stumbling through computer science

Month: February 2020

Active Learning and Engagement

Where Did This Idea Come From?

The idea to investigate and explore active learning strategies came after a breakout room discussion during our meeting about effective learning design back in December.  Our conversation started with some concerns about online learning not being engaging because students were not face-to-face with each other, they could mute their microphones, and effectively just be a passive observer during the lessons. Our breakout group realized, however, that this disengagement also happens just as often in face-to-face learning where students are present in the classroom. In person, though, it looks more like the student sitting at the back of the room, with their head down, and not participating in group discussions. This got us thinking about how we could adapt our lessons, both online and in person, to promote more active learning and increase participation.

What Is Active Learning and Why is It Important?

As a teacher, one of the biggest challenges is not the lesson planning itself, but rather getting the students to participate actively and engage with the material. Teacher-centred lessons are the easiest way to disengage your students because they take the spot-light off of them and you become the only source of voice or information. Using active learning strategies, you switch the emphasis from you onto the students. These techniques empower, engage, and stimulate a classroom by putting the focus and source of knowledge onto the students.

Active Learning Strategies

1. Change Up Your Classroom Setting

One of the easiest ways to bring new life into your lessons and students is to change the environment in which they learn. A new environment will break up the monotony of the school schedule, allow students to actively decide where they want to sit or stand, and a different surrounding will inspire new ideas and ways of thinking.

Teaching Outside

Here are three places you could hold your class other than your classroom:

  • Outside. Fresh air and a non-conventional classroom challenges students to move differently and embrace the fresh air and sunshine which will energize them. There is nothing more thrilling to a high school student than the words “we’re going outside!” They will be able to let their guard down and become engaged with the content in a way they won’t even realize is a lesson.
  • Gym. Allowing students to walk, stand or use quiet gym equipment such as foam blocks or balls while they are discussing ideas or brainstorming in groups
  • Common Area. Bringing your students to a more public area of the school may evoke leadership or mentorship with the younger students in the school and interact with other staff members or teachers who may not usually get to observe the learning happening in the class.

2. The Devil’s Advocate

The devil’s advocate approach challenges students to engage in the content or topic being explored and look at it from the opposite point of view being presented in the lesson. Students will have conversations in small groups, with one or more person being assigned the task of looking at the subject from the opposite point of view and presenting their thoughts.

For this to be effective, your topic must be suitable for debate and discussion and should have a well-supported argument for both sides. A great example in the media right now could be oil spill mediation and recovery plans looking at the different methods of transporting oil and how to best deal with possible environmental complications that could arise in each situation.

Using the devil’s advocate approach is flexible for any grade level or group size. You could simply divide the class into two sections, or create smaller groups for older students. Follow up lessons could include a presentation of your groups ideas or a visual representation of the other persons’ point of view on the topic. Another benefit of this strategy is increasing student engagement between each other and switching from a teacher centred to student centred approach to learning. Your students become experts on a topic from both perspectives and deliver it at a level that is appealing and at an age appropriate level.

Below are some examples of starter topics and opposing claims which could help guide your class into a devil’s advocate exercise.

devils advocate active learning activity
Image source: Bespoke Classroom.

This approach can help cultivate active learning in the classroom by encouraging students to:

  • Think more critically, challenging  participants to expand their understanding of the perspectives surrounding an issue and to view it through a different lens
  • Become more engaged, fostering involvement by drawing out opinions to explore the complexity of an issue being studied
  • Produce deeper understanding of topics or issues, using rigorous analysis to collectively clarify, probe, and pose alternatives to problems being discussed

3. Game-based Learning Platforms

In today’s classroom, a large percentage of students actively engage in video games outside (and during!) class – so why not incorporate games into your lessons?

Game-based learning platforms add depth and differentiation while allowing students to be engaged with the lesson content. Avatars, music, challenges, and escaping to different worlds all while solving a quadratic equation! Students can lose themselves in the world of video games while developing an interest in the content in a whole new way.

Video games give material relevant application and evaluation. Students solve challenging problems while using technology they are interested in on a platform they are familiar with.

An effective platform that using video games to engage learners is Prodigy, which is free to play. This platform helps students tackle problems in math using words, charts, pictures, numbers and games.

Create and sign into your free teacher account here:

Sign up Log in

Below are some guiding questions to ask yourself when practicing some of these active learning strategies:

  • Will this be engaging and exciting for my students?
  • What assessment can I take from this exercise?
  • Is the student placed at the centre of this learning strategy?
  • Will this encourage my students to discuss a topic with one another?
  • Am I giving students the opportunity  to reflect on the learning process?
  • Is this activity getting my students to think deeply and critically about  a topic or lesson or is it simply a comprehension exercise?

