3 Ways to Use Timelines as an Active Learning Strategy to Engage Students

You can use timelines as an active learning strategy to engage students and improve learning.

A timeline is, “a linear representation of important events in the order in which they occurred” (Dictionary.com). However, when you think about using timelines as an active learning strategy, I’d like to challenge you to expand this definition.

Think of all the ways students can organize course content in any kind of order. They can use minutes in an hour, days of the week, or months of the year, but what else can they organize in a linear way?

Steps in a procedure, chapters in a book, characters in a story, stages of a cycle, phases of a change, series of events, or journey through a process...all of these are ways students can organize information.

Most of us teach course material that can be organized in some type of linear format. Help students organize and recall that information by challenging them to create a timeline. It's an excellent teaching strategy you can use to engage students, assess learning, and involve students in the process of organizing information.

7 benefits of using timelines to engage students:

  1. Timelines help students organize and process information.

    Throughout the process of putting things in an order, students are making connections and looking for patterns. They may arrange sections of the timeline into chunks, label places on the timeline where they are confused, and rearrange content as they discuss ideas with others and seek additional resources.
  1. Timelines are flexible.

    Students can create a timeline using markers and flip chart paper. Or they can sketch their timeline on a whiteboard or chalkboard. Or they can use a stack of sticky notes or index cards to map dates and events. Or, if students want to integrate technology, they can use an online interactive whiteboard tool, a Google doc, or a spreadsheet.
  1. Timelines are visual.

    Pictures, images, and graphics are memorable. As students organize content and place it on the timeline, they can see how the individual pieces come together to create a whole idea which can reinforce the concept. Encourage students to add pictures, diagrams, images, or videos to enhance the text on their timelines.
  1. Timelines are assessment tools.

    As students create the timeline, they are testing their knowledge, reconsidering their ideas, analyzing new information, and testing their knowledge again. This is a great way for students to self-assess, but it’s also an excellent strategy for you to assess student learning and offer more support as needed.
  1. Timelines are planning tools.

    If we expand on the definition of a timeline, we can encourage students to look to the future, not just in the past. A timeline can help students look ahead and predict what’s to come. If they are planning a project or working towards a goal, a timeline can help them map a path towards success.
  1. Timelines help students reflect.

    If students are looking to the past to create their timeline, then they are reflecting on what happened, when it happened, and how it mattered. If students are looking towards the future, they are using their imagination and while creating and reflecting on possibilities.
  1. Timelines work for a variety of learning styles and preferences.

    Students who prefer graphics, photos, and images will appreciate the visual reinforcement of the course material presented in a timeline. Students who enjoy processing information by talking and discussing ideas will appreciate working in groups to create a timeline together.

    As they work through this activity, some students may approach organizing the timeline based on the content they know and then go back and fill in the information they missed. Alternatively, some students may work from one end of the timeline to the other, filling in the information in the correct order. You can adapt the timeline activity to speak to all the different ways students learn.

When you’re ready to give it a try, here are three ways to use timelines in your class:

Teaching Strategy #1: Create a timeline for a process involving a series of steps.

If your course material includes content that requires students to complete a process involving a series of steps that need to be completed in some type of order, challenge students to create a timeline to illustrate that process.


  • Steps involved in preparing a patient for surgery.
  • Steps involved in administering an insulin shot.
  • Steps to solve a theorem.
  • The process of creating a website for a client.
  • The process of conducting an intake interview.
  • Steps involved in setting up the lab experiment.
  • The steps involved in wiring a light fixture.

Teaching Strategy #2: Create a timeline of a case.

If you use case studies in your class, use a timeline to help students reconstruct events, recall important pieces of information, and highlight key events. You can use written or video cases to present the problem before students create their timelines.


  • List the information presented in the case from most important to least important. What do we know based on the information we’ve been given?
  • List the outcome of a scenario from most likely to least likely to occur. What might happen?
  • Organize all of the known factors in the case in the order in which they occurred and then highlighting gaps in content. What do we need to know to make a decision?
  • Outline the “gaps” in the case from most important to least important. What do we need to know before we can make a decision?

Teaching Strategy #3: Create a timeline of their day.

Ask students to keep track of every 30 minutes of one day of their week using a journal, an app, or their phone. Then, ask them to bring their data to class and construct a timeline of their activities. This can prompt self-reflection about and help students analyze how they spend their time.


  • What do they do when they first wake up in the morning?
  • Where do they think time is “wasted”?
  • How long did they study? (And what was the result? Did they pass the test? Fail?)
  • Where do they seem to be most active during the day? Maybe they can analyze their schedule and determine when they have the most energy for studying, working out, etc.
  • Challenge them to make a timeline of their “ideal” day and see how it compares to their actual day so they can make positive changes in how they structure their time.

The process of involving the students in creating a timeline makes this a memorable active learning strategy to encourage student engagement and interaction.