoom for screen sharing (to show the question with options) plus Chat or Polling.

Small groups completing a task/solving a problem

  • Department: Philosophy and Chemistry
  • Format: seminar/discussion and lecture
  • Strategy: The instructor assigned students to breakout rooms and gave them a task/problem to work in small groups. To scaffold their small-group work, the instructor created a Google slides deck (accessible to all students, e.g., with one slide as “workspace” for each breakout) and had students use their slide(s) as a collaborative work space to document what they were doing. Then, when students came back to the main session, they had something to share with the group. 
  • Advantages: Gave students a goal for their small group work and some accountability because there was a deliverable to share upon returning to the main group. Instructor could see students’ work unfold by viewing slides during the breakout time.
  • Considerations/questions for implementation: Ensure the task that you give students is clear, sufficiently structured (to focus students’ attention), and can be done in the amount of time you give them. Decide whether or not to have all groups debrief their deliverable, especially given that students can view each others’ work in the Google slides document. For hybrid, in-person students could still use Zoom or (if enough whiteboard space in the room) take turns approaching the board to write the next piece of the solution. Note: this strategy could be used inside or outside of class.
  • Tools: Zoom + Google slides

Fostering student self-reflection while providing instructor feedback

  • Department: Music
  • Course format: Studio (ideal for 1:1 or small-group)
  • Strategy: Students recorded themselves playing before class and sent the video to the instructor. Both turned off camera/sound to review the video independently, then came back to Zoom to discuss key features they heard in the performance, areas of growth and success. 
  • Advantages: Instructor need not review all student videos beforehand, giving feedback in the moment. Students get to reflect on their own performance in a more distanced context (i.e., via recording rather than while performing). This strategy requires little extra time on students’ part (just setting up and uploading recording)
  • Considerations/questions for implementation: This strategy worked well for 1:1 teacher:student interactions or in small groups. For larger classes, a variant of this strategy could be implemented with a peer-to-peer format (i.e., peers share their respective videos and review each others’ in turn).
  • Tools: Zoom and google drive or other file sharing tool


  • Department: multiple
  • Course format: lecture
  • Strategy: “Think”: Instructor poses conceptual question to students during class orally & via PowerPoint (projected into room and/or screenshared via Zoom). Students think about their response. “Vote”: Students respond via Zoom poll, Canvas quiz, google form, Polleverywhere, or by holding up a # of fingers (in the room, to the webcam, or via Zoom chat). “Share”: Instructor asks student(s) who chose option X to share their reasoning via Zoom chat or in-person (if in-person, instructor repeats for all to hear). 
  • Advantages: “Voting” gives students a reason to work the problem and then they get to see how other students responded and a self-check when instructor debriefs the responses. Instructor gets an early read on how well students understood the latest concept.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: If possible/desirable, Pair-Up/Discuss step could be inserted after “Vote” – e.g., by creating ad hoc student groups to discuss in Zoom breakouts or to write/share/type their responses in google doc.
  • Tools: Zoom poll, Canvas quiz, google form, Polleverywhere, or by holding up a # of fingers (in the room, to the webcam, or via Zoom chat). Note: Tech tools listed should work for in-person as well as remote students (as long as in-person students have a device).

Peer review

  • Department: multiple
  • Course format: lecture or recitation
  • Strategy: Instructor gives students a problem or task to complete independently. Students work the problem up to a particular point, generating their solution on paper or in online document. Students then swap solutions (pair-wise) and comment on each other’s work (e.g., I did it the same way. I would add this step/evidence.) Then students swap back their solutions, and reflect on what steps seemed similar/dissimilar, clear/unclear, correct/incorrect.
  • Advantages: Gets students working through tasks/problems in “draft” form knowing that they don’t have to do it all themselves. Seeing and analyzing a peer’s approach can often spur student’s own thinking.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: A variant of this strategy could involve students in each pair (A and B) tackling different problems/tasks. When students swap, they are reviewing an unfamiliar scenario and thus rather than comparing with their own, they could work to explain their peer’s steps or critique their peer’s response via an instructor-provided rubric. Note that the different versions of this strategy can be implemented inside class or outside of class. In a typical approach, students are asked to complete the individual work outside of class. On the day the assignment is due, students submit a copy to one or two classmates. For part of class time, each student then gives constructive feedback (e.g., corrects mistakes in problem solving, makes suggestions about improving argumentation/clarity, etc.).
  • Tools: Zoom, Canvas, Google

