December 1996 € Volume 23 € Number 6

Promote Active Learning During Lectures

By Judith S. Liebman

The attention span of the average adult during a lecture is eight to 10 minutes. Since most lectures are at least 50 minutes and some lectures are scheduled for up to two hours, there is a serious mismatch between our ability to lecture nonstop and our students' ability to learn. Furthermore, although some students learn best by listening, others find it easier to learn in more active learning environments.

An easy solution is the use of "turn-to-your-neighbor" discussions every 10 minutes or so throughout each lecture. Instead of throwing out questions to the class as a whole and waiting (usually fruitlessly) for a response, ask the students to turn to the student next to them and discuss the question. Depending upon the difficulty of the question, the resulting discussions can last from 30 seconds to several minutes. Then call on one or two student pairs, randomly, to provide the answer.

What happens in the classroom when you do this? All students are involved in developing the answer to the question, not just a single student randomly called on. Students have the opportunity to teach each other, if some don't understand. The element of panic (the professor is going to call on me for the answer and I'm not sure I know it!) is eliminated. The energy level in the class increases perceptibly.

Can this be used in large lectures? Yes, just ask students at the end or middle of rows without discussion partners to lean forward or backwards to join a discussion. Does this reduce the amount of time available to the professor? Yes, less material will be covered in the course, but the amount of material actually learned by the students will be significantly increased.

What types of questions can be used? Almost any type. Examples I have used in an introductory operations research course include:
  1. List three reasons for developing a mathematical model.

  2. For the linear programming problem on the board, develop the dual problem.

  3. In this dual problem, what are the units of the dual variables?

  4. Would you rather solve the primal or dual problem? Why?

  5. Which variables would you choose to be initially basic for the primal problem?

  6. In the next simplex operation, which variable will become basic and which nonbasic?

  7. Compute the steady state probabilities for a two-state Markov ergodic chain.

  8. Give an example that could be modeled by an absorbing Markov chain.

  9. What are the similarities and differences between the big-M and two-phase methods?

  10. For the decision tree on the board, use Bayes' rule to compute the missing probabilities.
If the question asked has only a single response (for example, question 3), then I call on only one discussion team for the answer if their answer is correct. If it is not correct, I ask the rest of the teams whether or not they agree and solicit an answer from another team. However, if the question has many possible answers (for example, question 8), I generally ask several teams to respond.

Is it possible for students to refuse to cooperate? In theory, yes, but in small classes, rarely. It seems to be sufficient for me to walk back to a non-participating student and ask them directly to join the discussion next to them. In large classes, such direct nagging may be infeasible, depending upon the size of the class and the architecture of the classroom. Fortunately, most students appreciate the opportunity to participate in these discussions. On the end-of-semester course evaluations, the turn-to-your-neighbor discussions are invariably singled out for praise.

If you use pop quizzes in your course, an interesting extension is to make such quizzes joint. The pop quizzes are handed out, one for every two students, and worked on jointly. Both students sign their name to the results. Both students get the joint score. This is another opportunity for stronger students to teach weaker students.

Getting started using turn-to-your-neighbor discussions is easy. The first lecture or two in which you use this approach, just begin the lecture by describing the process and ask them to identify the student who will be their discussion partner. After that, it is only necessary to begin a question by "now turn to your neighbor and discuss..."

My e-mail address is I welcome feedback on these ideas and your experiences using them.

Judith S. Liebman is a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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