Active learning is any approach to instruction in which all students are asked to engage the material they study through writing, talking, listening, problem solving, or reflecting.
Active learning stands in contrast to "traditional" modes of instruction in which instructors do most of the talking and students are passive recipients.
- What is active learning?
- Why use it?
- Successful implementation
- Addressing challenges
- Research and resources
What is active learning?
Active learning refers to a broad range of teaching strategies which engage students as active participants in their learning during class time with their instructor. Typically, these strategies involve some amount of students working together during class, but may also involve individual work and/or reflection. These teaching strategies range from journal writing, problem solving and paired discussions, to case studies, role plays and structured team-based learning.
In a “traditional” class, it is common for only some students in a given course to participate in asking or responding to questions. In contrast, a class with successful active learning activities provide an opportunity for all students in a class to think and engage with course material and practice skills for learning, applying, synthesizing or summarizing that material.
Using active learning does not require abandoning the lecture format, but it does take class time. If you are new to active learning, consider adding active learning to your course incrementally after reviewing how different types of lectures allow for varying levels of student interaction.
You can start with short activities that break up a lecture two or three times during an hour long period. You could ask students to respond to a question, to summarize important concepts in writing, or compare notes with a partner. These activities give students just a minute or two to check their understanding of recent material or practice a skill you’ve just demonstrated.
Why use it?
Active learning improves student outcomes
There is a well-established evidence base supporting the use of active learning. The benefits to using such activities are many, including improved critical thinking skills, increased retention and transfer of new information, increased motivation, improved interpersonal skills, and decreased course failure (e.g. Anderson, Mitchell and Osgood, 2006; Camila Aparecida Tolentino Cicuto and Bayardo Baptista Torres, 2016; Kember and Leung, 2005).
One of the most striking recent findings was from a meta-analysis of 225 studies of active learning which found that students in science, engineering and mathematics courses without active learning were 1.5 times more likely to fail the course than students in courses with active learning (Freeman et al., 2014). The authors contextualized their finding as follows, “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment [active learning] being tested was clearly more beneficial.”
Choose meaningful activities or questions
One of the most important aspects of active learning is choosing the activities or questions you’re going to use in class. When deciding what to ask or what to have students do, ask yourself:
What are the most important things students should learn from this class session?
What misconceptions or difficulty do students commonly have as it relates to this content?
What kind of practice can students do that will help them prepare for an upcoming assignment or assessment?
Use the answers to these questions to choose activities and questions which will give students opportunities to meaningfully engage with the material. Students should engage in work that gives them feedback on how well they are understanding the material and practice in using the skills important for succeeding in your course. Classroom Assessment Techniques are one type of activity that works particularly well as you are getting started with active learning. Using these strategies, or variations on them, can help you hold your students’ attention and help them better retain and transfer knowledge and skills from your course.
Explain your rationale to students
At the beginning of the semester and before you begin your first (few) activities, tell students why you’re having them engaged in activities during class. This is particularly important if active learning is not common in your discipline.
This explanation doesn’t need to be long or involved and can be as simple as, “In this course, I’d like you to be successful approaching your homework and exams, so we’re going to be doing in-class practice that I hope will make these easier for you. You’ll often be working in pairs or groups so you can bounce ideas off of each other and ask each other questions.”
Develop a facilitation approach
How you choose to facilitate active learning will be influenced by the context of your course (e.g. the number of students, the type of furniture in your class, time available) and the type of activity. Students can work individually, in pairs or in small groups. These groups can be predetermined by the instructor or determined in the moment based on proximity.
One of the most effective approaches is to give students a short period of time to think on their own (30-90 seconds is often enough) and then have them work in pairs or small groups. If you are in a classroom with fixed seats, it is still possible for students to work together, but you may need to encourage students to move themselves to get into groups. If you have a student sitting alone, it is often easier and more effective to ask a group to invite an individual to join them rather than direct that individual to join a group near them.
Keep students on task
One of the most important elements of successful active learning is students feeling a sense of accountability for participating in the assigned activity. If they don’t, they can easily get off task or choose not to do what you have asked. One of the most common questions instructors have is, “Do I have to grade all of this in-class work?” The short answer is no. You can choose to grade in class work, but it isn’t necessary as a way to hold students accountable.
For example, a sense of accountability can be established by notifying students before they start working on the activity that everyone should be prepared to share when the large group reconvenes. Then, when you reconvene the large group, randomly call on an individual or group to share what they discussed, or how they approached the problem. You can also listen in on small group conversations and if you hear a particularly common or interesting question, call on that group to share their question to begin a larger discussion.
Students also tend to stay on task when they feel the value and relevance of the task they’ve been asked to complete. When tasks are similar or clearly related to upcoming assignments or assessments, students are intrinsically motivated to practice in order to prepare for that graded work.
Finally, keep activities short. Give students a clear goal or task, rather than a vague instruction like “discuss your answer”. Tell students you’re going to give them a limited and specified time to work. If they end up needing more time, provide it if possible.
