Active Engagement Instructional Strategies

If you missed the presentation “This is Your Brain on Adolescence: Any Questions?” feel free to back up and read some theory behind these activities.

When teaching any age group, it’s a good idea to pause periodically for active engagement.

How often should I pause during my lesson?

A good rule of thumb is one minute for every-year-old your students are.  So, if you teach second grade, every eight minutes or so.  If you teach high school, every 12-15 minutes.

How long should I pause during my lesson?

30-90 seconds is long enough to do an active engagement, increase glucose and oxygen to the brain, activate the motor centers of the brain, and reinforce curricular concepts or connect concepts to prior knowledge.

Below are lists of two types of active engagement activities.  The first list offers a variety of activities / questioning techniques that break us out of old modes of Q&A.  There are also creative suggestions for pairing students up beyond having them turn and talk to whomever they’re seated next to.

The second list includes a list of alternatives to note-taking.  Note taking is difficult for many students because they cannot listen and write simultaneously, so inevitably some knowledge is lost in the traditional note-taking process.  The note-making activities are alternatives for students to interpret your lessons in creative, meaningful ways.

Feel free to email me your tried-and-true activities so I can add them to this list.

Much of this information is a summation of the “Rebels with Applause” workshop I attended in October of 2014.  More resources are available on the Conscious Teaching website.

Active Engagement Activities

  1. Cross the Room & Summarize / Reciprocal Teaching: After lecturing for 10-15 minutes, cut the class in half, mark one half ‘A’ and the other half ‘B.’  Tell ‘A’ students to cross the room and find & high-five a ‘B’ partner.  Have ‘A’s’ summarize lecture to this point to ‘B’s’ for 42 seconds.  After 42 seconds ‘B’s’ will summarize but they cannot repeat anything ‘A’s’ told them. Do this for 42 seconds.  Have them return to their seats.
  2. Turn & Summarize: Same as #1, but with less movement – summarize as many things as they can with a near-by classmate by turning in their seat.
  3. Answer or Echo: Ask a question.  Call on a student who can choose to “answer” or “echo.”  The student stands if s/he doesn’t know the answer. Move on and call another student.  That student has same choice. After a you finally get to a student who knows the answer, each of the previous students must “echo” their response before they can sit down again.
  4. Advanced Warning:  For students who are reticent / shy, tell them you will call on them today – perhaps give them the question you want them to answer.  They can be prepared when you call on them.
  5. “I Don’t Know Yet”: When you ask a question and a student doesn’t know the answer, tell them they have to say “I don’t know yet” and you will politely come back to them in a few moments while other students answer questions.
  6. “But What I Do Know Is…”: When students say “I don’t know” prompt them to say “but what I do know is…” and build off what they do know. This helps link new knowledge to old and can often lead them to the correct answer proving that they DO know the answer after all!
  7. 8 Raised Hands: Ask the class a question.  Tell them you will not call on anyone until you have 8 raised hands.  Once you have 8 raised hands, have each student respond – even if they all repeat the same thing.  It reinforces the information and gets their blood flowing  a bit.
  8. All Raised Hands: Good, quick comprehension check: ask the class a question and ask for all raised hands. In this scenario though, they raise their hand according to their level of comprehension: straight up for full comprehension, at a 90-degree angle for so-so comprehension, and a thumb-to-the-temple if they don’t get it at all.  If you get all straight arms, continue your lesson.  If you get all thumbs-to-the-temple, pause and reinforce.
  9. Class Consultant: Tell student X that s/he will be the class consultant.  Then ask a question and call on another student to answer.  Ask the class consultant to determine whether the response is correct or not. If not, the consultant offers what s/he thinks.
  10. Action Thermometer: Place notecards around the room – have students move to those areas in response to a particular question.  In Math, for example, post 4 numbers (solutions) around the room, one on each wall. Then give each student a number problem written on a card, and have each student stand and go to the side of the room that represents his/her card’s solution.
  11. $10,000 Pyramid: Just like the gameshow, put a list of 7,8,or 10 unit vocab words or concepts on the board.  Students partner up.  ‘A’ students listen & respond while ‘B’ students give clues to the concepts without naming the term.  ‘B’ students also have to sit on their hands – no gesturing.  Once they complete the list they should stand up, high five each other, exclaim “WOO HOO!” to indicate they are done before sitting back down.  You can have a few different lists of terms / concepts and rotate through this as exam prep.
  12. Appointment Clock: Make a clock / pie on sheets of paper for all students in class at the beginning of the semester.  Kids go around and put each other’s name on appointment clock:  “Do you have 12 o’clock open?  No?  What about 2 o’clock? Yes? Put me down as your 2 o’clock and I’ll put you down.”  When you want them to pair up but don’t want Stan and Arnie to pair up (because they always do), you tell students: “go to your 2 o’clock appointment” then have them engage in an activity. It is random & self-selected, giving students choice without teacher assigning partners.
  13. Borger’s Speed-Dating:  Turn desks to face each other in pairs before students arrive.  Students are given a directive to engage their partner in conversation over X topic for X minutes. You can set a timer or play background music while they talk.  After the allotted time has passed, have them rotate to another partner – much like musical chairs.  Repeat the process two – four times in the class period.  I usually start with 3-4 minute increments and increase it from there. This is a great activity for: topic generation for big projects / papers, peer review once an initial draft has been completed / preliminary research has been conducted, etc.

