Student-Centered Learning

Student-Centered Classroom Activities

What students can do in class instead of listening to a lecture


The Concepts Inventory

The Concepts Inventory is short test taken by students at the beginning and end of the semester to measure increased understanding of basic concepts. Inventory questions should reflect concepts that the instructor hopes the ideal student will learn by taking the course. A good inventory will also include questions that address common misconceptions. At the end of the semester, the same Concept Inventory is given or the same questions can be snuck into the final exam. Typically, student scores on an inventory don't improve by very much. This can be explained, in part, by the idea that it is most difficult to lead students away from their well-entrenched misconceptions.

The Minute Quiz

At the beginning of class it is valuable to give students a single-question quiz that assesses whether or not they have come prepared. Such a quiz might be designed to test for a familiarity of the material about to be covered rather than an understanding of this material. Note that these quizzes needn't take much time. They may be called "minute quizzes" because the students have only one minute to answer it. They can put their quiz, which is printed on a narrow strip of paper, into a blue box that gets passed around the class. A right answer is worth 25 points while a wrong answer is worth 10 points. If a student opts not to put their quiz into the blue box, they may hold onto their quiz until the word is given that they are allowed to open their notes, their textbooks, and talk with their neighbors about the possible answer. After another one minute period they place the quiz into a red box which means they get 20 points for a right answer and 15 points for a wrong answer. Students soon to catch onto their best strategy. With this system the prepared students are preferentially rewarded. By the end of the semester all of the quiz scores add up to a significant portion of the course grade, which is added incentive for students to come to class prepared.

Collaborative Exams

For a real learning experience, an exam may be offered in three phases: individual, team, and class. In the first phase each student takes the exam individually while also filling out a duplicate exam that contains their answers but not their name. Assessment for this individual effort should be weighted the greatest. For example, each question may be worth 5 points, while for the second phase each question is worth 3 points, and for the third phase just 1 point.

A ten-minute warning is given to assure that all students finish with the first phase at about the same time. Exams are turned in while the duplicate exams are spread out onto a broad table. Students then congregate into their teams to take the exam again, but this time working together and with resources, such as the textbook. They are also permitted to send a scout to inspect the duplicate exams to see how the rest of the class answered specific questions. Each member of the team should have a copy of the exam, but only one exam is to be turned in for assessment. Meanwhile, the instructor and/or TA is quickly grading the individual exams. (Use a Scantron if available.) The goal is to post the class average before the teams finish their team exams. This feedback allows teams to gauge the value of the displayed duplicates. A quick alternative to grading all the exams is to post the average grade of five random individual exams.

After teams turn in their team exams they are ready for the third phase in which they take the exam yet again together as a class. The instructor records their answers on a single master copy of the exam. Teams vote for an answer by holding up color-coded flash cards. Teams are allowed to argue their answers, but majority wins. If there is a tie among teams, then there is a recount after some healthy debate. After each class answer is recorded students are then told the correct answer, which is often followed by cheers or groans.

The length of the exam is determined by the duration of the class. For a 75- minute class, the exam can contain up to 25 questions. For 50-minute class, the exam should be narrowed down to about 15 questions. Timing is an important factor. In particular, students should finish the first phase of the exam all at about the same time. Slower students can be encouraged to come to class early for a head start. It is also helpful to have a second room where slower students can go in the event they need another 5 or 10 minutes to finish the first phase. For the second phase, which is the team phase, it helps to include a "toughie" bonus short-essay question at the end of the exam. This is useful for teams who finish early-it keeps them busy while other teams are still working on the regular questions. There is not always sufficient time to have the third phase, which is when the class takes the exam together as a whole. To expedite the third phase, the instructor lays out the team answers so he or she can see all the team answers at a glance. Instant credit is given to questions that are unanimously correct. This allows the instructor to move on to some of the more difficult questions, which tend to have different answers from different teams.

By the time the class period is over, students have taken the exam three times and know their final score. Individual effort is preferentially rewarded, yet students still get the valuable experience of working together as a team. Furthermore, with such a format, the instructor is able to fill the exam with juicy, but tough questions. The individual phase of the exam, for example, may average 65 percent or less. This is balanced, however, by the team and class phases, which may run 80 percent and 95 percent, respectively, so that the overall average is within the mid-70's. One serious drawback to this format is that it consumes a lot of paper. If each student has access to a computer, however, the paper can be replaced by online delivery, which would also assist with the intensive instant grading.


