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Session 5: Active Learning

Lesson Overview

The literature documenting the benefits of active learning is incredibly robust. With recent publications in Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and other prominent journals, we know that engaging in active learning helps students to engage with material, deepen their learning, and achieve at a higher level than students who do not engage regularly with these practices as part of their coursework. 

Indeed, STEM courses that employ lecture alone are much more likely (1.5 times) to be met with failure by students who enroll in them (see Freeman et al., 2014). Many instructors use a combination of problem-solving exercises with clicker questions to help students themselves and instructors check in on their learning progress daily and/or weekly in a low-stakes manner. 

Within computer science, as within other STEM fields, students benefit from deepening their comprehension of key concepts as they build a strong foundation for future learning. This is why including active learning module was prioritized. 

The Mount Holyoke model engages peer mentors to develop and lead the active learning modules. In other classrooms, the exercises could be led by the professor, a lab director, or graduate teaching assistant as one of the core class sessions, as a fourth hour, or as part of a lab session. While it is possible to create supplemental active learning workshops which are optional, the literature encourages incorporating the practice of active learning into the core processes of the course to improve access for all learners enrolled and the message that such practices are integral to mastery in the field.

Overall Motivations and Objectives

Students will appreciate the importance of active learning to promote understanding of the material and achievement. Students must buy into this concept in order to produce their own active learning modules.

Prerequisite Knowledge

To use this module, the following readings, activities, and reflections should be completed:


Preliminary Activities

Instructor Reflections

Do you value active learning in your classroom? How have you incorporated active learning into your lesson plans?

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Lesson Plan


  1. ALM Topic Preferences (15 min)
  2. Discussion: Initial reactions to mock 1-on-1 experience (20 min)
  3. Activity: Inclusion and climate (30 min)
  4. Active Learning Module Parameters and How to Structure a Pitch (15 min)
  5. ActivityALM brainstorming (75 min)
  6. ALM Pitches and Voting (30 min)
  7. Review Assignments for Next Session
  8. Exit Feedback

ALM Topic Preferences (15 min)


From a set of predetermined Active Learning Module topics, students should rank their preferences. Match students with topics in any way you choose. This could also be done outside of class time, which provides more time for groups to brainstorm in the session.


Prep: Pick a set of topics for Active Learning Modules


Students are matched with Active Learning Module topic that interests them

Discussion: Initial reactions to mock 1-on-1 experience (20 min)


Videotaping is widely used for teacher education and medical education alike. Students are often reticent to participate for fear of being vulnerable and humiliated by errors. To allay this fear, students should watch their own videotaped sessions alone. They watch snippets of others' videotaped sessions with their peers, and rate their observations of what was effective or not. The peer mentors consistently commented that this helped them to focus their energies on what they could improve, and to take up the learning constructively.




Students discuss their confidences and reservations about the 1-on-1 meeting process.

Activity: Inclusion and climate (30 min)


To further drive home the importance of inclusion and climate from the previous lesson, this activity allows students to anonymously engage with the wide variety of social identities surrounding them in the classroom (that they may not be aware of).

Students should anonymously submit words that describe themselves and their social identity. A fun way to accomplish this is with a website that creates an instant wordcloud that can be displayed to the class in real time. Students can submit descriptive words via computer or text. This scales better for class size than written submissions. 

End with a discussion on how students can approach peer mentoring to be inclusive of all the social identities included in the wordcloud.


Prep: If using a wordcloud, set up an account and a poll ahead of class time.


  • Introduce students to impostor syndrome
  • Students reflect on how their identity affects how they respond to situations

Active Learning Module parameters and How to Structure a Pitch (15 min)


An Active Learning Module (ALM) is a 30 to 40 minute session in which PEBLs are away from computers, and each PEBL does some talking, writing, and/or discussing related to the given technical topic. This description may take longer if students have not participated in active learning environments before.


Sample slides


Clear expectations for ALM content and design leads to higher overall quality.

Activity: ALM brainstorming (75 min)


Students form groups of 2 or 3, depending on the size of the class and the number of Active Learning Modules to be created. Each group takes an assigned topic (ex: conditionals) and generates two ideas for an Active Learning Module (or three ideas for a group of three). The students should collaborate on this portion, with each student contributing to the formation of each of the ideas. 