New Teacher, New Role

Some teachers may be hesitant to let go of the reigns and step down from their stage in front of the room. They may question that students could learn anything from their peers and be skeptical of the effectiveness of video games for helping students in math.

Engaging in an active learning model, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator for the learning experience and helps students’ along their journey to discovery of topics they are interested in. Taking a step back and observing your students during an active learning experience allows teachers to see their content from a different point of view. They will be able to engage more with their students, content and take the lesson further by sharing the role of teacher among the students and video games. The teacher is no longer the sole bearer of knowledge and collaboration can take place.

Active Learning Blogs and Twitter Posts

Three Act Math – Active Learning in Math

Flexible Seating Arrangements in the Classroom

Using Social Media to Engage Learning

The Chair Free Classroom

A Flexible Classroom

Creating a Coffeeshop Vibe in the Classroom

Effects of Movement on Learning in the Classroom Article

Pros & Khans

A Teaching Khan-undrum

The school that I currently teach as is a First Nations cultural school with a student population of just under 100 students. On the best of days, we have around 80 students in attendance, with many students frequently away for cultural reasons including ceremonies, hunting trips, or travel. The backbone of our school belief is that our students are the future of the Saanich Nation. Our school values a collaborative partnership of students, parents, elders, and leaders working together with educators in the community to ensure our youth develop into confident, caring, capable, and compassionate human beings.

As a teacher at the school, I recognize that it is not enough for students to leave school simply with the ability to communicate effectively or to understand intimately the principles of mathematical and scientific theory; they should also leave with the sensitivity, the skills, the desire, and the good judgment to put their knowledge to use confronting the issues, problems, and concerns of humankind and the world in which they live.

The class composition changes every year based on student demographics; historically, we have only offered grades 8-10 at the high school, with the students having to leave to graduate at a nearby high school. This year is the first year we have opened our doors, restructured our classrooms, and are offering classes for grades 6-11.  My course-load this semester includes math 9-11, health 8, and a math intervention block for all students. One of the blocks that I teach is a math 10/11 split class, with students in all levels of academics and abilities. In addition to the students having a range of academic abilities, many of them are away often for cultural reasons or to help at home with their siblings and relatives. Our school recognizes that our students, in addition to a heavy course load at school, have full time jobs as caregivers in their home and cultural community. It is because of these reasons that many of our students miss multiple days of school and therefore miss lots of in class instruction which is sometimes out of their control. Attendance is key in the upper level math courses in particular, because of the pace at which content is delivered, and there is a focus on preparing students for the upcoming numeracy exam in April. These two factors left me in a hard spot: I have students who are frequently away from school, are academically low, and need to pass this numeracy exam with the help of direct instruction. I couldn’t see a way for my students to pass solely depending on face-to-face instruction in the classroom from me as the only teacher. After reading Crosslin’s article regarding mixing online and direct instruction in a wholistic manner using effective practices, I gained valuable insight into how I was going to be able to effectively run this course and get my students on track for graduation.

Combining Khan and Classroom to Create… a Klassroom

My solution for addressing a split grade class with a wide range students at different academic levels and varying attendance frequencies was to introduce an online instruction component to some of the more content heavy components of the math 10/11 curriculum. Finding an online course that was able to effectively demonstrate key concepts like algebra, variables, and multi-step substitution would free up time from me writing my own notes on the whiteboard, and allow me to supplement those lessons with my own examples and extra support to students that need it. This course needed to be adaptable to my high achieving students but also flexible to deliver content at a more basic level for students who are struggling or learn in a different or assisted manner.

The first speed bump of realizing I needed to find an online course with content to cover the heavier components of the curriculum was the easier part. The second component was that I needed the course to be either free, or relatively inexpensive per student. Our school is federally funded, and funding is dependent on registration status of each student and whether or not they identify as a First Nations individual. Our school supports a one hundred percent First Nations population, which means we have full federal funding from the government in terms of educational support. The only issue is that because I was proposing an online course late in the year, most of this funding had already been allocated to other needs in the school. So, I needed a program that was not only effective and worthwhile, but also free or cheap. With this in mind, along with the quality of content, I continued my search for the perfect online course.

My last hurdle was that this program needed to be accessible to my students at home in case they miss classes and want to catch up on their own time. As if finding a quality course for free that is adaptable to all learners wasn’t difficult enough, this course also has to be smartphone or tablet friendly, because we don’t have students with access to laptops or computers at home. This course needed to be something they could potentially do on their smartphone or tablet at home or off campus. I should mention that our school does acknowledge and factor in cultural and community work students complete which may take them out of school, but I wanted students who were keen to complete their work when they did miss classes to be able to do so with limited barriers.

With my obstacles laid out in front of me, I set to work trying to find a quality math 10/11 course that was adaptable to learners, free, and compatible with a smartphone or tablet.