With end-of-semester course evaluations, a number one concern shown by most students is whether or not the course was fair. Towards satisfying this need, students may be permitted to appeal any question for which they believe they deserve credit. The instructor sets up the conditions of the appeal. For example, the student's explanation for why they think they deserve credit must be hand-written and submitted within a certain time frame. Also, only those who were actively involved in the appeal, as indicated by their signature, have the possibility of gaining points. Appeals are reviewed by the instructor in the safety of his or her home or office where he/she may assign full, partial or no credit. Aside from providing students a sense of fairness on your part, the appeals provide the feedback you need to modify questions that might not be worded so optimally.

Team Formations

Collaborative learning tends to work best when students are grouped together in teams consisting of either 3 or 4 students. For a team of 5 students, invariably, the fifth student takes a back seat and is less involved. For a team of 2 students, there is not a sufficient diversity of ideas. Who goes on what team is the difficult responsibility of the instructor who knows that each team needs to be well-balanced in terms of academic abilities and gender. At the start of the semester, the instructor can eyeball who goes where. Putting friends initially together is a good thing. Alternatively, the instructor can await the results of a Concepts Inventory and use student scores as the basis for team formations.

The instructor should consider new team formations after each mid-term. Students thus work together in the same team on up to the mid-term, which is collaborative as described earlier. Mid-term exam scores are then used as the basis for new team formations.

The first assignment of any team is to agree upon a team name. The periodic table provides a wealth of possibilities. Team Titanium, Team Gold, and Team Einsteinium are some of the more popular choices.

Hands-On Science

Within each chapter of our are home-project type activities. These brief activities are most conducive to team learning in the classroom. As you can imagine, students appreciate the hands-on exploratory nature of these activities-they really help to liven up a class. The drawback is the time it takes to make sure that each team is set up with the proper materials, and to make sure that students clean up after themselves. We need not restrict all lab activities to the lab when there are many small, safe, easy to set up activities that can also be done effectively in class.

Practice Pages

An important supplement to our conceptual books are the Practice Pages, which are a set of minds-on, pencil pushing concept review worksheets. The Practice Pages are designed as a study aid that students can work on outside of class. They are far more effective, however, when students work on them together as a team under the expert supervision of the course instructor, who travels from team to team to assist students as necessary. It is common that a Practice Page will prompt a question from a student that, in turn, prompts the instructor to give a short lecture presentation to the team. In such instances, neighboring teams can be encouraged to eavesdrop. This is known as "targeted teaching" and it arises not just from the Practice Page, but from nearly whenever the instructor is roaming about checking on team progress. Occasionally, it prompts the instructor to switch gears and give his or her mini-presentation to the whole class. Targeted teaching is impromptu and in response to immediate student need.


This technique was made popular by Eric Mazur of Harvard University in his book Peer Instruction: A User's Manual. A multiple-choice question is presented to the class. Students contemplate the question on their own and then commit to an answer preferably in writing or via flash cards so that the instructor can quickly gauge student performance. Students then discuss their reasoning with adjacent students. After student-student discussions, a second survey of answers is taken. If the responses prove satisfactory, the instructor can move on to the next concept. If students are struggling, then the instructor may decide to spend more time clearing up misconceptions.

Readiness Assurance Test (RAT)

Hands down, this is the student's favorite activity-not for the joy of it but because it is most related to helping them perform well on their exams. The RAT is simply a trial exam given the class before the actual exam. It helps students assess how ready they may or may not be for the exam. Everything about the RAT should be identical to the exam except that the points don't count and the questions are different. So should the RAT questions be easier or harder? In my opinion, a good RAT is one whereby the students mope out of class with their heads hanging low. They feel it in their hearts that they really need to buckle down if they want to do well on the upcoming real exam. Depending on what psychology you want to use, you may or may not tell them that the questions on the RAT were relatively tough. Either way, their subsequent improved performance on the real exam can be a confidence builder, which is especially important for these students, many of whom are science phobic.

If you are implementing collaborative exams (described above) or any other new and unusual exam format, a RAT also affords you the opportunity to learn how the exam format is best implemented.

