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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Activity Breaks

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By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

Active learning makes lectures a more powerful classroom technique.

You've surely heard about active learning, cooperative groups, personalized systems of instruction and problem-based learning. But you were probably taught through lectures. What is best? Is a well-presented lecture or one of these other techniques the best learning tool?

It depends on your goals. If all you want to do is transmit information and assess the results with a multiple- choice test, then lectures do the job. The only teaching methods that statistically show that students learn better are the closely related techniques of mastery learning and the personalized system of instruction. But how many practicing engineers do you know who are paid to take multiple-choice tests? As soon as higher-order skills (designing, problem solving, communicating, working with people) are included in the assessment, teaching methods involving active learning and cooperative groups show a significant increase in student learning.

Still, lecturing does have advantages. Quite simply, it doesn't rock the boat. The professor stays in control and only has to be 50 minutes ahead of the students. And since lectures are face-to-face, developing rapport can be easier, although this advantage is lost in large classes. If the lecture format enabled students to learn higher-order skills, it would be quite a good technique.

We don't have to completely abandon lectures to gain many of the advantages that active learning and cooperative groups offer. If lecture classes are interactive so that students are not passive for long periods of time, they can be good learning experiences.

Since the attention span of almost all students is between 10 and 20 minutes, you can expect to lose most of your students if you lecture for 50 minutes straight. Even professionals fall victim to the "my eyes glaze over" syndrome. Not only do students tune out once that "dead" period is reached, the energy level of the class also flags. The solution might be to structure a 50-minute class something like this: a mini-lecture including an introduction, an activity break, a second mini-lecture, an activity break and finally a third mini-lecture, including a wrap-up. The mini-lectures contain an introduction, a body and a closing, similar to a straight lecture except they are shorter.

Activity breaks should incorporate active learning and the formation of cooperative groups. Both techniques practically force students to become involved. They can be very simple, like turning to a peer and comparing lecture notes. Alternatively, ask the student groups to solve a short problem. If the problem is part of the homework assignment, they will be more motivated to do it. Or use technology to involve your students, such as student response systems like "clickers" to obtain immediate responses to multiple choice questions. Clickers, which allow students to respond anonymously to a multiple-choice question and allow the professor to display the responses in real time, involve the students and give the professor immediate feedback on student learning. After answering the questions, you might allow students to compare their answers with one another and change them if necessary.

Ensuring that all of the courses in the curriculum are lecture/active learning classes is not sufficient-students still need laboratory, design and computer simulation courses. However, it will go a long way toward satisfying the conditions necessary to becoming an engineer.


Phillip Wankat is director of undergraduate degree programs in the department of engineering education and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at