Group of students in a computer lab

Active Learning

Active Learning has been researched, discussed, and implemented for a number of decades. It can be defined in a variety of ways, but all definitions converge around the concept of students actively engaged in their learning, as opposed to passively listening or reading. In other words, when students are involved in coursework that has them interacting with each other or responding to the course material in a manner that engages them beyond the traditional lecture, they are actively learning.

Recent studies and contemporary learning theory critique the impact of the traditional lecture on student performance and promote active learning approaches. (Freeman et al., 2014). Whereas Active Learning strategies and techniques can help increase student engagement in the coursework, assist students in gaining a deeper understanding of the material, and strengthen their problem-solving skills (Grunert, 1997).

students working together around a computer

The Instructional Design and Technology Services Group has compiled successful strategies and examples of research that add to the growing base of knowledge supporting active learning.

Successful Strategies

As mentioned on our Instructional Strategies page, in order to achieve predetermined learning goals and objectives, instructors need to identify and employ appropriate instructional strategies to best facilitate the course and to engage students throughout their learning experiences. Active Learning can be successfully implemented through a variety of strategies and techniques. What follows are a few examples and brief descriptions of how to use them:


Collaborative Note Taking: The instructor deliberately pauses 3 or 4 times during the course of a lecture. At each pause, students take about 2-3 minutes to summarize what they’ve learned and organize their class notes. Students are encouraged to share notes with each other, which helps in figuring out the information that’s missing or confusing.


The instructor gives prompts in class. Students are asked to write short responses to demonstrate how they will apply their knowledge in the circumstances described in the prompts. A minute paper is also a good way to get students to reflect at the end of the class. Students can write down their biggest takeaways, any remaining concepts that might be confusing, or any feedback they have for the class.  


The instructor provides learning materials that purposely contain commonly misunderstood mistakes. Students are instructed to identify and correct the mistakes. One concept behind this is that learning from mistakes is a critical part of the process and by incorporating common mistakes intentionally, the instructor can speak to why they are common and reinforce the process of finding correct answers.


This dynamic strategy has proven to increase engagement and allow learners to practice skills, acquire knowledge and learn concepts while in an immersive environment. Games can promote communication and collaboration, often through narratives or simulations. Technologies such as, Memrise, Sololearn, and Tinycards provide interactive environments for students to learn languages, coding or art history.


Concept mapping is a way to illustrate the relationships and connections between terms and concepts. Developing a concept map helps students to identify and organize the knowledge and information in a meaningful way. This will help them to practice their critical thinking skills and higher order of thinking as well. A good tool to try is LucidChart.


Instructors can use various technologies like Poll Everywhere or kahoot to pose online quizzes. These quiz questions could be multiple-choice questions to assess student understanding of the course concepts. Students can use their phones or laptops to respond to the questions. The instructor will display the real-time feedback.


The Online Learning Consortium defines Discussion-based Teaching as “an instructional approach that prioritizes learner acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes through discourse rather than passive approaches that focus on lecture, reading, or viewing”. With Discussion-based Teaching, learners engage by actively listening and contributing as opposed to passively digesting information via a lecture (Hall, 2015).

One example – the Harkness Table – is a face-to-face teaching method designed to move the instructor to the role of facilitator. This method requires small groups of students (roughly 8 – 12) to gather around a round table to share their thoughts and ideas on a discussion topic. The Harkness Table is meant to encourage equality, enable introverted students to speak up, and prevent other students from dominating conversations. More details please see: The Harkness Discussion & “Round Table” Guidelines (Heick, 2015).


Case-based teaching strategies use real-life learning scenarios to promote active student learning. Often in the form of narratives, cases simulate actual events and facilitate problem-solving and critical thinking in students.


The Jigsaw strategy uses a small group collaborative approach that gives each student a significant role in learning course material. A jigsaw puzzle analogy is used as the foundation for this method – each piece is critical to the completion of the whole. The instructor divides the class into groups (usually 4-6 students) and breaks the assignment into smaller segments. Each student is given a specific segment and each element is important to the overall assignment. Once students have completed a segment, they are placed into a separate group with other students who worked on the same segment. These “Expert” groups refine the understanding of their portion of the assignment. Students then return to their original groups and share their new “expertise” with the other members. An assessment is given at the end of the overall lesson in order to make sure that students understand the information that was contributed by each member.

In Practice

A great many faculty have used Active Learning strategies in their teaching and not realized those techniques were related to AL. Some strategies may seem unfamiliar and more challenging to put into practice, while others are very commonly used. Further information can be found on our Instructional Strategies page. We have also created a range of Practical Teaching Guides for faculty to use in the classroom. Below are a variety of scenarios where AL techniques might be used to foster engagement and motivation.

  • Teaching large lecture classes: Polling, Gamification, Lecture Pause, Think-Pair-Share, Minute Paper, Group Discussion
  • Teaching first year students: Gamification, Didactic Questions, Blogs or Journals, Think-Pair-Share, Minute Paper, Jigsaw
  • Teaching Seminar Classes (graduate students): Group Discussion, Case-based Teaching, Group Work/Projects, Statement Correction
  • Effectively integrating group work: Group Discussion, Case-based Teaching, Jigsaw, Group Projects, Strip Sequence
  • Teaching STEM classes: Demonstrations, Gamification, Field Experience, Case-based Teaching, Problem-Based Learning
  • Using formative assessment (getting feedback from students): Polling, Gamification, Lecture Pause, Think-Pair-Share, Minute Paper
Active Learning Spaces

Active Learning can be applied to any class size. There are strategies that work better in small classes, but many can be implemented in large classes as well including large lecture classes. Techniques that involve students talking to each other, working in groups, or responding to questions through in-class writing or polling can be integrated into almost any class.

Furthermore, a classroom does not need to have a high degree of technology in order for faculty to implement many of the AL strategies we discuss here. A standard classroom with movable furniture can be adapted to incorporate most Active Learning techniques. Recent studies indicate that the combination of these two elements (furniture on wheels, and the use of AL strategies) can produce higher engagement and better outcomes than the use of high tech tools (studies cited in Baepler, et. al. 2016). The authors also found that faculty who incorporated AL techniques in a more conventional classroom saw better outcomes than when they just lectured in a high tech Active Learning space (Baepler, et. al 2016).

That said, many universities continue to re-design traditional classrooms by integrating new and emerging technologies in order to facilitate the adoption of AL strategies.

Here are some examples of Active Learning spaces at Montclair State and other institutions:


Montclair State University’s School of Communication and Feliciano School of Business


Indiana University’s Multi Purpose Active Learning Classrooms


Rutgers University, New Brunswick Campus’ Active Learning Center and Multipurpose Room


George Mason University’s Floor Plans of various Active Learning Classrooms

We have more ideas for active learning spaces on our Practical Teaching Guides page, under Optimize Your Learning Space.

Other Active Learning Spaces found in a general Google search.


The results of the research on Active Learning have been consistent across disciplines: The effects of various strategies show a marked increase in student performance and engagement and contribute to greater learning outcomes overall.


For more detailed information on active learning research, please visit our References page.