You will find that there are short RATs already given at the end of each chapter. You might consider building your RAT using these questions. Alternatively, if you formulate your own RAT questions, you might consider using some of the textbook's RAT questions for your exam to reward students who have been working with the questions at the back of each chapter.

Class Presentations with Activity Intervals

Select questions are assigned to teams of students who then have a short period of time (10 minutes) to prepare and practice articulating an answer. Students as individuals or as a team then get up in front of the class to articulate their answers in a short two-minute presentation. They then ask the class if there are any questions. The instructor, meanwhile, has planted some well-thought-out questions among the audience who then ask these questions, which probe deeper into the concepts. The presenting student or students can either respond or choose to serve as moderators of a class discussion.

Certain questions lend themselves to short but effective hands-on activities. After a student presentation on surface tension, for example, the class can be challenged to float a paperclip on water. Or after a presentation on condensation, the instructor can invert a steam-filled soda can in water. Students are then prompted to explain why the can imploded. Of course, if they can't figure it out, it is the responsibility of the instructor to keep quiet or provide only hints.

Questions that work well for this technique include the Think and Explain questions from the textbook. These questions also lend themselves well to study group sessions either outside of class or during class under the supervision of the instructor. A student should be reminded that if he or she understands the answer to one of these questions-if he or she really does- then he or she should be able to articulate the answer (verbally!) to someone else, such as a fellow student.

Talk to the Wall (with self ratings)

Students hate this activity. But that's okay because you're their coach, not their friend. Short, easy to read "Explain This" questions are posted around the classroom. There are as many posted questions are there are students, which means this works only for relatively small classes. Beneath each question is a grid that allows the student to rate on a scale of 1 to 5. To begin, each student is placed in front of a question. At the sound of a bell, all students vocalize their explanation or answer. They tend to speak softly at first, but the instructor keeps insisting for them to speak louder. Ideally, the classroom becomes quite noisy. Students must continue to articulate, no pauses allowed, until the bell rings once again. At that point they rate on the grid how well they think they did. The whole class then rotates in the same direction so that everyone is before a new question. This continues for as long as the instructor thinks is appropriate. When finished, the instructor runs around the room grabbing all the questions. Ones in which students gave themselves low marks are the ones that become the focus of subsequent class discussions.

The main point to emphasize with students through this activity is that there is a vast difference between thinking you know something and articulating that which you think you know. A true test for understanding is whether or not the student is able to explain that understanding verbally. So when one student explains a concept to another, who benefits the most? The sender or the receiver? Likewise, who is getting the best learning experience: the young professor refining his or her lecture presentation, or the students listening to this lecture presentation? It can't be emphasized enough that, if a student wants to really learn something, a good way to start is by moving the mouth, whether to a friend or a brick wall, it doesn't matter. It is not comfortable. But that's okay. Learning isn't meant to be comfortable. The best ice skaters are the ones who have fallen down the most.

Focused Listing

On a blank sheet of paper, students write down a list of 4 or 5 terms or phrases that help to portray the content of a particular section of the textbook or of some reading assignment. This activity quickly assesses what key concepts were difficult for the student to understand or whether or not the student studied the reading assignment. A related activity described by Angelo and Cross is called "The Muddiest Point" whereby students write down what concepts from a chapter were most unclear. The instructor then uses this information to launch a class presentation (mini-lecture or demonstration) or a class discussion � la the Socratic method whereby everything the instructor says is phrased as a question.

Most Important Concepts

This activity is a variation on focused listing described above. At the start of class have each student write down (on a note card) what they think are the three most important concepts from their studies for today's class. Students need not write their names on their cards. If three concepts are too many for a student to recall, then encourage the student to include at least one. Students who haven't studied will be caught off-guard, but you can encourage them instead to write down any questions they may have. Collect those questions just before the start of the next phase of this activity, which is where students share their cards with each other (in teams of 4 works well) and come to an agreement on the most important concepts. Conclude the activity by moderating the class to come to an agreement on the most important concepts. Use the anonymous student questions (if any) as a launching point for further discussions. Making this a regular activity will encourage students to come to class prepared.

Any Questions

Asking the students if they have any questions is a common way of starting a class. Students typically respond with silence. A better alternative is to ask students to write down a question on a strip of paper. Tell them to be sure NOT to include their name. Collect the questions and then quickly isolate the ones you feel may be a good launching point for discussions. This may be a discussion between you and the entire class or students may be sorted into teams where they discuss the questions themselves. For the latter approach you can ask for each team to have a designated "articulator" who will stand up in front of the whole class to provide a response to the question.

