Why Do You Keep Talking? Active Learning and Student Engagement in the Classroom

Learning in fire and emergency medical services is related to the ability to process, store, retrieve, adapt, and utilize information and skills both in the training environment and in the field. As instructors we tend to default towards lecture, often supplemented with presentation software, such as PowerPoint, Prezi, or Google Slides. This passive learning style is less effective than active learning techniques which improve learning, retention, recall, and application. In addition, research has demonstrated that exam scores, leading to passing grades, rise with the application of active learning and student engagement in the learning process. 

Incorporating active learning strategies takes time, and requires planning, to ensure that they are effectively incorporated in the learning environment. These methods have students participate in learning. During this process students practice skills, solve problems, work to answer complex questions, propose solutions, and explain ideas in their own words.

This article presents multiple active learning techniques for instructors to incorporate in the classroom.

Instructor Techniques

Body Vote: Have students move a specific way based on their response. They move specific body parts or move within the room to signify their answers.

Board Brainstorming: Have students brainstorm concepts or terms while capturing them on the board.  Then work with the students to group the categories together.

Clarification Pauses: This simple technique fosters “active listening.” Throughout a lecture, particularly after stating an important point or defining a key concept, stop presenting and allow students time to think about the information. After waiting, ask if anyone needs to have anything clarified. Ask students to review their notes and ask questions about what they’ve written so far.

Empty Outline: Distribute a partially completed outline of the topic and have students fill in the form.

Forum Theater: Use theater to depict a situation and then have students enter into the sketch to act out possible solutions. Students watching a sketch on dysfunctional teams, might brainstorm possible suggestions for how to improve the team environment. Ask for volunteers to act out the updated scene.

Four Corners: Put up a different topic in each corner of the room and ask students to pick one, write down their ideas, and then head to their corner to discuss with others who have chosen the same topic.

Interactive Lecture: Instructor breaks up the lecture at least once per class for an activity that lets all students work directly with the material. Students might observe and interpret features of images, interpret graphs, make calculation and estimates, etc.

Pass the Pointer: Place a complex and detailed image on the board and ask students to use a pointer to discuss key features or ask questions.

Individual Student Techniques

3 – 2 – 1: Ask students to reflect on 3 things they learned, 2 ways to apply what was learned, and 1 question they still have.

Concept Mapping: Students organize key words and/or concepts in a flow chart or drawing to show connections.

Elevator Speech: Students sum up what was discussed in one sentence or less or as a phrase.

Minute Paper: Have students take out a blank sheet of paper, state the topic or question you want students to address, and have them write.

Role Playing: Students act out a part or a position to get a better idea of the concepts and theories being discussed.

Self-Assessment: Students receive an ungraded quiz or a checklist of ideas to determine their understanding of the subject.

Student Created Test Questions: Students create likely test questions and answer key.

Paired Student Techniques

Friendly Disagreement: Students record their answer to challenging questions, then are paired with someone who answered in opposition. Partners then work together to share their views and try to come to an agreement.

Peer Interview:  Students are paired up and question each other about what they have learned.

Peer Review: Students complete an individual assignment. Students submit one copy to the instructor to be graded and one copy to their partner. Students provide feedback, and correct mistakes in content and/or grammar. 

Speed Sharing: Students write concepts, definitions, quiz questions, etc. on index cards for 1 minute, then share what they have learned with their partner. Students then rotate to another partner and repeat the process.

Student Group Techniques

Board/Gallery Walk: Place poster boards or similar boards around the room and assign one topic or question per board. Student groups go to each board and write an answer or concept relating to the topic. After completing one board review, the student then proceeds to another board following the same instructions.

Cooperative Groups in Class: Pose a question to each group while moving around the room answering questions, asking further questions, and keeping the groups on task. After allowing time for group discussion, ask students to share their discussion points with the rest of the class.

Forum Theater: Use theater to depict a situation and then have students enter into the sketch to act out possible solutions. Students brainstorm possible suggestions for how to solve the issue being acted out. Ask for volunteers to act out the updated scene.

Idea Blender: Students individually write a definition or brainstorm and idea. They then form into groups and two of the group integrate their ideas together. Once they are integrated, a third participants ideas are incorporated. The process repeats until all ideas have been incorporated.

Jigsaw: Students from established groups are separated to discuss different topics or questions, becoming “experts”. Once the groups have completed discussing the topic, the original groups are reformed, and the experts share what they have learned.


Assignment Assessment: Students provide feedback on assignments and evaluate them as learning activities.

Chain Notes: The instructor passes out an envelope with a single question on it.  Students write brief answers on index cards, insert their card in the envelope, and pass the envelope to the next student.

Assessment Evaluations:  Students explain what they have learned from exams, evaluate the fairness of the assessment and grading rubric, and quality of the assessments.


Bonwell, C.C. & Eisen, J.A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University: Washington DC.

Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation.  (2021).  Active Learning.  Retrieved from Active Learning | Center for Teaching Innovation (cornell.edu)

Finelli, C.J., Nguyen, K., Demonbrun, M., Borrego, M., Prince, M., Husman, J., Henderson, C., Shekhar, P., & Waters, C. K. (2018). Reducing student resistance to active learning: Strategies for instructors. Journal of College Science Teaching, 47(5), 80-91.

Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64-74.

Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of engineering education, 93(3), 223-231.

University of Michigan Center for Learning and Teaching.  (2021). Introduction to Active Learning.  Retrieved from Introduction to Active Learning | CRLT (umich.edu).

University of Maryland. (2020). Ideas for Active Learning and Student Engagement.  Retrieved from tltc.umd.edu/active.

About the Author

Dave is a 40-year veteran of fire and emergency medical services and has served as a responder, company and chief officer, and instructor in Florida, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.  He currently responds with the Community Volunteer Fire Company in Fairplay, MD and works at a federal fire and EMS training and educational facility located in Emmitsburg, MD.  He can be reached at dkdonohue@aol.com.

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