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Empty Outlines (ALC)

Using Empty Outline activities to check students' prior knowledge in an Active Learning Classroom (ALC)
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, giving 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

  • Laptop, tablet, or mobile phone
  • Classroom with campus wireless connection


The following workflow is meant to guide how to facilitate an Empty Outlines learning activity within an Active Learning 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 Google Docs template you will give students to use in class.


  • Have students access the Google Doc and put their names at the top of the document.
  • Assign a scribe to record results, add students' names at the top of the document, and give the instructor access rights.
  • 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.
  • To ensure everyone at the table participates, direct students to spend one to two minutes working independently on their list. When ready, take turns around the table and have each student share his/her list for the scribe to record.
  • Upon completing the activity, call on one or two tables to present their findings. Ask the rest of the class if they had items not represented by the reporting groups.


  • Review the outlines from the shared Google Docs for each table.
  • 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 are the developmental milestones that characterize each stage. She deletes the content from the subheadings to create an Empty Outline, leaving the main headings intact. After the class has viewed the tape, each table is asked to complete the Empty Outline form using the Google Docs template shared with them. She allows five minutes for students to work independently and then has each student share their results with the table — having the scribe record the results.  She asks two tables to report their results. She asked the remaining groups if their results were similar or differed in any significant way.  After class, she looks at the shared Google Docs from each table. 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 (Modified from 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 class session, she directed students to an Empty Outline form she created using Google Docs 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 each table to work together to fill in the subheadings quickly, making use of the class notes. At the end of the activity, she asks two tables to report their results. She asked the remaining groups if their results were similar or differed in any significant way.  After class, she reviewed the Google Docs from each table. A quick reading showed her that most 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 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 (Modified from 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 classroomDoc ID118447
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2022-05-10 08:38:12Updated2024-04-16 12:40:22
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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