Once suitable ideas have been formed, each student should focus on a single idea and create a one to two minute pitch for that potential ALM.




A number of ALM ideas will be created for each topic.

ALM Pitches and Voting (30 min)


For each topic in turn, each student assigned to that topic will present their ALM idea pitch to the class. This pitch should take no more than two minutes.

Once each student for a given topic has presented their pitches, the entire class should anonymously vote for which pitch the group of students (assigned to that topic) should pursue and develop into a complete ALM Plan. Voting can be done in any convenient to the size of the class.




A suitable idea is chosen for each ALM topic.


Common Issues

If no appropriate ALM ideas are suggested for a topic, prompt the class for discussion on the pitches to create further suggestions.


For Students
  • ALM Brainstorming and Pitches
    • Try to be creative. Combine challenging and fun.
    • Don’t worry if you don’t have the perfect idea. You can always modify it later based on classmate. Be open to suggestions.
    • Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. For those listening to your pitch, clarity is more appealing than complexity.
  • Developing ALMs in Small Groups
    • The best ALMs come from effective collaboration.
    • It helps to have additional activities that can be added to the end of the module if the class picks things up quickly.
    • Split the work evenly.
  • Exit Feedback
    • Be honest and self-reflective, don’t worry about giving the responses you think the instructors want to hear.

Assessment, Debrief, and Looking Ahead


For each session, two types of feedback are collected. First, anonymous feedback collected immediately at the end of the session. While this may be done in any form, we chose to use simple index cards passed out at the end of the class deposited anonymously at the classroom exit as the students left. The benefit of this form of feedback is its immediacy - thoughts and feelings relating to the session are fresh in the students' minds. Students were instructed to write anything they felt like - or nothing at all.

The second type of feedback was an Exit Feedback Google Form which the students were asked to complete before Midnight on the day of the session. Sample Exit Feedback Form.


Students should complete the Reflection on Mock 1-on-1's by writing answers to the following prompts:

  • Thinking back on my mock 1-on-1 session, what am I confident about? What am I concerned about?

  • Watching the video, did anything surprise me?

  • What did I learn today that will be useful when I am a peer mentor?

  • What might I need to invest in or work on to be effective as a peer mentor?

  • Consider your role as a Mentee (PEBL):

    • What did it feel like to be the introductory student mentee?

    • What feedback would you like to share with the GEM who reviewed your code?

    • Do you have any comments you would like to share with the instructors?

Looking Ahead

Students should work on their Active Learning Module lesson plan, and prepare to do a run through of their proposed module.

Supplemental Reading

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS, 111(23), 8410-8415.

This reports on the largest meta-analysis in science education to date, critiquing the tradition of using lecture, as students enrolled in primarily lecture-based STEM classes are 1.5 times more likely to fail. Active learning raises average exam scores and performance on concept inventories. Suggests that millions of tuition dollars would be saved from failure in intro stem classes if faculty would teach with active learning.

Haak, D. C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., Freeman, S. (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332, 1213-1216.

When introductory biology students are enrolled in courses that are highly structured with daily/weekly active learning, problem-solving practices, all students-- but especially disadvantaged students—improve their achievement.

Preszler, R. W. (2009). Replacing lecture with peer-led workshops improves student learning. CBE- Life Sciences Education, 8, 182-192.

When comparing semesters when students experienced instruction as three weekly lectures or two lectures with one class period with active learning exercises, students preferred the latter and scored higher on more difficult exam questions to boot. Improvement in grades for women and URM students were especially pronounced.

Zhang, X., Zhang, C., Stafford, T., & Zhang, P. (2013). Teaching introductory programming to IS students: The impact of teaching approaches on learning performance. Journal of Information Systems Education, 24(2), 147-155.

This article compares a course taught with a primarily student-centered, active learning approach to a course taught with a lecture and assignments based approach. While both were effective, students performed better in the latter, and the authors suggest that the active learning approach improves students’ engagement and control over their own learning. The article includes a good summary of active learning techniques specific to an introductory programming course.

Barbara Rotundo,
Jun 17, 2016, 7:04 AM