The 3C strategy for traditional and online active learning


Active learning involves multiple learner-centered activities, learner responsibly for learning, engagement with course elements, as well as interesting, meaningful, and thought-provoking activities (Shawer, 2022; Shawer, 2017). Active learning research shows improved critical thinking skills, learning retention and transfer, motivation, interpersonal skills, course completion rates, and learning outcomes (Prince, 2004). This makes the ability to design and deliver active learning a basic competency for every teacher (Shawer, 2022). Based on actual classroom experiences, I demonstrate how to conduct the three circles (3C) strategy:

  • Face-to-face three circles strategy
  • Online three circles strategy

Face-to-face three circles strategy

 Activity mode

  • Whole class and small group
  • The three circles strategy is carried out through a mix of whole class and small group discussions.

 Instructor and learners’ roles

  • Instructors guide and facilitate learning activities.
  • Learners actively carry out learning activities under instructors’ guidance.

Why to use it?

  • To promote communication, critical thinking, analysis, and evaluative skills through arguments and counter arguments.
  • To help students learn new concepts, correct misconceptions, critique positions, and draw conclusions during group and whole class discussions.
  • To identify different opinions for a decision on an issue to be made.
  • To generate, develop, and refine ideas.
  • To help learners refine prior learning through changing position for those who have one or embrace a position for those who do not have one.

 How to conduct the three circles strategy?

 1. The Three Circles Topic

    • Time: 5 minutes
    • Activity mode: whole class
  • Present an issue for students to take a position (Fig 1).
  • For example, in an assessment class, ask students to express their position on whether instructors should grade formative assessments.
  • Later on, students justify why they took one position rather than the others.
  • Students confused or unaware of the process may take a middle position.

Fig 1 shows instructors should first present an issue for students to take a position. Applying Merrill’s (2002) first two principles of instruction (engage and activate) help engage students with learning. As a result, the topic should reflect a real-world problem or a simulated situation.

2. Three circles (round 1)

    • Time: 5 minutes
    • Activity mode: whole class
  • As shown in Fig 1, draw three circles within one another (inner, middle, and outer). Alternatively, arrange chairs into three circles within one another.
  • Inner Circle: Students holding the position that all formative assessments must be graded stand on the inner circle (position 1).
  • Middle Circle: Students holding the position that some formative assessments should be graded stand on the middle circle (position 2).
  • Outer Circle: Students who take the position that formative assessments must not be graded stand on the outer circle (position 3).

Fig 1. The three circles strategy

3. Small Group Discussions

    • Time: 15 minutes
    • Activity mode: small groups
    • Group number: six or three students, equal or unequal position number
  • Six students representing the three circles form a group (Fig 1).
  • Every group must comprise the three positions. Two students represent circle 1, two represent circle 2, and two represent circle 3.
  • Alternatively, at least two positions must be represented in case there were no middle positions.
  • It is possible to have three-member groups, one student from circle 1, one from circle 2 and one from circle 3.
  • Although it is also possible to have unequal number of students, at least one student from each circle must be part of each group. For example, you could have two students from circle 1, one student from circle 2, and two students from circle 3. The students in each group then explain to one another why they took that position.

Group members ask and answer questions and take notes to justify why they stuck to or changed their original position. They also need to show what they learned from the discussion and what remained confusing and unanswered. While this activity aims to encourage students who had a position to generate and clarify information and to challenge others’ ideas, it allows undecided students to learn about the topic from group discussions. As expected, while some group members present their position and evidence to the group, other students would challenge it. In this context, undecided students observe views and evidence, analyze information, learn new concepts, and draw conclusions relating to the lesson topic.

4. Three Circles (round 2)

    • Time: 5 minutes
    • Activity mode: whole class
  •  Inner Circle: Ask students who stuck or changed to first position to stand on the inner circle (Fig 1).
  • Middle Circle: Ask students who stuck or changed to second position to stand on the middle circle.
  • Outer Circle: Ask students who stuck or changed to third position to stand on the outer circle.

