Common Concerns and Challenges

How can I encourage all of my students to participate in active learning?

First, if you’re not sure why you’re doing something, it can be difficult to communicate to students why they should be doing it. So, start by learning about active learning yourself. On this site, we’ve included a brief introduction to active learning (link), and some research on the effects of active learning (link) to help with this.

Once you have a good idea about your own reasons for employing more active learning, you should talk to students directly about the benefits of using it. Instructors who explained to students the benefits of incorporating active learning in the classroom saw decreases in student resistance (Braun et al., 2017; Hayward et al., 2016).

It might also be a good idea to conduct short, informal, anonymous surveys a few times during the course to find out what’s working and what needs to be modified. A favorite of ours: have students fold a piece of paper in half vertically, and then have them draw three horizontal lines dividing the page into even thirds. Above the first line, students write “Start doing.” Above the second, they write “Keep doing.” And above the third, they write “Quit doing.” In the two columns created by the fold that they made, they should write “You (teacher)” at the top of one side, and “Me (student)” at the top of the other. Then, students can give feedback on what they’d like for you to start, keep, and stop doing, but they can also reflect on what THEY need to start, keep, or stop doing.

In an active class, student participation is necessary and instructors should hold students accountable for participating. But remember: it can also be hard — especially if students come from a cultural background where participation is rare, if they’re introverted, if they’re used to a more passive model, or if they don’t understand the goal of the exercise. Know why you’re doing something, let them in on your reasoning, and be receptive to feedback.

How can I encourage all of my students to work together?

There are several approaches to this. As with the first question, instructors should let students know upfront that group members need to help each other learn and that they will be held accountable for their participation. Instructors might assign a grade for group work that should be worth a minor component of the final grade.

Remember to vary your groupings. It is best not to have fixed groups, and instead, to alternate who students work with (Cooper, 1995).

Monitoring (i.e. walking around the room and listening to what students are saying) also really helps. Sometimes, students aren’t working together because they’re stuck. Sometimes, they’ve finished the problem set and they need another challenge. Listening closely to students can help you know how to group them for the next activity.

What if students who are doing very well in class get upset about having to work with others who are not doing well in class?

Research generally shows that we learn more by teaching other people. This usually makes sense to teachers: think about how well you learn the material that you’re teaching when you have to break it down and explain it to someone else.

Sharing a little about how teaching has made you understand the material more effectively, as well research that shows that “A” students typically state that helping others deepened their understanding of the material, might help students see the benefit of helping each other (Faust & Paulson, 1998).

Varying groups can also help with this problem. Sometimes, students simply feel frustrated because they’re working with the same person too often.

Am I going to have enough time to plan out active learning activities?

Initial preparation time will increase, but activities can be used often and some activities require little to no prep time. If time is a concern, use simpler activities (Faust & Paulson, 1998). Don’t feel like you need to change everything at once.

Similarly with group work, initial planning may be time consuming, but this will become easier over time (Cooper, 1995). Becoming familiar with new techniques is going to be challenging, but we encourage you to start small and continue to make progress by improving your teaching skills.

How can I as an instructor continue making progress using an active learning approach?

We’ve linked to a few resources on incorporating active learning on this site (web link), so please consult some of these. If you’re based at Baruch, you might also consider coming in for a consultation at the Center for Teaching and Learning (here’s our website). The CTL consultants can talk through a lesson plan, a classroom challenge, or an idea with you.

What can I do about the “coverage issue”? In other words, I don’t think active learning will give me enough time to cover all of the material.

You’re right. Active learning typically forces teachers to reduce the amount of content that can reasonably be covered in a given class period. Because students are more closely and carefully engaging with the material, they’re more likely to ask questions. Those questions take time. Things can get delayed.

This is why you need to determine what is critical and what is not critical to teach. One way to do this is by using the Test-Teach-Test method, which many of the lesson plans on this site incorporate.

The basic structure is this:

(1) Give students a short “test” to see what they already know. They’ll work on it alone, and then check it with a partner while you monitor and listen to who’s getting the right answer and who is still struggling. If you notice that one group is struggling and a group of students got the right answer, ask the correct group to explain it to the struggling group while you continue to monitor.

(2) Rather than covering EVERYTHING in the “teach” portion, you can now teach in the gaps of students’ knowledge. When students worked in pairs in the previous “test,” some of the teaching already happened. All you need to cover at this point is what’s still unclear. Sometimes, you can have a student who got the right answer show the class how they did it while pausing to point out any relevant steps.

(3) Test students again. Did they get it this time? Can the group who struggled in the first “test” teach the group who got it while they give feedback?

Test-Teach-Test gives students a chance to become aware of what they already know (and to communicate this to you).

Test-Teach-Test also ensures that the “teach” section of the lesson is focused on critical topics and problems brought up by students (Cooper, 1995). The less critical topics can be excluded from the course entirely, assigned as outside readings, or briefly discussed (Yoshinobu & Jones, 2012).


Braun, B., Bremser, P., Duval, A. M., Lockwood, E., & White, D. (2017). What Does Active Learning Mean For Mathematicians? Notices of the AMS64.

Cooper, M. M. (1995). Cooperative learning: An approach for large enrollment courses. J. Chem. Educ72(2), 162.

Faust, J. L., & Paulson, D. R. (1998). Active learning in the college classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching9(2), 3-24.

Hayward, C. N., Kogan, M., & Laursen, S. L. (2016). Facilitating instructor adoption of inquiry-based learning in college mathematics. International Journal of Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education2(1), 59-82.

Yoshinobu, S., & Jones, M. G. (2012). The coverage issue. Primus22(4), 303-316.