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Social Studies in Action: A Methodology Workshop, K-5

Engaging Students in Active Learning

How do we engage students in active learning? In this session, the teachers examine the elements of authentic instruction and cooperative learning to identify ways of engaging students in social studies content. They review the importance of questioning in relation to higher-order thinking and explore classroom strategies to stimulate thinking and bring social studies concepts to life for their students.

Engaging Students in Active Learning

How do we engage students in active learning? This session examines the relationship between social studies content and the teaching strategies that tap students’ critical thinking skills, promote cooperative learning, and underscore the relevance of social studies in students’ lives.

To help you extend your thinking, you will:

  • Explore cooperative learning.
  • Define the elements of authentic instruction.
  • Analyze social studies lessons for active learning strategies.

Learning Goals

At the end of this session you will be able to:

• Identify the elements of authentic instruction.

• Identify strategies that promote active learning.

• Apply strategies for active learning in your practice.


1. Getting Started

Watch the video introduction to familiarize yourself with the session, instructor, and participants. Before you watch, consider the following questions:

  • How do you define active learning?
  • How does active learning differ from more traditional, or “non-active” learning?
  • How does social studies content lend itself to active learning?

View Video Segment: Introduction

You’ll find this segment at the beginning of the video. Watch for about 18 minutes.

In this video segment, participants take part in a cooperative learning activity that reviews the elements of authentic instruction.

2. What Do You Know?

This activity is designed to help you think about teaching strategies you use to engage students in active learning. Begin by thinking of a social studies unit you teach and the standards that are met by this unit. Then recall the objectives and strategies you use to engage students in active learning.

Use the Concept Chart (PDF) to list objectives and the active learning strategies you already use.

3.  Reflect on Your Work

After you have completed your chart, review your answers and consider the following questions:

  • What types of active learning strategies do you tend to use?
  • Why are some strategies more successful for you than others?
  • How do the strategies you use enhance learning and help you meet your teaching objectives?
  • What strategies from the video would you add?


Key Concepts from Glossary

Cooperative learning


Authentic instruction


Read each of the articles listed below to gain knowledge about key concepts related to active learning in social studies.

After you read the articles, write answers to the following questions. You can use the Reading Questions form (PDF).

  1. What are the elements of authentic instruction? How does each element engage students and increase understanding?
  2. What is cooperative learning, and how does it differ from other small-group work?
  3. How do different kinds of questioning promote active learning?
  4. How can active learning help teachers assess students’ understanding?

Save your written work to submit as an assignment.


Meaningful, Engaged Learning (PDF)
Describes the characteristics of active learning.

Jones, B. G., G. Valdez, J. Nowakowski, and C. Rasmussen. “Meaningful, Engaged Learning.” North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Essential Elements of Cooperative Learning (PDF)
Describes how cooperative learning is used in active learning.

Stahl, Robert J. “The Essential Elements of Cooperative Learning in the Classroom.” Educational Resources Information Center.

Five Standards of Authentic Instruction (PDF)
Explains how the five standards of authentic instruction promote active learning.

Newmann, Fred M., and Gary G. Wehlage. “Five Standards of Authentic Instruction.” Educational Leadership. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Classroom Questioning (PDF)
Describes the types and uses of classroom questions.

Cotton, Kathleen. “Classroom Questioning.” North West Regional Educational Laboratory.


The following video segment reviews teaching strategies that promote active learning in classroom examples. As you watch, take notes on the teaching strategies you see in the classroom examples. Print the Viewing Chart (PDF) to record your observations. This will prepare you for the upcoming activity.

View Video Segment: Identifying Strategies in Classroom Examples

You’ll find this segment approximately 19 minutes into the video. Watch for about 27 minutes.

After you have completed your chart, review your work and answer the following questions:

  • Which strategies seemed to best promote active learning?
  • Which strategies seemed most relevant to your teaching?
  • What made these strategies effective?
  • How did the activities help students demonstrate their understanding?
  • What would you add?

Save your written work to submit as an assignment.



Now that you have explored and viewed teaching strategies that engage students in active learning apply what you know in the following activities.

1. Examples of Authentic Instruction

In this activity, you’ll analyze three of the classroom segments you just watched and identify teaching strategies that illustrate authentic instruction. Before you begin, review the strategies you listed on your viewing chart, and the elements of authentic instruction below.

Elements of Authentic Instruction

  • Higher-order thinking – stimulates critical thinking
  • Depth of knowledge – encourages comprehensive learning
  • Real-world connection – teaches applications of concepts
  • Substantive conversation – uses meaningful discussion
  • Social support – provides encouragement and inclusion

Then, complete the interactive activity to identify elements of authentic instruction in classroom examples.

Elements of Authentic Instruction
Go to Interactive Activity 

A non-interactive version of this activity is available as a PDF document.

2. Developing a Lesson

Now it’s your turn. Develop a social studies lesson of your own with strategies to promote active learning in mind. Use the Developing a Lesson form (PDF) to help you organize your lesson plan. Be sure to include:

  • Lesson title
  • Objectives
  • Lesson outline
  • Activities
  • Strategies to engage students in active learning
  • Methods for assessing students’ understanding

Save your written work to submit as an assignment.

If you are taking all eight sessions for credit, you may continue to work on lessons and materials for this unit in subsequent sessions. Save a copy of your work.

View Video Segment: Mini-Lesson

You’ll find this segment approximately 47 minutes into the video. Watch for about 10 minutes.

Watch this segment to see how workshop participants use the Pledge of Allegiance to plan for active learning.


In this session, you examined a range of strategies that promote active learning. Review your initial concept chart, answers to the reading questions, strategies you observed in the video segments, and the lesson you developed. Now write a Summary (PDF) of what you’ve learned. Be sure to include:

  • the range of active learning strategies you studied;
  • the benefits and challenges of planning for active learning;
  • how promoting active learning can increase students’ engagement with material, long-term retention, and understanding; and
  • how you might incorporate elements of active learning in your practice

Save your written work to submit as an assignment.

Refer to the Assignments below to be sure you’ve completed all assignments for this session.



Blythe, Tina, and Associates. The Teaching for Understanding Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998.

Newmann, Fred M., and Associates. Authentic Achievement: Restructuring Schools for Intellectual Quality. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996.


Active Learning Practices for Schools
Provides information about Teaching for Understanding.

Jigsaw Classroom
Explains the jigsaw strategy of cooperative learning.


If you are taking this workshop for credit or professional development, submit the following assignments for session 6: Engaging Students in Active Learning.

  1. Explore: Read the articles and respond to the questions that follow.
  2. Explain: Watch the video segment, complete the Viewing Chart, and answer the questions that follow.
  3. Apply: Apply what you’ve learned and complete the Developing a Lesson activity.
  4. Evaluate: Summarize what you’ve learned and how you will apply new strategies in your teaching.