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Defining Features Matrix

Facilitating a Defining Features Matrix active learning activity in a physically-distanced learning space.

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


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


  • 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 in Google Docs.
  • 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).


  • 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. Note: Consider limiting the group size to 2-3 students. Groups larger than 2-3 people are encouraged to use text-based chat features instead of speaking to one another to reduce the noise volume in the room and to prevent shouting across long distances between students.
  • Share the method students will use to write the document.
    • Option 1: Students speak with one another across the empty seats.
    • Option 2: Groups follow a link that creates a new version of the template in Google Docs. The document is shared among the group members and with the instructor.
  • Have students place a + or - or a Yes or No each cell of the table.
  • Have students send you the URL for their documents.
  • 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

  • Classroom furniture is not to be rearranged to facilitate activities. If you need a different general assignment classroom to meet your instructional needs, contact your curricular representative.
  • If students are to move around the room during an activity, consider the mobility, location, equipment, and furniture needs of all students.
  • The physical distance between students (particularly in large lecture halls) may make it difficult for students to hear one another when they are asked to speak.
  • This same physical distance may increase the noise level in the room as students try to speak to one another. This noise level may cause issues for some students. To this end, it is recommended that group size be limited to pairs (ideally) or triads at most. Activities requiring larger group sizes should utilize text-based chat solutions like those found in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.
  • The technologies recommended here should meet most campus accessibility requirements. However, you should check with the McBurney Disability Resources Center for guidance on any specific accommodations for your students.

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, physical distance   Doc ID:104113
Owner:Timmo D.Group:Remote Instruction
Created:2020-07-17 12:55 CDTUpdated:2020-11-02 10:39 CDT
Sites:Remote Instruction
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