5. Whole Group Discussion

      • Time: 20 to 30 minutes
      • Activity mode: whole class
  • As Fig 1 shows, when the time for small group discussions expires, bring all students to a whole class discussion.
  • Ask each group (students holding the same position) to justify why they had that position by inviting each group to clarify their position.
  • Other students are invited to challenge the position, but they have to provide counter evidence.
  • Ask questions similar to these:
      • Who changed their position?
      • Why did you change it?
  • While facilitating this discussion, develop ideas, correct misunderstanding, and provide necessary information.
  • Finally, with your class, try to address issues similar to these:
      • Make a decision on or reach a conclusion about X.
      • List the facts, concepts, and theories underlying X and Y.
      • Explain how the information learned can be used in other situations.
      • List the skills required to do X and Y.
      • List the elements of X and Y.
      • Compare and contrast X and Y.
      • Justify why X should come before Y.
      • Explain the impact of X on Y and vice versa.
      • List the consequences of X and Y for Z.

Online three circles strategy

The three circles strategy can be easily used online through the same steps used to carry out traditional three circles learning. However, some adaptations should be made to keep discussions focused and students engaged online. 

1. The Three Circles Topic

  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Activity mode: whole class
  • From the online platform (e.g., Canvas, Zoom, Google Classroom, or Moodle), present the topic in the same way as in actual classrooms.

2. Online Three Circles

  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Activity mode: whole class
  • From the online platform, ask students to take position 1, 2, or 3 by either raising hands in the virtual classroom or by sending a message into the chat box. On a sheet of paper, mark positions for grouping purposes.

3. Online Small Group Discussions

    • Time: 10 minutes
    • Activity mode: small groups
    • Group number: six or three students, equal or unequal position number
  • From the online platform, assign small discussion groups. For example, move students to Zoom Breakout Rooms or Canvass Groups. Let’s say the virtual classroom has three groups. Move two students who hold position 1, two holding position 2, and two holding position 3 into group 1 (six members).
  • Continue to form discussion groups in the same way until all students are assigned to separate groups/ rooms.
  • Next, ask group members to discuss the topic, following the same real classroom task requirements.
  • You (instructor) join each group to observe and facilitate discussions.
  • Let’s give one example on Canvas (an LMS platform). Instead of asking students to form three circles as in real classrooms, use the Group feature to manually or automatically create and view activities within each group, assign students to different groups, and assign each group leader. Alternatively, allow students to sign up for groups. However, you should still control moving students into different groups for inside classroom work alongside setting groups for graded and ungraded assessments for in-class and term projects.
  • Keep discussions within 10 minutes. For example, instead of having a discussion activity for 20 minutes, split it into two activities, 10 minutes each, so that you can manage discussions, introduce concepts, correct misunderstanding, and keep discussions focused.
  • You should post these instructions on the discussion boards/ rooms:
  • The three positions for discussion and questions to be answered.
  • The time set for each member to present their case and counter argument.
  • The maximum number of students allowed to join a group.
  • Groups or rooms must be approved by you before starting discussions.

 4. Online Whole Class Discussion

    • Time: 10 minutes
    • Activity mode: whole class
  • From the online platform, bring all students to the main discussion board.
  • Ask students to say their position again and record the names of students having the same position on a sheet of paper.
  • As in actual classrooms, this is necessary because some students change their positions as a result of group discussions.
  • Next, invite individual students to clarify their position without interruption by others and within the set time.
  • Invite other students holding the same position to add details in support or clarification of the position.
  • Having presented their position, other students virtually raise hands to challenge the position following the same rules as in real classrooms.
  • Advise each group to post their position through, for example, Google Docs, Google Sheets, or Zoom chat window when they return to the main session.


Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.

Prince, M. (2004) Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education 93 (3) 223-231.

Shawer, S. F. (2017). Teacher-driven curriculum development at the classroom level: Implications for curriculum, pedagogy and teacher training. Teaching and Teacher Education, 63, 296-313.

Shawer, S. F. (2022). Active learning strategies: How to run online and traditional active learning classrooms? Nova Science Publishers (