Active learning is any approach to instruction in which all students are asked to engage in the learning process. Active learning stands in contrast to "traditional" modes of instruction in which students are passive recipients of knowledge from an expert.
Active learning can take many forms and be executed in any discipline. Commonly, students will engage in small or large activities centered around writing, talking, problem solving, or reflecting.
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- 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 approaches range from short, simple activities like journal writing, problem solving and paired discussions, to longer, involved activities or pedagogical frameworks like case studies, role plays, and structured team-based learning.
Samples of Active Learning Activities
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 strategies does not require abandoning the lecture format. Rather, adding small active learning strategies can make lecturing more effective for student learning. These activities give students just a minute or two to check their understanding of recent material, practice a skill or highlight gaps in their knowledge before giving an explanation.
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 (Prince, 2004).
As one example, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has examined the engagement experiences of hundreds of thousands of students from over 1600 colleges and universities since 2000. The consistent results of these data show that hands-on, integrative, and collaborative active learning experiences lead to high levels of student achievement and personal development (Kuh, O’Donnell, and Schneider, 2017).
"My teaching evaluations have gone way up." - David Saftner, Associate Professor, Civil Engineering
As another example, a comprehensive meta-analysis of 225 science, engineering and mathematics education studies by Freeman et al. (2014) demonstrated that active learning can significantly increase course grades over didactic methods and is particularly effective in small classes of 50 students or fewer. In their analysis, students in courses without active learning were 1.5 times more likely to fail the course than students in courses with active learning.
Students in courses without active learning were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students with active learning.
Finally, research reveals a mutual influence between active learning and emotional states. Active learning can positively affect student motivation (Owens, Sadler, Barlow, & Smith-Walters, 2017); in turn, the overall impact of motivation moderates key learning characteristics such as attention and memory consolidation (Cavenagh, 2016).
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?
"Choosing a good task is really at the heart of engaging students well." - David Langley, Education Program Specialist, CEI
Use the answers to these questions to choose activities and questions which will give students opportunities to meaningfully engage with the material. You want to have students 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.
"Students are not stupid and they're perfectly aware of when we are using meaningless, time-sucking activities in class." - Sehoya Cotner, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences
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 nearby group.
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, 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. Another way is to use clicker devices or paper clickers as a way for students to report their response.
"Don't feel you have to control everything and don't think you have to know everything ahead of time. Let it run and see what happens." - Sheryl Breen, Associate Professor, POLSCI
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 general 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 takes place.
You can ask one group of students to share their reasoning or 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.
"If you try using group work for the first time on the fourth week or the eighth week - it's gonna crash. But if you do it on the first day, on the first activity? They'll listen to you." - Murray Jensen, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences
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, to record your thoughts about an activity after you’ve done it. This might be as simple as noting when a question or activity 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.
"One of the biggest challenges is discomfort... I think that can be overcome by just disclosing why we're doing this and the evidence based behind it." - Katharine Nelson, Assistant Professor, Psychiatry
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. For example, you might ring a bell or flash the lights to gain students' attention.
Consider your learning objectives carefully. Based on them, what content is most important for students to master? Remove 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. 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 be working with others whom they do not know and allows them space to build rapport.
Consider whether your activity is 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 students to a single group so students know who they are accountable to all semester.
Research and resources
Videos of Active Learning in Action
Books with Activity Ideas
• Small Teaching (Lang, 2016)
• Classroom Assessment Techniques (Angelo and Cross, 1993)
Cavenagh, S. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia Press.
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. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111
Kuh, G., O’Donnell, K., & Schneider, C. (2017). HIPs at ten. Change, 49(5), 8-16.
Owens, D., Sadler, T., Barlow, A., & Smith-Walters, C. (2017). Student motivation from and resistance to active learning rooted in essential science practices. Research in Science Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-017-9688-1
Prince, M. (2004) Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education 93 (3) 223-231. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2004.tb00809.x