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Empty Outlines

Active learning

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Using Empty Outlines activities to measure prior knowledge in a classroom.
Time and Effort
Instructor Prep Time Medium
Student Activity Time Low
Instructor Response Time Medium
Complexity of Activity Medium


Empty Outlines has the instructor provide students with a blank or partially completed outline of a presentation or assignment and gives students a limited amount of time to fill in the outline.


Use it when you want...

  • To find out whether students have identified the critical points in a lecture, reading, or other types of assignments, or
  • To help students recall and organize the main points of a lesson within an appropriate knowledge structure — aiding retention and understanding.

What students will need

  • No special requirements for this approach.


The following workflow is meant as guidance for how you can facilitate an Empty Outlines learning activity within a classroom.


  • Create an outline of the lecture, presentation, discussion, or reading on which to base the assignment. Decide the level on which you will focus the activity and, thus, the student's attention.
  • Decide if students are to supply the main topics, the main subtopics, or the supporting details? These decisions will determine what information you provide and what you leave out.
  • Create a template of the outline for students.


  • Have students work in pairs to complete the activity.
  • When students complete the form from memory — without notes or other information — limit the number of items the activity elicits to fewer than ten.
  • Let students know how much time they will have to complete the outlines and the desired responses (words, short phrases, or brief sentences).
  • Announce the purpose of the assignment and when the students will receive feedback on their responses.


  • Review outlines.
  • Provide feedback/grades to group participants.

Accessibility and Room Considerations

  • None

Technical Documentation


Example 1

Child Language Acquisition professor shows a video of an educational television program on the stages of language acquisition from birth to five years.  Before showing it to students, she watches the video and sketches a simple outline of its topics and major points.  The major topics in the outline are the developmental stages of language acquisition; the subheadings were the developmental milestones that characterize each stage.  To create an Empty Outline, she deletes the content from the subheadings, leaving the main headings intact.  After the class has viewed the tape, the Empty Outline form is passed out to students.  They are asked to work in pairs to fill the form out.  She allows five minutes for the work and then collects the completed forms.  A quick analysis of the results shows that students most clearly recall the milestones from the first and last stages presented in the video, while their recollections of the intermediate stages were much sketchier.  This gives the professor clear directions on where to begin the follow-up discussion and what content she needs to focus on.  It also convinces her of the need to stop in the middle of the tape to allow students to take notes and review what they have seen and heard to that point (Angelo 139).

Example 2

After the first major exam in her Pathophysiology course, the professor was concerned that her students were having difficulty recognizing, organizing, and recalling the most important parts of her lectures. Toward the end of the next lecture, she handed out copies of an Empty Outline form she created to get a clearer idea of how students were managing the heavy information load of her lectures. The outline contained four main headings, representing the four main topics she had just discussed. Each main heading was followed by empty lines for three to five subheadings. She directed students to fill in the subheadings quickly, making use of the class notes.  At the end of the activity, she collected the handouts.  A quick reading after class showed her that most of the students placed their responses under the correct headings. However, many students made the subheadings too specific or mixed items of different levels of specificity. The responses demonstrated that students were missing at least some of the important topics because they were distracted by facts. At the next class session, she was able to illustrate the level on which she wanted students to focus their attention during the lectures (Angelo 139).


Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: a Handbook for College Teachers. Jossey-Bass, 1993. pp. 138-141.

Keywordsempty outlines, prior knowledge, active learning, classroom pkDoc ID104170
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-07-20 14:24 CSTUpdated2023-07-19 08:19 CST
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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