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Defining Features Matrix

Active learning

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Using Defining Features Matrix activity to facilitate critical thinking in a classroom.
Time and Effort
Instructor Prep Time Medium
Student Activity Time Low
Instructor Response Time Low
Complexity of Activity Medium


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 how you will create groups.
  • 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 on 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

  • None

Technical Documentation

  • None


Example 1

Human Evolution professor assigns several articles on recent discoveries and theories about Neanderthals and their relationship to Homo sapiens. To find out how closely students had read the material, and how well they understood the generally agreed-upon differences between modern humans and Neanderthals, he creates a Defining Features Matrix. The matrix contains features related to not only anatomy but also to likely cultural and social differences and similarities. He creates a handout with the matrix with the features down the left side of the table and Homo sapien and Neanderthal on the top row. At the beginning of class, he gives each student a copy of the matrix. He gives them five minutes to complete the matrix and collects them. He quickly reviews the results (there are only 30 students in the class) and is able to determine some common mistakes. He leads a class discussion on these issues (Angelo 165).

Example 2

An instructor in Comparative Political Systems wants to use a Defining Features Matrix to assess how well his students understood the detailed differences among the federal systems of the United States, Canada, and Germany. After reading chapters in their textbook on these topics, students were asked to break into groups and complete a worksheet that defined a variety of features of government and asked to identify whether each system did or did not have those features represented in their system. Students were given 15 minutes, after which they reported their findings. The activity helped the instructor determine the areas he should focus on during the remaining time in class (Angelo 165).


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

Keywordsdefining features matrix, active learning, classroom, analysis, critical thinking   Doc ID104113
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-07-17 12:55 CDTUpdated2023-07-19 13:33 CDT
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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