Active engagement with the material improves learning

Active learning refers to a broad range of teaching strategies that position students as active participants in their learning during class time and beyond (Tanner, 2013). Typically, these strategies involve students interacting with peers or the instructor but may also involve individual work and/or reflection. Actively engaging with material can strengthen encoding and can provide memorable cues for retrieving information over time, resulting in deeper learning.

When contrasted to traditional lecture where students passively receive information from the instructor, active learning has been shown to improve student performance, decrease failure rates, and narrow or close achievement gaps (Hake, 1998; Prince, 2004; Deslauriers, 2011; Freeman, 2014; Waldrop, 2015; Nehm, 2022; Ting, 2022).

 In this video, UMN faculty and staff describe why they use active learning.

Strategies to employ to use active learning in your teaching

Active learning strategies exist on a continuum from short interventions that take up five minutes or less of class time, to structured approaches that devote 40% or more of class time to active engagement. While there is evidence to suggest engaging in as little as 10% of class time with active learning will improve student outcomes (Freeman, 2014), research suggests that using more active learning is better for improving student outcomes (Nehm, 2022).

  • Incorporate classroom assessment techniques (CATs). CATs are a great way to get started using active learning within a lecture-based instructional approach (Angelo, 1993). Some easy-to-implement CATS are described below:
    • Think-Pair-Share. In a think-pair-share students are given a question to ponder and given time to think of their answer. Students then turn to a neighbor and share their answers with each other. The instructor can ask for a few pairs to share what they discussed with the class, or use more equitable and less anxiety-producing alternatives to the whole-class sharing that better represent the richness of the pair discussions (Cooper, 2021).
    • Write-Pair-Share. In this think-pair-share variation students are asked to write down their response to the posed question and given time to do so. Then they turn to a neighbor to share. Writing provides students something to refer to when asked to discuss, which can be helpful for introverted students and multilingual learners.
    • 3-2-1 activity. This activity works well at the end of a class session or section. Ask students to write down three new things that they learned, two possible applications of what they learned, and one question they still have. Collect the responses to check student understanding and address common questions.
    • Difficulties/Muddiest point. At the end of a class session ask students to write down their muddiest point from the class which is an area of confusion that they have about the material. Collect these and address common areas of confusion before or at the next class session.
  • Use group or cooperative learning. (Johnson, 2007; Tanner, 2013; Johnson, 2014). Students interacting with their peers is a common approach used to achieve active learning. Groups can work together for a single class activity or be assigned to work cooperatively together for several class periods or the entire term. Students engaged in cooperative learning (compared to learning individually) have been found to:
    • Use higher-level reasoning skills more frequently
    • Be more accurate and creative when problem solving
    • Exhibit greater willingness to take on difficult tasks and persist
    • Experience more intrinsic motivation
    • Better able to transfer learning from one situation to another
    • Spend more time on task

For more information on using student teams to improve learning visit Faculty Guide to Team Projects.

  • Use structured active learning approaches. There are several structured frameworks that exist for converting a primarily lecture-based course to a primarily active learning approach. These include:
    • Team Based Learning (TBL). TBL consists of assigning preparatory work before class, administering a readiness assessment test on the preparatory work, and having students work in assigned teams on problems or case studies in class. Instructors provide feedback to students on their in-class work (Burgess, 2020).
    • Flipped Classroom Approach. A flipped classroom approach refers to having students initially engage with material outside of the classroom, in the form of a video or reading, and then having students use class-time for working on problems in class where they can benefit from the support of peers and the instructor (Jensen, 2015).
    • Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). POGIL is a student-centered instructional strategy where students work in small teams on learning activities designed to guide them through the learning cycle of Exploration, Concept Invention, and Application (Walker, 2017).
    • Problem-Based Learning (PBL). PBL exposes students to a problem or case before they have learned all the material needed to solve the case. Students then actively identify what they need to learn in order to solve the problem, engage with that new material, and then discuss their solutions with feedback from the instructor (Schmidt, 2011).