Active and Engaged Learning

What is Active Learning?

“Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information.” Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Active or engaged learning is not always visible to professors. Highly experienced learners can be active and engaged in a 45-minute lecture, only demonstrating their engagement later when they submit brilliant papers. Most learners, however, do not yet have the experience or capacity to distract themselves from the pressing world around them to self-engage, relying only on their minds.

Thus the importance of active and learning pedagogies and strategies. We offer some of our favorites. Have one to share? Tell us!

Briefly, active, and engaged learning invites students to:

  • apply (authentic, real-world application)
  • problem-solve
  • construct knowledge through doing
  • experiment
  • discuss, debate, consider

Meaningful Active Learning:

  • explicitly meets a course or program learning objective
  • is purposeful and intentionally planned

Incorporating active learning into each class session supports students in their learning, allowing them to reflect on, apply, and work with course material and concepts.

What is Active Learning?

In their influential work Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, Bonwell and Eison defined strategies that promote active learning as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing” (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). Approaches that promote active learning focus more on developing students’ skills than on transmitting information and require that students do something—read, discuss, write—that involves higher-order thinking. They also tend to place some emphasis on students’ explorations of their own attitudes and values.

This definition is broad, and Bonwell and Eison explicitly recognize that a range of activities can fall within it. They suggest a spectrum of activities to promote active learning, ranging from very simple (e.g., pausing lecture to allow students to clarify and organize their ideas by discussing with neighbors) to more complex (e.g., using case studies as a focal point for decision-making). 

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) provide a very simple definition: active learning involves “students’ efforts to actively construct their knowledge.” This definition is supplemented by the items that the AUSSE uses to measure active learning: working with other students on projects during class; making a presentation; asking questions or contributing to discussions; participating in a community-based project as part of a course; working with other students outside of class on assignments; discussing ideas from a course with others outside of class; tutoring peers (reported in Carr et al., 2015).

Active learning, then, is commonly defined as activities that students do to construct knowledge and understanding. The activities vary but require students to do higher order thinking. Although not always explicitly noted, metacognition—students’ thinking about their own learning—is an important element, providing the link between activity and learning.

Adapted under a Creative Commons 4.0 license from: Brame, C. (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved 22 Feb. 2023 from

The Impact of Active Learning

 The evidence that active learning approaches help students learn more effectively than transmissionist approaches in which instructors rely on “teaching by telling” is robust and stretches back more than thirty years (see, for example, Bonwell and Eison, 1991). Freeman and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing “constructivist versus exposition-centered course designs” in STEM disciplines (Freeman et al., 2014). They included studies that examined the design of class sessions (as opposed to out-of-class work or laboratories) with at least some active learning versus traditional lecturing, comparing failure rates and student scores on examinations, concept inventories, or other assessments. They found that students in traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in courses with active learning (odds ratio of 1.95, Z = 10.4, P<<0.001). Further, they found that on average, student performance on exams, concept inventories, or other assessments increased by about half a standard deviation when some active learning was included in course design (weighted standardized mean difference of 0.47, Z = 9.781, P<<0.001). These results were consistent across disciplines: they observed no significant difference in the effects of active learning in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geology, math, physics, and psychology courses. The authors conclude that the evidence for the benefits of active learning are very strong, stating that, “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 being tested was clearly more beneficial.”

Adapted under a Creative Commons 4.0 license from: Brame, C. (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved 22 Feb. 2023 from

Simple Active Learning Strategies to Use in Class

Active Learning in Large Classes

Engaging Discussions

Socratic Dialogue, Jigsaw, Fish Bowl, Snow Ball, Critical Debate, and more strategies to systematically engineer discussions so they deeply engage all students.

Discussion Guidelines

Montclair State Professors Jessica Henry and Katherine Herbert offer suggestions for managing class discussion, in person and online, respectively.

Jessica Henry on full class discussion.

Katherine Herbert on effective online discussion.

Discussing Equity: Using Protocols to Deepen Conversation and Raise Intellectual Engagement

Flipped Learning Approach

Resources and References

Inside Active Learning classrooms, University of Minneapolis, (2010)

Examples of Active Learning, Boston University, (2015)

Teaching and Learning Experiences in Active Learning Classrooms, McGill University (2011)

Getting started with active learning techniques. Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation.

Writing Discussion Forum Questions (2022). Wiley University Services.

Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Brookfield, S., &; Preskill, S. (2016). The discussion book: fifty great ways to get people talking. John Wiley & Sons.

Carr, R., Palmer, S., and Hagel, P. (2015). Active learning: the importance of developing a comprehensive measure. Active Learning in Higher Education 16, 173-186.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematicsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111, 8410-8415.

Graham, Steve; Michael Hebert. (2011, December). Writing to Read: A Meta-Analysis of the Impact of Writing and Writing Instruction on Reading. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4): 710–744.

McCrindle, A. R., & Christensen, C. A. (1995). The impact of learning journals on metacognitive and cognitive processes and learning performance. Learning and Instruction, 5(2), 167–185.

Quitadamo, I. J., and Kurtz, M. J. (2007). “Learning to Improve: Using Writing to Increase Critical Thinking Performance in General Education Biology.” CBE—Life Sciences Education, 6(2): 140-154.

Last Modified: Friday, February 9, 2024 2:16 pm


For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

Creative Commons License
Teaching Resources by Montclair State University Office for Faculty Excellence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Third-party content is not covered under the Creative Commons license and may be subject to additional intellectual property notices, information, or restrictions. You are solely responsible for obtaining permission to use third party content or determining whether your use is fair use and for responding to any claims that may arise.

Creative Commons CC BY-NC-4.0