Active Learning – Making Meaning

Active learning techniques fall into one of the following four categories:
1. Remembering
2. Meaning Making
3. Creating Meaningful Artifacts
4. Connecting
This article will focus on active teaching techniques that help students understand what they are learning on a deeper level (higher order thinking). Higher order thinking does not come easily to students, they need to see you role modeling your thinking process and they need opportunities to practice in a safe environment which is non-judgemental, open to alternative viewpoints, respectful of students experiences and beliefs and provides marks for risk taking and creativity. Listed below are some of the options for helping students to delve deeper into your curriculum.

Creative Attention Focus

Play a quick game at the beginning or middle of the class to open the student mind to creativity and to focus/refocus attention. See Thiagi’s site for examples


Asking questions throughout your course helps students develop a critical thinking mindset. Questions should always be open ended and avoid the "read my mind" format that can close off student participation. If you assign reading material, always include pre-reading questions that will focus their reading and assist them to highlight/take notes. The following are some additional question techniques:

  • Question Star
    • Brainstorm a list of at least 12 questions about the topic, concept or object. Use these question-starts to help you think of interesting questions:
    • Review the brainstormed list and star the questions that seem most interesting. Then, select one or more of the starred questions to discuss for a few moments.
    • Reflect: What new ideas do you have about the topic, concept or object that you didn’t have before?
  • Creative Questioning
    • Pick an everyday object or topic and brainstorm a list of questions about it.
    • Look over the list and transform some of the questions into questions that challenge the imagination. Do this by transforming questions along the lines of:
      • What would it be like if…
      • How would it be different if…
      • Suppose that …
      • What would change if …
      • How would it look differently if …
    • Choose a question to imaginatively explore.
    • Reflect: What new ideas do you have about the topic, concept or object that you didn’t have before?
  • Thinking Keys (Stephanie Martin created)
    • Form: What is it like?
    • Function: How does it work?
    • Connection: How is this like something I have seen before?
    • Reflection: How do you know?
  • Case Based
    • Begin with a case that doesn’t have a clear solution
    • Ask students to explore issues, assumptions, or questions before trying to solve the case.

    Write, Pair, Share

    • Write or draw an idea, a question, an argument
    • Discuss with one or more other students
    • Share (discuss, post)


    • Definition : Coming up with as many ideas as possible no matter how absurd. The Absurd inspires solutions that are more creative.


    • Roleplay from the point of view of someone else
    • Ask “What would ….. think about this theory, or event?”
    • Tug of war: Ask for tugs, reasons for supporting each side.

    Compass Points

    Compass Points is a method of organizing students thinking into four categories:

    1. What do students need to know/find out more about?
    2. What gets them excited about this issue or theory?
    3. What concerns/worries the student about this theory/issue?
    4. What suggestions does the student have for next steps? or Where do they currently stand on this issue/theory?


    Explanation Game

    • Display an object, an image, a video
    • Instructor says “I notice ….”
    • Ask “Why do you think it happened that way or it is that way?”
    • Ask “What makes you think …?”

    Claim, Support, Question

    • Draw three columns
    • Insert a theory in the first column
    • Ask students what supports that theory or questions the theory
    • Discuss “What is criteria for evidence?”

    Option Diamond

    The Option Diamond allows students to expand their thinking and be more creative about possible options. Draw the following image on the board, fill in the two options and the compromise but focus most of your attention on the creative option at the top.

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