Defining Features Matrix (classroom)

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Facilitating a Defining Features Matrix active learning activity in a classroom.

Time and Effort

Instructor Prep TimeMedium
Student Activity TimeLow
Instructor Response TimeLow
Complexity of ActivityMedium


Defining Features Matrix requires students to categorize concepts according to the presence (+) or absence (–) of critical defining features. This activity helps students develop conceptual organizational skills and data on their analytic reading and thinking skills.


Use it when you want...

  • To help students develop their skills in organizing information based on a given set of critical defining features,
  • To assess how well students can distinguish between apparently similar concepts, or
  • To help students identify, define, and make explicit the distinctions between related ideas.

What students will need

  • No special requirements for this approach.


The following workflow is meant as guidance for how you can facilitate a Defining Features learning activity within a classroom.


  • Focus on two or three concepts that are similar enough to challenge or confuse students. Determine which features of these concepts are most critical for students to recognize or understand.
  • Create a template of the Defining Features Matrix activity.
  • Make a list of defining features that each concept does or does not possess. After drawing up the list, add a limited number of shared features.
  • Create a table with features listed down the left side and concepts across the top.
  • Determine when you will have students engage in this activity (beginning, middle, end, or outside of class).


  • Hand out and present the Defining Features Matrix grid to students.
  • Leave time for students to ask questions about the activity and receive clarification on subordinate items on the list. Let them know how much time they have to complete the activity.
  • Set up students into groups. 
  • Have students place a + or - or a Yes or No each cell of the table.
  • Collect the completed grids.
  • Let students know when and how you will use the results.


  • Review grids.
  • Provide feedback/grade based on the quality of the grids.
  • Discuss the results of the activity at the next class meeting.

Accessibility and Room Considerations

Technical Documentation


Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: a Handbook for College Teachers. Jossey-Bass, 1993. pp. 164-167.

See Also:

Keywords:defining features matrix, active learning, classroom, analysis, critical thinking   Doc ID:104113
Owner:Timmo D.Group:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
Created:2020-07-17 11:55 CSTUpdated:2021-08-20 13:16 CST
Sites:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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