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Designing the Denouement in Active and Flipped Classes

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Class time is a precious commodity, and as instructors we are often hesitant to take time to teach learning processes. We know, however, that many of our learners today are not familiar with the mental gymnastics required for deep learning.




The posting below looks at ways to help students pull together ideas from their active learning experiences. It is by Linda C. Hodges,University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 28, Number 1, December 2018It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Designing the Denouement in Active and Flipped Classes

As we design active learning experiences or flipped classes, it’s easy to focus primarily on choosing appropriate preparatory assignments and creating worthwhile in-class learning activities. These aspects are, in a sense, the first and second acts of a three-part performance of instruction. What we sometimes emphasizeess is how to make sure that students come away from each session having achieved our goals for their learning—and realizing that they have. This finale is known as the denouement in performance, and just as it is critical for our understanding of a complex play, it is also essential for helping our students make meaning out of the chaos of an active learning experience. 

The Problem 

The student engagement we so value in active learning sessions can also actually add to students’ cognitive load. Students must manage the input of multiple voices and navigate a rapid change of speakers (Nokes-Malach, Richey, & Gadgil, 2015). This additional load makes it challenging for students to organize and integrate their thoughts. These struggles may contribute in part to the common student complaint on end-of-term evaluations of “The instructor didn’t teach us anything!” 

The other half of that complaint is often “We had to teach ourselves!” Instructors recognize that this is a good thing, but students may not. This misconception is compounded in the active learning classroom because students may not appreciate when or what they are gleaning from the group interactions. Helping students see how much the pedagogy contributed to their learning each day cannot only diminish these complaints, but also aid students in becoming more self-regulating. Self-regulation refers to the quality of monitoring and controlling of one’s behavior. One of the goals of much active learning, and certainly the flipped classroom, is to promote students’ abilities to self-regulate. 


Self-regulation has multiple phases, including planning, monitoring, and reflecting on what, how, and how well one is learning. These phases each consist of both cognitive and affective components as delineated in Pintrich’s rubric of self-regulated learning 2004). Step two in Pintrich’s self-regulation description deals with the cognitive process of monitoring and reflecting on learning and the affective process of monitoring one’s motivation (as discussed in Talbert, 2017). As we think about our students participating in an active learning environment, we may need to support them in recognizing how classroom activities played a role in both their proclivity and productivity in learning.

Strategies to Help Students Recognize What and How They Learned 

One obvious way to emphasize what students should take away from class is for the instructor to review and summarize at the end. That act demonstrates that we are indeed teaching. However, that approach also somewhat defeats the purpose of active learning in helping students learn how to learn on their own. Letting the students take charge of this last act in the session can provide a potent reminder of their own power as learners. When doing so, instructors may choose whether the form of abstraction is individual or group-based. When using groups in large classes, debriefs can often be aided by various technologies. 

In a recent discussion group with faculty, we generated a number of ways that they help their students pull together ideas from their activities—both individually and in groups. Instructors noted a number of advantages to group forms of debrief. For example, group reports support students in: 

  • seeing commonalities (and differences) in what everyone has learned; 
  • being more accountable in their own thinking and reflecting; and 
  • being more authentic in their responses than when sharing only with the instructor.

The strategies below can each be adapted to focus more on individual or on group engagement. 

• Pre-/post-quizzes. In this approach, faculty ask students several questions on that day’s topics at the beginning of class, and students answer using personal response systems, polling software, or low-tech color-coded cards. Students are then asked the same questions at the end. Inevitably, students perform better on the post-quiz, thus explicitly demonstrating learning. Technology options allow for students to answer these quizzes either by choosing letters or entering words. If students enter words, some systems can generate a word cloud. Comparing beginning and ending clouds creates a strong visual image of how students’ thoughts have changed as a result of the session. Pre-/post-quiz strategies engage students individually, yet allow them to see group results. 

• Summarizing/debriefs. Just as in a traditional lecture, summarizing the day’s takeaways is important in consolidating learning at the end of an active learning session. Asking students to do this important work gives them the opportunity to retrieve and integrate ideas, contributing to their transferring that knowledge into long-term memory (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). In small classes, we can simply ask students to volunteer ideas that we then capture on the board or via the presentation software. We can engage more students, however, by requiring them to do this in groups. Students can record their thoughts on portable or individual whiteboards or flip chart paper, or via various engagement technologies that gather and project student group responses (e.g., TodaysMeet[E3] , Nearpod). When using the low-tech options, instructors may ask a sample of groups for a quick recap and have groups note points of consensus. The technology options allow all the groups’ answers to be displayed. 

• Reflection exercises. Depending on the topic of the day’s session, [E4] what may be as important as content for students to come away with is a sense of self-knowledge. This observation is especially true if one of our course goals is to promote students’ abilities to self-regulate. The classic one- minute or muddiest point paper (Angelo & Cross, 1993)—i.e., “What is(are) the most important idea(s) you gleaned from today’s class?” or “What are you still confused about?”—can be made communal through group response using any of the methods noted earlier. These exercises ask students to assess their learning progress in the moment. We can also adapt the Critical Incident Questionnaire to be a session-ending reflection, asking students when during class they were most or least engaged (Brookfield, 1995), raising students’ awareness of their own waxing or waning attention during class activities. 

Collecting such reflections individually on note cards in the traditional manner or employing technology options allow these ruminations to be anonymous, if desired, especially when students are noting what they still don’t understand. But if we want to cultivate growth mindset in our students, and normalize the notion that recognizing what we don’t know is the first step to learning, then being open with these challenges is valuable. Group reports also encourage students to take these contemplative exercises more seriously. One caveat is that although instructors as experts often find it illuminating to see what novice learners struggle to learn, we need to be very careful not to show surprise or incredulity at students’ difficulties. If we ask students to make themselves vulnerable in this way, then we must respond in a way that affirms them as learners. 

Keeping It Fresh and Making It Work for Student Learning 

Any teaching approach that we use regularly, regardless of its merit, can also become routine and rote. The same is true for asking students to monitor and reflect on their learning. Students may be lulled by the familiarity to go into a “check the box” mentality. Mixing up the strategy we choose can help—quizzes some days, group debriefs another, individual reflections alternately. Because we have scaffolded the process for students, we can also try gradually phasing it out, depending on student response. After several weeks of regular, rigorous practice, we can downshift and ask students to take a moment and write down their own takeaways for the day and compare with a neighbor’s (using an incentive such as an “exit ticket” to prevent mass exodus from the class). Then we can transition to asking only for online post-class minute papers (for a point or two). Finally, we can return to our original approaches but only intermittently, helping students use these ideas to prepare for exams or projects. Circlingback with students to show them how their ruminations did indeed connect to work on exams or papers may also reinvigorate student enthusiasm for the practice. 


Class time is a precious commodity, and as instructors we are often hesitant to take time to teach learning processes. We know, however, that many of our learners today are not familiar with the mental gymnastics required for deep learning. Framing our class sessions to explicitly model the key stages of learning (i.e., planning, practicing, monitoring, and reflecting) can cultivate students’ abilities to internalize these processes as they head off to work on their own. Making sure that we bring a sense of perspective and closure to each class session, helping students note achievements and next steps, can raise the curtain on their own act of learning. 


Angelo, T. A., & K. P. Cross1993.

Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. 1995. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass. 

Brown, P. C., H. L. Roediger III, & M. A. McDaniel. 2014. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 

Nokes-Malach, T. J., J. E. Richey , & S. Gadgil. 2015. “When is it better to learn together? Insights from research on collaborative learning.” Educational Psychology Review27, 645–656.

Pintrich, P. R. 2004. “A conceptual framework for assessing motivation and self-regulated learning in college students.” Educational Psychology Review16, 385–407.

Talbert, R. 2017. Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. Sterling, VA: Stylus. 


Linda C. Hodges, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Director, Faculty Development Center University of Maryland, Baltimore County

1000 Hilltop Circle
Baltimore, MD 21250