The Space for Active Learning

by Jan Newberry

Jan is a professor in the Department of Anthropology, former Board of Governors Teaching Chair and a past Teaching Centre Teaching Fellow.

Group work is not one thing: it is many things. And it can do many things in a classroom. Perhaps foremost among these is the chance for students engage in active learning

Here are three of the ways that I use group work in my classroom.

First-day engagement

I am a firm believer that students who do not talk on the first day will find it much harder to talk and engage throughout the semester. I, like many of my colleagues, design first-day activities that get students to talk to each other, talk to me, and move around the room.

Here’s an example from my large lecture courses. I ask students to form groups of five to six people. I may indicate how this can be done. A key issue in a large class is to remind the students that it is their responsibility to make certain that everyone is incorporated into a group. It’s much harder to join a group than it is to ask someone to join yours. After they are in groups, I ask them to introduce themselves by name, year in school, and major. Often I ask them to find one thing they all hold in common. It’s useful here to urge them to do this quickly because they must then get over their initial reluctance. When they have finished, I point out they can no longer say they know no one in the class, and if they are ill, they now have someone from whom they can get notes. And then I send them on a treasure hunt. I point out how hard it is to move in the classroom, but I encourage them to do this anyway. I note that the room is working against this, but that is part of the task. I ask them to find three things: who came the farthest to be in the class, the second daughter of a second daughter, and a fact that they may not know. The last time I asked when Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas as it was timely. Then I tell them to find this out by sending runners through the classroom. In some iterations I’ve told them they may only ask yes or no questions. What happens is quite magical. The energy in the room goes up quickly. Some run around the room; others stay in the groups continuing to talk. Or they may talk to nearby groups. Did I mention that I offer the winning group ten million points?

Ultimately, particularly for a large introductory course with mostly first-year students, this work breaks down the anonymity and the scale of the room. The laughter transforms the room and I find students remain talkative and responsive for the rest of the course. Setting the tone through small-group engagement and active learning is terrifically useful.

Applying what they have learned

I find small groups are an effective way to move material from lectures (theory, concepts, and analytical approaches) to actual application. Here’s an example I have used in a second-year Anthropology course. I put participants into groups. They were asked to quickly collect group information (for a student group, I might use year in school, number of Anthropology courses taken, and major). I then ask them to graph the data they have just collected. They are meant to do this as a group. They must quickly think about how to summarize and present data. Once they have agreed on an approach and produced some kind of graph, I then ask them to collect these data from the other groups. This requires “fieldwork.” So each group has to send at least one or two members out to collect these data. They are then asked to return, collate, and combine this material with their own to produce a graph of the compiled data. Then they are asked to put their group graph on the board. Finally, each group is asked to describe what these graphs tell us about the class.

I like this exercise because it accomplishes several things. As it happens, this is again a first-day exercise that helps the students meet and work together from the start. It also illustrates several components of anthropology’s approach to knowledge that would then be considered across the semester: the collection of data on a social group, its compilation, fieldwork, presentation of results, and interpretation. This exercise simultaneously gets them talking in groups, moving though the classroom, using the board, and talking together as a class.

Another version of this kind of exercise to encourage thinking is to have students design a game to illustrate the principles described in lecture. So, for example, in a class on economic anthropology, having to design a game that illustrates cooperation and the assessment of costs and benefits has students grappling with the implications of concepts so that they can develop an effective abstraction through game design.

Building a study guide

One last example of group work that I employ is to have students work together to produce the study guide for an assignment. In this case, after students are in groups, I typically pose questions to start the process. The key in my classes is to pose a question that is synthetic enough that it requires them to consider both lecture material and readings. Often these questions are quite open-ended so that students have to consult one another and their notes to begin to frame a response. For example, after reading about how raiding groups were organized to attack a longhouse in New Guinea (don’t you love anthropology!), I asked: How does the recruitment of members for the raiding party challenge the way we described social structure? In this example, the students have to remember the details of the case, define the description of social structure we covered in class, and then review what they learned from the book that challenges it. This work has the happy result of making them consult their notes together and try to find answers. Recently, I asked groups to compile a set of key terms that would help answer the question posed and then to write them on the board. Having their colleagues choose key terms helps students feel confident that they can as well. If it goes well, we end with a set of terms that are the study guide. As suggested above, I don’t mind if there is some struggle in this process. They may then ask me for clarifications, and these moments are particularly important for me, as they identify the gaps in what they know. If a lot of material has been covered, groups can be assigned different aspects of the question. They would then post their identification of the key terms on the board and then all groups can share the results of the work.

These are some of the ways I use active group work in my classes. I am often doing several things at once with group work: breaking up passive, lecture-style learning; getting students to apply concepts actively and collaboratively; encouraging further engaged exploration of concepts and ideas; identifying gaps and misunderstandings; and fostering exchange that builds improved assignments.

How to put them in groups

The practicalities of organizing group work are an obstacle to some instructors. So here are some ideas about how to be efficient and effective in setting up group work. Some instructors want to develop a group or cohort across the semester and keep the students together. I certainly use this approach in some instances. For semester-long groups, I let membership evolve. There will be friends who want to stay together and in some cases students drawn to the same task or theme, but there are also always loners who don’t integrate quickly. Providing the chance to experience different groups through a variety of sorting mechanisms can build relations and allow groups to form based on experience and shared work as well as affinity.

I also form and use groups that last only the class period. And these two approaches can be combined to avoid group think and to provide opportunities for more exchange. That is, there may be a group that works together across the semester but also temporary groupings that cut across them.

Minimizing the class time needed to get into groups (and moving the furniture) is important. One suggestion is to hand out cards from a deck as students enter or to hand out coloured Popsicle sticks. You then put the Jacks together or the purple sticks together. This can avoid the clumping together of friends, and it is done quickly. You can also have them count off, of course, and this certainly breaks up groups sitting together. Once in groups, I have had them count off 1, 2 and then sent one half of the group to the next group. Moving people in the middle of group work can keep up the energy of activity and allow for insights developed in one group to be shared with others.


The timing of group work is also important. If you wait until the end of a class period, the students will still be in the passive, listening mode and they will take some time to start working together. In this case, it is especially important to have a concrete and coherent task to accomplish together. I must confess that I sometimes give students tasks that are not necessarily clearly outlined. The struggle to comprehend what is being asked can be a great spur to group discussion of class materials. And I’m often surprised by what students bring to such questions. This is one place where the learning dividends come to me specifically.

Group work at the beginning of the class, for example, to answer a question prompted by material from the last class or from reading, can be an effective way to get back into the material and working with it actively. I find a provocative question posed in groups at the beginning of class can be very useful in improving engagement and comprehension of any lecture that follows it. I favour using group work in the middle of a class: a little set-up, followed by work together, and then some summary work together at the end.


One serious concern for instructors is how to use group work without sacrificing content. For me, the question is instead how to make the content the students’ own. That is, how to move from my teaching to their learning. I have tried to show here that group work can build connections with content, reinforce and solidify the students’ grasp of content through application, and provide a way to summarize and synthesize the content covered. None of this is a sacrifice to content; instead, it is at the very centre of learning.

The goals and methods of active group work are as various as the disciplines taught and the people doing the teaching. It seems to me that we often fear the time it takes to set up this work and the sense that we are working without a net. I can only say that I have learned the most from my students and about my students through this kind of engagement. The many benefits include more sustained student engagement with the course, reinforcement of what is being learned by covering in multiple modalities, development of mutual support networks among students, and frankly, just more fun in the classroom.