Active learning - compare and contrast

Ideas for activities and tasks to keep your learners active and help them learn by looking at similarities and differences.

Caitlin Foran avatar
Written by Caitlin Foran
Updated over a week ago

This article covers our new tasks. If you’re not yet using tasks in your course talk to your iQualify account owner to get them turned on for your organisation.

Our brains are great at spotting patterns and making categories. This can have some negative effects (e.g. stereotyping), but looking for similarities (and differences) between things can help us understand them better. 

For instance, as an infant learning to recognise cats and dogs, you'll notice what they share (hairy, four legs, tail). But it's often through comparing what they share and looking for the differences (meow/woof, smaller/bigger) that you're able to 1) distinguish between them and 2) understand more fully what makes a cat, a cat or a dog a dog. 

We can apply this just as easily to more abstract ideas or procedures. For instance, I might be better able to understand autocratic leadership through contrasting it with democratic leadership.

Categorising and comparing and contrasting allows learners to express and interrogate the distinctions they see between related items. It can be particularly effective at helping to identify misconceptions. Let's take a look at a few options for how you might support active learning through compare and contrast.

Open response

If you're teaching a concept with no clear-cut definition you can use this as an active learning opportunity.

Or, if like the autocratic versus democratic example, you can get learners to compare and contrast.

Multiple choice

You can get learners to notice differences by highlighting an exception to a rule or idea.

Or ask them to identify just the shared rules between two ideas.


Give learners descriptions of items and ask them to highlight similarities (or differences).


Give learners a list of scrambled terms, images, equations, or other items to sort into categories. 

This is a great activity especially if you have items that can fit into multiple categories. 

You could also change this activity to include a column with "Both" so it is similar to a Venn diagram task.

You could also include "dummy" items that don't fit well into any category to highlight misconceptions.

Choice matrix

In this option learners compare and contrast more implicitly through looking at the pattern of check marks. To support learning even more, make the similarities and differences explicit through the explanation you provide in the feedback.

Number line

One way to promote learners understanding of differences is to ask them to place things on a spectrum. This is possibly not the intended use or purpose of the number line task, but we can bend it a tad to suit.

Mark up image

If you want to do a spectrum, but need something different than numbers, you could try getting learners to mark up an image. The letters or shapes you get them to use to label should be as simple as possible as writing long words, with your finger as a pen,  on a mobile can get tricky!

Or you could get them to draw Venn diagram over the top of an image.

Remember, with image mark up activities you need to work a little harder with alt-tag descriptions for images which provides a text alternative for them and makes them accessible for screen readers.

What next?

You could do a more social variation on many of these tasks by asking learners to share their categories or compare/contrast in a discussion or talk channel. This is an effective approach if there is no "right" answer or categories are contentious.

This article was focused on learning through similarities and differences. But if your concept doesn't have a contrasting idea or categories, you can still help learners interrogate what a thing that particular thing through analysis. See the examples given in Active learning - analysis and evaluation.

Want to see how else you can make the learning active? Pop back to our main Active learning techniques article and pick another from the list.

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