After an extensive search and fighting multiple urges to just enrol every student in an expensive SIDES program, I checked out the Khan Academy website, and knew I had found the co-instructor I had been looking for.

What Khan This Academy Do for You?

Khan Academy is a non-profit MOOC provider. The platform being non-profit means that there is no such thing as pricing – everything that you’ll find on the site is available completely free of charge. MOOC abbreviates as Massive Open Online Courses – this means that Khan Academy provides its user with free, widely available and subject-specific courses that they can learn from.

The entirety of the content on the site is presented in the format of YouTube videos – which means students could access the videos from their smartphones or tablets… check!

If The Khan-ditions Are Right, You’ll Be Hooked

The homepage of Khan Academy is very straightforward, with an option to log in as a learner, student or teacher. The layout is simple, and it is easy to select from the multitude of courses they offer, create your own classroom, profile, and have students join your class with a simple code of letters and numbers. Having a stress-free, simple layout helped my students log in with ease and avoided frustration or opening another webpage of distraction before I could get around to them to help them log in. The log in page, even though it’s simple in design, isn’t generic. It offers a unique course topic layout that allows you to get a pretty good idea of what you can find on the platform itself. Having a landing page that is easy for students to log in, and get started right away reduces the temptation to go to another web page and creates the right conditions for them to get engaged in the online content right off the bat.

“You Khan Learn Everything. For Free. For Everyone. Forever”

Once you decide to choose a course, you can either do so by typing a desired keyword into the search bar or choosing a topic from the drop-down menu on the top of the main page. One thing that I immediately noticed is that even though Khan Academy offers a wide selection of topics to choose from, the main emphasis lies in math and subjects directly related to it. I simply had to choose the course I wanted to set up as the teacher, and from there an exhaustive list of lessons, videos, articles, questions and assessment options were presented to me. I could choose the students I wanted to assign the lessons to, when the due date was, and if the questions would be the same for all students. In a matter of minutes, I had set up my math 10/11 course with the lessons and assessment I wanted, and after my students had created their own log in and added my course code, they were working away at their own pace. With Khan Academy delivering the content to each student, I was free to roam around, monitor their progress and help with any issues or questions they had about the videos or questions. In one morning, I had gone from being a single teacher in the room, to co-teaching with another instructor in a manner which allowed each student to learn at their own level and pace.

Khan-tinuing Positive Reinforcement

In addition to quality content, the Khan Academy courses also offer some engaging features. When it comes to paid, subscription-based e-learning platforms, cool and interesting features are usually used to attract potential new customers while maintaining the already-existing ones. Since Khan Academy is free to use, however, all of the features that it offers are just a nice addition to an already great package.

If you choose to use Khan Academy, you will have access to personalized dashboards, instructional videos, various exercises and so on. A highlight on the course page is that the platform has an integrated “level” system – students gain XP (experience points) for learning and taking certain courses, thus increasing your overall level with time. This is a great visual motivator, and it adds some interactiveness to the overall process of learning.

The company also offers some interactive features for teachers and parents. After creating an account, as a teacher, I was able to access a huge data pool of information (all standardized and up-to-par), practice exercises, video tutorials and so on. Furthermore, Khan Academy offers tools to track student progress – something essential to all teachers. For parents that are also interested, they could also track their students’ progress.

Free Khan-tent for All

Creating an account and learning on Khan Academy is 100% free. The company aims to provide and make education available to anyone and everyone around the world – free of charge. This does make me question where and how the information my students and myself provided would be used. When logging in and creating an account, all that was asked of my students and myself was to choose their role, create a username, and a password. There was an option to link and log in using a Google account, but I opted for my students to go with the first option to reduce the amount of personal information they were giving. I would be curious to delve deeper into where Khan Academy’s information is stored and what issues are related to the ownership of this data.

In Khan-Clusion

Khan Academy is effective in delivering cross-curricular content, with multiple subjects being presented under the same topic. Also, there was a wide variety and blend of multi-modal lesson delivery methods which were delivered more seamlessly than in a face-to-face classroom. There is a flow between students watching a video, working on an assignment with diagrams and animations for support, and demonstrating their learning through a quiz or reflection.

Distance education is a convenient option when smaller schools have to combine grades based on the number of students. It would have been difficult to combine a wide range of content at multiple levels in order to effectively reach all of my students in my split math class. With online courses like Khan Academy, I was able to assign work to individual students who were at or below grade level. This online course also allowed students to work at the grade level they were at without being embarrassed or teased for being at a lower grade. It is less obvious when everyone is on the same program rather than working on completely different worksheets. I will continue to use Khan Academy in sections of my math classes, as it is an effective method of online instruction.


Crosslin, M. (2018). Effective Practices. In M. Crosslin (Ed.),Creating Online Learning Experiences. Mavs Open Press.

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