diverse group of six students in a computer lab

Active Learning

Active Learning is a student-centered approach in which students engage in the learning process. Instructors are facilitators and students are encouraged to interact, engage and reflect. 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.

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

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.

Examples of Active Learning Techniques

In order to achieve predetermined learning goals and objectives, instructors should identify and employ instructional strategies to best facilitate the course and 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.

  • Polling: Instructors can use various technologies like Poll Everywhere or Kahoot to include quick checks for understanding to assess students’ information retrieval ability or determine prior knowledge. Polls often take the form of brief quiz questions. Students can use their phones or laptops to respond while the instructor can access and display real-time feedback. Visit our polling page or sign up for a polling workshop for more information.
  • Lecture- pause: As simple as it sounds, instructors can use brief pauses as an active learning strategy. A brief pause can provide an opportunity for students to reflect and process the course concepts introduced. The instructor may deliberately pause 3 or 4 times during the course of a lecture. During 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.
  • Intentional mistakes: Instructors provide learning materials that purposely contain mistakes. Students are instructed to identify and correct the mistakes. The idea behind this is that learning from mistakes is a critical part of the process and forces students to actively engage with the material presented. The instructor can speak about why they are common and reinforce the process of finding correct answers.
  • Gamification: 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.
  • Mind Mapping: Mind mapping or concept mapping is a way to illustrate the relationships and connections between terms and concepts. Developing a mind map helps students identify and organize their prior knowledge and new information in a meaningful way. This will help them visualize their thinking and find connections between ideas. Visit our mind mapping page or sign up for a mind mapping workshop for more information.
  • Case-based learning: Case-based learning uses 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.
  • Minute papers: 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.

There are many other active learning techniques that can be used in your classroom. As you begin to incorporate active learning strategies, begin to think about your learning objectives. What do you want your students to be able to do once they complete the modules? How do you want to assess your student learning? Then choose an active learning strategy that can help you achieve your learning objectives. Finally, you can consult with instructional designers at the ITDS group to help you design and implement active learning strategies for your courses.

References and Resources
  • Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
  • 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.
  • Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 19251–19257.
  • 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.
  • Grunert, Judith. (1997). The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co, Inc, 1997.
  • Prince, M. (2004) Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education 93 (3) 223-231.
  • Getting started with active learning techniques  from Cornell University Center for teaching and Innovation: https://teaching.cornell.edu/getting-started-active-learning-techniques
  • How can you incorporate active learning into your classroom from the Center for research on Learning and Teaching from the university of Michigan: https://crlt.umich.edu/sites/default/files/Active_Learning_Continuum_CRLT.pdf