A variation on this activity that works only once per semester, is to print some really good questions on small strips of paper. Then, before class, cut out each question, fold it up, and tape it under the desks of students. Start class by asking if students have any questions. If there are no questions, then all-the-better: pick a particular student and give a subtle gesture to that student saying that "well, maybe you really do have a question". With only body language, get the student to feel under the desk to find the question. The question gets asked and you can either answer it or have it as a basis for team discussions. When that's done, ask another student if he or she has a question. Usually, it's only then that students come to realize that there's a question taped under all the desks. An entire class period can thus be used going over these valuable questions.

Reward Race

A set of not-so-easy multiple choice questions are posted around the room. Students work in teams to answer these questions. The first team to get all answers correct wins the prize, preferably something made of chocolate. Strategies are important. Some teams will decide to split up. Others will stay huddled as they migrate from one question to the next. Also, if a team submits answers but gets at least one wrong, they are not allowed to submit answers again until either all the other teams have had a chance or after a specified amount of time. Furthermore, the instructor does not tell teams which questions they got wrong, only the number of them they got wrong. This is certainly one of the more fun activities.

Office Visits

While the class is occupied with some learning activity (pensive activities, such as the Practice Sheets are best), the instructor pulls individual students away for a brief office visit. The instructor inquires about how things are going and whether the student has any general or specific questions or concerns. This is also a good time to show the student his or her present course grade and provide advice on how to do well in the course. Furthermore, this activity serves as an important ice-breaker that makes students more inclined to take advantage of your regular office hours.

Field Trip

Class-size permitting, take students on a tour of the department's teaching and research laboratories. Ask your colleagues whether they would be willing to talk to your students regarding what they like about science and why they chose it as a profession.

Salon de Science

Bring in a stack of recent science journals, both popular and technical, and set the classroom up as though it were a coffee house-quiet background music, tea, donuts, etc. Students merely spend the class time reading through these journals and discussing science-related topics with their peers as well as the instructor. Strange but true, many if not most of your students have never read through a science journal or magazine. Perhaps, down the road this activity will help them to think twice about throwing away one of those pervasive science magazine subscription offers.

Salon de Science is also a good forum for the Contextual Chemistry essays found in Conceptual Chemistry. Assign each student his or her choice of Contextual Chemistry essay. Students use the class period to read their selected essay while you roam the class answering general and specific questions. Place students in teams in one of two fashions 1) each student on a team has read the same essay, or 2) each student on a team has read a different essay. In the first case, students can discuss the questions at the end of the essay. In the second case, each student can be required to summarize the important points of their essay to the other students.

Instructor-Centered Learning Activities

(What the instructor can do outside of class)

Class Journal

Student-centered learning is such fertile ground for educational innovation. As soon as possible after class, we encourage you to open up your Class Journal and start recording what went well and what went wrong. We can almost guarantee that through this process ideas for improvements and new ideas altogether will arise. You should document the details of each class session even if you don't think anything unusual occurred. Unbeknownst to you, many ideas are likely brewing within your subconscious. The process of writing in your journal, especially soon after class, is a great way to allow these ideas to bubble up to the surface where you can consider them in fuller detail.


Think about your curriculum using your class journal. Discuss your experiences and ideas with your colleagues. Then share your ideas with others through departmental seminars or regional or national meetings. The key word here is synergy. We instructors don't work in a vacuum. In working together we can fast-forward to better ways of reaching our non-science oriented students. Today, we find a growing gap between those who embrace science and those who shun science. Upon graduating, our students should understand science as a beautiful and effective way to viewing our universe.

Explore References

Here are a few references that you will find helpful as a starting point for learning more about student-centered learning techniques.

Thomas A. Angelo, K. Patricia Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques, A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Eric Mazur, Peer Instruction: A User's Manual, Prentice-Hall, 1997.

Jeffrey P. Adams, Timothy F. Slater, Strategies for Astro 101, Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Chemical Concepts Inventory

or just type: "Chemical Concepts Inventory" into Google.

Collaborative learning activities

Field-Tested Assessment Guide (CATs)

Just in Time Teaching

Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL)