The Snowball Effect: Evolving Your Class Into An Active Learning Experience

Welcome to the second post in our two-part series about evolving your course to incorporate active learning. Previously we shared how one professor at Ohio University evolved his course into a “90 minute creativity concert” of active learning. Today we’ll share actionable tips that you can apply to your courses.

The Snowball Effect


As we covered how Eric Williams transformed his MDIA 1020: Media and the Creative Process course from a traditional, lecture-based format to an engaging, active-learning “90 minute creativity concert,” we were inspired to think about and share ways that other faculty in any discipline could do the same, using a concept called the “snowball effect.”

The snowball effect is a process which begins with one small change that builds upon itself, becoming larger and more significant along the way, like a ball of snow rolling down a hillside. If properly guided, this process can have a majorly positive impact on a situation just by taking small steps along the way.

Changing a class is not a simple process, but it can be made easier by approaching the process of evolving the course slowly and methodically. By instituting a few small changes each semester, you can “snowball” a successful, manageable evolution of the course in just a couple of years, giving you time to adjust, get comfortable, and evaluate. Let’s talk about a few ways you can get started.


Start by considering the purpose of the class. What are the main outcomes you want to see for your students? How are you achieving those outcomes now? What are alternative means for achieving those outcomes?

Look at student evaluations. What trends do you see in what students liked and didn’t like? What are the main issues facing your course? Are they student-centric, faculty-centric, space-centric, or time-centric?

When you’re ready to make changes, start small. Consider changing one assignment. The change might be the format (instead of having students submit a paper, have them submit a video; instead of an exam, have students develop a module to teach the material to someone else), or the structure (scaffold the assignment into several escalating components, adding peer review or group elements), or even how it’s presented (transition to conference style presentations or debates versus having students hand in a paper).

suggestions on how to apply the snowball effect to a class

You can tackle these changes by the components of your course:

  • Supplementary material: Trade a few of your standard readings for podcasts or videos. Have students be responsible for sourcing new content to share with the class every week.
  • Assignments: Which of the more ‘static’ assignments in your syllabus can be turned into an active project? Instead of writing a paper, could students reflect, analyze, and connect concepts in a podcast, video, pecha kucha style presentation, social media campaign, interactive timeline or other constructivist medium? Where can reflection be further developed in the course? How are students encouraged to identify if they really know what they know? Where can collaboration be stimulated in the course? How can students identify classmates with complementary skills, ideas, and experiences and develop opportunities to work with them?
  • Lecture: Where can lectures be swapped for active time? Is there lecture material that can be better delivered in a flipped format, to allow for more conversation and more doing during the course hour? How can students be more actively engaged in lecture, whether via small group collaborations experiments, debates, creative development time, crowd-sourced class notes, or “unconference” style peer-led discussions.

Starting out, it’s best to only make 1-2 changes per semester; especially if you are adding in new tools and new strategies. Give yourself time to acclimate to those changes and to evaluate whether they are working and sustainable before moving on and incorporating more.

Explain to students the changes you’re making and why. Students are more likely to be accepting of exploratory ventures in their classes if they understand the motivations and potential outcomes and do not feel that they will be punished if the experiment is not successful.

If you’re interested in adapting a course to make it more active, more engaging, and more representative of what the students are actually learning, you don’t have to make a huge effort all at once. Small steps like the tips above will help you comfortably and successfully make improvements one semester at a time!

Did you enjoy our two-part series, or do you have other topics you’d like us to cover? Share your feedback with us!