Selecting your Active Learning Techniques

Learning Reconsidered defines learning as a comprehensive, holistic, transformative activity that integrates academic learning and student development, processes that have often been considered separate, and even independent of one another.”  (Keeling, 2004)

This Selecting your Active Learning Techniques tool supports instructors in their purposeful selection of active learning techniques by matching basic situational factors (Fink, 2003; Gagné, 2005) of the learning environment with active learning techniques. In addition, it provides information about student development that may help instructors adjust activities appropriately.

Before you Start

When selecting instructional activities, it is always useful to first define your expected learning outcomes. This will help you align and target your choices with your goals for your students. Before you explore this tool, take a moment to remind yourself of what you wish to accomplish and what you hope for your students to learn. By the end of this learning activity (or class session or course module), what is it you hope you students will be able to do? And when you’ve identified an activity to try, ask yourself again: have I designed this activity in a way that will help my students attain this goal?

The tool below provides a wide variety of active learning options. To begin, click on the filter icon in the top left corner of the tool. Use the + Add filter option to select from an array of filtering options (e.g., Class Size, Room Type, Minimum Time to Facilitate, Average Rating, etc.). For a wider view, click View Larger Version at the bottom right of the table.

Navigate through the filtered Active Learning Techniques by clicking on individual technique “cards,” and you will find more detailed descriptions, recommended classroom conditions, instructions for use, appropriate student developmental level, and user feedback. For more information about student developmental stages, see our Four Ways of Knowing Chart (PDF).


The Selection of Active Learning Techniques (S.A.L.T.) tool lists the requisite developmental stage for each active learning technique as well as a possible trajectory toward the next stage. The descriptions of these developmental stages are broad and may not reflect the development of individual students. Rather, they can serve as a general overview of cognitive development in traditional-age college students. The cognitive development of students may also be affected by other dimensions of their development, such as their interpersonal and intrapersonal development.

The developmental stages in this S.A.L.T. tool are based on Marcia B. Baxter Magolda’s Epistemological Reflection Model (PDF) (1992), which focuses on cognitive development (and lays the foundation for the comprehensive Learning Partnership Model that considers the role of cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal development to promote self-authorship). Baxter Magolda’s Epistemological Reflection Model is based on a longitudinal research study in which she interviewed her participants from college to middle-age. Her research found four stages of development that also show gendered patterns.

  1. Absolute Knowing (2/3 of first-year students; ½ of sophomores)
    Learners are certain about knowledge and want to acquire knowledge. Instructors are seen as authoritative content experts responsible for imparting knowledge.
  2. Transitional Knowing (80% of juniors and seniors)
    Learners begin to see uncertainty in knowledge and develop a desire to understand rather than just acquire. Instructors are still viewed as experts, but they are now expected to offer explanation.
  3. Independent Knowing
    Learners see uncertainty in knowledge and form their own beliefs. They begin to explore and develop knowledge independently and also see the value of their peers in this process. Instructors take on the role of facilitators.
  4. Contextual Knowledge
    Learners consider knowledge in its context and value evidence to inform their own construction of knowledge. Instructors become co-creators of knowledge.

As instructors, considering the cognitive developmental stages of students informs our role in the classroom, interactions among students in the learning process, and realistic expectations about students’ engagement in active learning techniques that focus on reviewing, deepening or constructing knowledge. For example, in the Absolute Knowing stage of cognitive development, students rely much more on knowledge imparted by the instructor than that of their peers. Without this understanding, instructors may find themselves frustrated by lack of student engagement and learning if they select an active learning technique that relies heavily on peer knowledge construction.

Example: In your course for first-year students, you are planning to use a think-pair-share activity in which students hypothesize possible causes of a posed problem.

The majority of your students are likely to be in the cognitive developmental stage of “absolute knowing” which means that they believe in the certainty of knowledge and existence of correct answers. In addition, they may value the knowledge of the instructor and will want to acquire knowledge rather than construct knowledge and may not be able to navigate a multiplicity of answers to the same question.

An adjustment to this activity might be to focus more on retrieval of knowledge than construction of knowledge. Students could focus on describing the problem in more detail or retrieve knowledge of causes for a similar problem.

In some cases, the S.A.L.T tool lists a trajectory for development, which means that an activity could promote cognitive development towards a more sophisticated stage. With a look towards active learning or learning in a classroom setting, research (Barber et al., 2013) suggests that a developmental shift can be facilitated if students are confronted with perspectives that conflict with their own views, are challenged to evaluate knowledge, or are asked to defend their beliefs. Reflection and meta-cognition also play a critical role as students begin to understand their own meaning-making process. Carney Strange’s (1994) research presents a number of propositions for development. These posit that learning occurs when learners are confronted with novel tasks and situations that challenge them appropriately (depending on their current level of development). The tasks are challenging but are taken on in a low-stakes, supportive environment, in a dynamic process with other people and the environment (physical setting, human interaction, classroom climate/culture).

CTL Thanks 

This page and the S.A.L.T. tool are a direct result of work by one of our 2018-19 Faculty Learning Communities – Intersections of Active Learning, Student Development, and Student Success. We are also indebted to the following individuals, who continued to develop this tool long after the end of their Faculty Learning Community: Emmie Bennett, Katie Burr, Beate Brunow, Nicholas Colvard, Kara Fresk, Zoe Morris, and Lisa Williamson. Finally, we would like to recognize the UGA Terry College of Business – Masters in Business Technology students who helped develop this interactive table and user interface.

Barber, J. P., King, P.M, & Baxter Magolda, M.B. (2013). Long Strides on the Journey toward Self-Authorship: Substantial Developmental Shifts in College Students’ Meaning Making. The Journal of Higher Education, 84:6, 866-896, DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2013.11777313

Baxter Magolda, M.B. (1992). Knowing and Reasoning in College. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gagné, R. M., Wager, W. W., Golas, K. E., & Keller, J. M. (2005). Principles of instructional design (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Keeling, R.P. (Ed.). Learning reconsidered: A Campus-wide focus on the student experience. Washington, DC: ACPA and NASPA, (2004): 2.

Strange, C. (1994/2005). Student development: The evolution and status of an essential idea. In M.E. Wilson and L.E. Wolf-Wendel (Eds.). ASHE Reader on College Student Development Theory (pp. 25-42). Boston, MA: Pearson.

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