After students have worked in small groups, take time to provide a conclusion to the activity. This wrap-up is often where the most important learning take place.
You can ask one group of students to share their reasoning, ask others if they had alternative ideas or approaches. If a response reflects a common misunderstanding, invite other students to help explain why this line of reasoning is incorrect. You can also not just correct the response, but help them to understand how experts approach the problem.
You can also highlight the ways that the activity reflects how they will be asked to use the information on an upcoming assignment. For example, you might say “We just walked through an analysis of this journal article, first looking at the methods and data tables, then critiquing the conclusions and argument. This is the same approach you’ll be asked to use as you read articles on your own and is the kind of reasoning I’ll expect on the paper due next week.”
Start how you wish to continue
If you plan to use active learning strategies in your course, make sure to use them consistently throughout the semester, starting the first week. Students quickly get into habits about how to behave in class, so set expectations early about participating and engaging in class. If students are resistant at first, keep encouraging them so you establish norms for their participation.
Gather and record feedback
Especially when trying new activities, develop a habit of recording and collecting feedback about how activities go. Save space in your notes, either paper or electronic, where you record this. It might be as simple as noting when a question or activity completely confused students or how long an activity took.
In order to refine your activities or facilitation, ask students for feedback. They can tell you if the activities are too long or short, too easy or too hard and whether they are finding them valuable. Besides giving you helpful feedback, this can also provide an opportunity to reiterate why you’re doing active learning if you have a group of resistant students.
Active learning strategies can pose problems for instructors who are new to using them and for students who have had negative experiences with them prior to your class. What follows are common issues you may experience and some suggested solutions.
Challenge 1 - Students are resistant to engaging in the activities
Begin using active learning strategies early in the term. Introduce the concept on the first day of class and let students know that they will be expected to participate in such activities throughout the course.
Use active learning frequently–at least once a class period initially. Vary the active learning strategies you use. After the first several sessions, students will understand that you're serious about active learning and will accept their role as participants more readily.
Give clear instructions. State the goal students should meet, how much time they have for the activity, what procedures they should follow, and with whom they should partner (i.e., "turn to the person next to you" or "form groups of four with the people nearest you.") Put directions for in-class activities on a PowerPoint slide so that students have something to refer to as they begin the activity.
Explain to students why you're using active learning and the benefits they can expect from it.
Be committed to your choice to use active learning and communicate that confidently to students. Students will be put at ease if they understand that you're in charge and have good reasons for what you're doing.
Start small and simple. Use low-impact strategies such as think-pair-share or in-class writing exercises. These strategies are only a few minutes, and are "low stakes" for students who may be unsure or uncomfortable. As you and your students gain experience, you may decide to graduate to more involved activities.
Challenge 2 - Activities take too much time
Use strategies to efficiently reconvene the large group at the end of active learning activities. These might be ringing a bell or flashing the lights to gain students' attention.
Consider your learning objectives carefully. Based on them, what content is most important for students to master? Consider removing non-essential content so you can spend more time on activities that lead to better student learning.
Consider what content you must cover in class and what content students can cover outside of class by themselves. It may be necessary to create assignments, activities, or other support to help students master material on their own.
Attempt to use one or two brief active learning strategies during your lectures. Space the activities throughout the lecture to break it up and keep students engaged.
Attempt to use classroom assessment techniques to determine what students are learning and what is confusing them. These can help you decide when (and whether) you need to spend more time working with particular material.
Avoid racing through material to finish it all by the end of the period. This is almost always counterproductive. Students tend to become overwhelmed and discouraged.
Remember that just because you say it, doesn't mean they learn it. If student learning is your goal, resolve to spend more time on less material.
Challenge 3 - Students don’t want to work together
As part of your activity instructions, tell students to get into groups and first introduce each other. This sets the expectation that they may not know each other and allows them space to build rapport.
Consider your activity. Is it challenging enough to require two or more people to work on it? Does the task require that group members have differing perspectives, experiences, or knowledge? Design activities where there is genuine value in working together.
At the beginning of the semester, approach people who are working alone and either encourage them to work with a nearby group or ask the group to invite the individual to join them. Do this everyday so students know that you expect them to work together.
Consider assigning groups so students know who they are accountable to all semester.
Research and resources
Anderson, W.L., Mitchell, S.M., & Osgood, M.P. (2006). Comparison of student performance in cooperative learning and traditional lecture‐based biochemistry classes. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 33(6), 387-393.
Aparecida Tolentino Cicuto, C. & Baptista Torres, B. (2016). Implementing an Active Learning Environment To Influence Students’ Motivation in Biochemistry. Journal of Chemical Education 93(6), 1020-1026.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(23) 8410-8415.
Kember, D. & Leung, D.Y.P. (2005). The influence of active learning experiences on the development of graduate capabilities. Studies in Higher Education 30(2) 155-170.
Videos of Active Learning in Action
Books with Activity Ideas
• Small Teaching (Lang, 2017)
• Classroom Assessment Techniques (D’Angelo and Cross, 1993)