Note Making vs. Note Taking

Traditional note-taking is difficult for many students.  They lose out on the verbal lecture as they copy & write down notes.  Try this instead: give them an outline of the lecture, lecture to or discuss the material with them, then pause every 10-15 minutes and try some of these note making activities instead.  

  1. Draw a picture: Have them draw a picture that represents what you’ve been lecturing on.  They can only use stick figures and only give them 30 seconds to draw. Go!
  2. Title summary: Come up with titles (movie, song, book) for what you were lecturing over.
  3. Translate for kindergartener / dialect: Translate the main concepts from the lecture in Cave-man-speak, as Spongebob, in Elmo-speak, as Homer Simpson would lecture, as a rap, as a country song, as a valley girl, as a reality TV personality might, etc. Be creative.
  4. Create alternative song lyrics: Can give them common songs (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Jingle Bells, etc.).  They use the tune to create a song about the concepts you are discussing.  They share with the class.  It’s quick & is a hoot!  Connects new knowledge (curricular concepts) to old knowledge (Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star).
  5. Example: have them come up with examples from the real world.  We tend to give examples – they’re more engaged coming up with them on their own.
  6. Reflection / Highlights: Studies have been conducted which show that there is an increase in comprehension and retention when students summarize what they’ve learned.  Each Friday, have students reflect on the lessons from the week.  Can be a five minute activity at the beginning of class or at the end.  Students can keep a continuous log = good self-generated study guide for tests & quizzes.
  7. Comparison: Compare photosynthesis to lawnmower. There doesn’t need to be a direct connection between concepts = visual tagging is a powerful learning device.  Also, it allows students to connect new knowledge (photosynthesis) to old (lawnmower).
  8. Acronym: Have students make an acronym for the lesson.
  9. Story: “Once upon a time….”  Have students create a story using your concepts.  In math: “Once upon a time there was an evil “X” who wanted to remain anonymous.”  Or in science: “Once upon a time there was a mitochondria who lived inside a cell and each day the mitochondria would…”  Stories are powerful learning devices.
  10. Question? / Question!: Have students generate an authentic question for teacher on something they genuinely don’t know based on the lesson or a pop quiz question you might actually use on a quiz.


Dearborn, Grace. “Rebels with Applause: Brain-Compatible Approaches for Motivating Reluctant Learners.” Conscious Teaching. 2013. Web. 2 Jan. 2014.

Cordell, Ryan. “‘Speed Dating’ Peer-Review Writing Workshops” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 3 Nov. 2011. Web. 13 Jan. 2014.


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