Explaining worked example problems

  • Department: Mostly STEM
  • Course format: lecture and recitation
  • Strategy:  Rather than asking students to work a problem themselves, this strategy involves the instructor providing an already solved problem. Students’ job is to write of a succinct explanation for each step of the solution (individually or in collaborative groups). Here the students would be encouraged to write their explanations in words (even if the problem involved lots of equations or other formats).
  • Advantages: Worked examples give students something to respond to and explaining worked examples’ steps has impressive benefits for learning. Providing a worked example is also a more structured task (compared to open-ended problem solving) so it may be more easily implemented with automatic grading/feedback.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: A variant on this strategy would be to include some incorrect steps in the worked example. This way students need to both explain correct steps and identify incorrect steps.
  • Tools: Various

Concept mapping to highlight knowledge structures  

  • Department: various
  • Course format: lecture, recitation, discussion/seminar
  • Strategy:  Instructor directs students to create a concept map individually, in pairs, or in small groups. (Concept maps use boxes connected via lines to represent concepts and their relationships.) Students can complete and share their concept maps in an online tool or on paper (e.g., via a quick snapshot).
  • Advantages: Concept maps get students thinking about networks of ideas rather than isolated facts. Sharing and discussing differences in students’ concept maps can reveal different lines of thinking, give students a self-check on what they did/did not incorporate, and the instructor a quick diagnostic on students’ conceptual understanding of a topic.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Instructors can prompt students to draw a concept map with a question (What were the causes and conditions affecting <key event>? How does <X> work?) or with a central concept in the course. Students can be directed to draw their concept maps with just boxes and lines or to add labels and directionality to the lines -- as indicators of the nature and direction of the relationship.
  • Tools: various

Self-assessment quiz

  • Department: various
  • Course format: lecture, discussion
  • Strategy:  Students take a quiz (typically ungraded), or complete a checklist of ideas to determine understanding of a concept. This can be used at the beginning of the semester, or the beginning of a unit.  If used at the end of a unit (and supposing that students score their own quiz), the instructor can include suggestions of what material to review based on which answers the student got right/wrong.
  • Advantages: The self-assessment quiz helps the instructor and students gauge prior knowledge and identify misconceptions. If conducted before a class or a unit, it can also guide the instructor on where to spend the most time during that unit. If used after a unit, it can guide students on where to direct their follow-up studies and practice.
  • Implementation considerations/questions: Some instructors are wary of “pre-tests” because they insert an assessment (which has negative connotations for some). To address this concern, instructors can be very explicit about their rationale (This quiz will help you and me better understand what you need to learn most. Please try your best, but recognize that we do not expect high scores, and there is no penalty for low scores.)
  • Tools: Canvas and others

Application Card

  • Department: various
  • Course format: various
  • Strategy:  Students are provided with a task that challenges them to apply a concept or skill to a situation they have not encountered before, or challenges them to generate examples that illustrate a concept. 
  • Advantages: Application card exercises give students a chance to apply what they have learned in new ways and hence check their ability to transfer what they have learned. This is often a good indicator for students and the instructor for how students will perform on novel problems (and later examinations of their performance).
  • Implementation considerations/questions: This strategy can be implemented during class or outside of class. The complexity of the application can also be varied, allowing for quick or more involved implementations.
  • Tools: Canvas, most likely, esp if students are responding with a short write-up of their application or illustrative example.