Inclusive Teaching Through Active Learning

Across courses of different sizes, levels and audiences (concentrators and non-concentrators), reserach suggests that students learn more in classes that integrate active learning (Freeman et al., 2014; Hake, 1998). In fact, research supporting the use of active learning is so compelling that some have suggested it is unethical for instructors to continue to use a purely lecture-based approach (Freeman et al.). Fortunately, most instructors tend to use a combination of lecture and active learning strategies (Campbell, Cabrera, Michel, & Patel, 2017; Campbell, 2023).

I have found the "pair and share" active learning technique to be incredibly effective in my courses. It helps me pace a lecture, maintain student attention, engage students, and teach material to a class where the proficiency level may vary widely among the students. - Eric Nathan, Music

What is “active learning”? The term generally refers to teaching strategies that:

  • “involve students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eisen, 1991, p. 2).
  • require “students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing” (Prince, 2004, p. 1).
  • “cognitively engage students in building understanding at the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy” i.e., critical thinking skills (National Academies, 2017, p. 3-3).

Active learning allows students to make their own sense of ideas they are encountering and to integrate ideas with what they already know. It also gives students opportunities to practice and apply course concepts, to understand what they have learned, and to identify where there is room to improve (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010; Davidson, 2017). Although simply pausing to ask for questions can achieve this goal for a single student at a time, active learning techniques are valuable for allowing a full class to check and deepen their understanding.

Active learning strategies are also an important component of inclusive teaching because they promote multiple modes of engagement to reach all students -- including historically underrepresented groups (Eddy & Hogan, 2014; Freeman et al., 2007; Freeman et al., 2014; Hake, 1998). More extensive use of active learning is associated with higher learning gains (Connell, Donovan, & Chambers, 2015), but as with any teaching strategy, quality of implementation is more important than quantity. Because any new teaching approach takes some adjustment, it works well to start small, trying one or two active learning strategies per class, before engaging in more intensive active learning.

One common misconception is that in order to implement active learning techniques, an instructor must spend all class time on student-centered activities. Although active learning is a critical teaching tool, brief lectures or explanations are also important components of many classes, especially to establish a basic understanding for students new to a subject or, for intermediate learners, to address misconceptions (Wittwer & Renkl, 2008).

Historian Nancy Jacobs uses an effective combination of lecture and active learning in her course on South Africa. For the first eight weeks of the term, students learn the history of the country through lectures and discussions. Then, for two weeks, students engage in a role play about the collapse of apartheid. She indicates that the Reacting to the Past approach is effective for teaching historical thinking, as well as "deeply empathetic learning" as students embody their roles.

How do I use an active learning approach in online and hybrid environments?
Because “active learning” refers to such a broad range of strategies, this approach is very elastic, taking very little class time or the entire class. Below, we list sample evidence-based active learning activities for a variety of class contexts, organized by in-class time commitment.

  Small Discussion Large Lecture
Low time commitment

Incorporate low-stakes writing exercises, such as entry tickets or minute papers (Angelo & Cross, 1993)


Online: Incorporate low-stakes Canvas discussions, such as those that ask students to share thoughts and opinions via text, audio, or video.

Pause periodically to allow students time to review their notes and identify questions or to compare notes with a peer. (Major, Harris, & Zakrajsek, 2016; Prince, 2004)

Online: Pause your lecture and have students ask questions via Zoom chat. Students can also write down questions that they can share later in a Canvas discussion or in Ed Discussion.

Medium time commitment

Design a gallery walk, which places prompts around the room and asks students to walk from station-to-station to synthesize written answers on large post-it sheets (Major, Harris, & Zakrajsek, 2016).

Online: Conduct a gallery walk via Google Doc. (Headers will be the stations.)

Use clicker questions  individually or as a think-pair-share.

Online: Use Zoom polling.

Ask students to put a sequence of events in order to test their understanding of historical or scientific processes (Lee, 2007)

Online: Students can engage in a sequence activity in Zoom breakout rooms.

High time commitment

Have students discuss readings or types of problems via a jigsaw (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2014).
Use team-based learning to flip your classroom so that a majority of class time is spent with students in groups working on focused tasks or problem-solving (Michaelson, Bauman-Knight, & Fink, 2003).

Online: Have students work in groups on an activity that they will later present to the class as a whole via Canvas discussions or Zoom.

Carousel brainstorm/send-a-problem: Divide students into small groups or pairs and pass a sheet of paper with prompt or problem down the row. After passing through several rounds, students report on the "best" responses (Barkley, 2010).
Online: Divide students into groups. Have each group address a prompt or problem and post their solution to a Canvas discussion. Invite students to “upvote” the best solution.

Build in role playing, like Reacting to the Past or grant review panels. 
Online: Use Zoom for synchronous discussions, Canvas for text-based role playing.

What do I need to do to teach well with active learning techniques?
Using active learning techniques in your teaching requires only a willingness to try something new in the classroom, gather feedback, and plan an activity that furthers your course learning goals. With any use of active learning, it is important that the activity be more than “busy work” or a “break from lecture.” Rather, the approach should be intentionally selected to allow students to practice a key idea or skill with peer or instructor feedback (Messineo, 2017).

Some instructors report that they need specially designed classrooms to teach using active learning strategies. For the low- and moderate-complexity strategies listed above, a purpose-built facility is not needed. For higher complexity strategies, an intentionally designed space facilitates the process, but there is mixed evidence on its necessity for improved student satisfaction and learning outcomes. Low-tech elements of active learning classrooms, such as multiple whiteboards and flexible seating to allow for collaboration, appear to be the most critical elements (Soneral & Wyse, 2017).

Another commonly cited barrier to active learning is student resistance. Student reactions to any new teaching methods are not uniform, and reactions may even vary over the term, moving, for example, from concerns about grades to peers’ involvement in activities (Ellis, 2015). Faculty’s use of specific explanation and facilitation strategies has been found to be positively associated with student participation in and feedback about active learning (Tharayil et al., 2018). Helpful strategies to mitigate resistance include (DeMonbrun et al., 2017; Wiggins et al., 2017):

  • explaining the purpose or value of an activity. If it is an activity that you have implemented in past years, student quotes about key outcomes can be particularly powerful.
  • previewing what might be challenging.
  • clearly describing the process and what students are expected to produce.
  • inviting questions.
  • walking around the room during an activity, being mindful to check in with non-participating students by asking questions or seeing if they are stuck.

Sometimes, a few vocal students may give the impression that there is more discontent than there is, so collecting student feedback (such as by an exit ticket) can give a more accurate picture of the range of student experience.

How can I best design active learning to be inclusive learning?
Instructional approaches that promote student interaction are most likely to enhance student learning in a diverse classroom (Gurin, 2000), and active learning can be a powerful way to promote that exchange. However, whether due to factors such as student-to-student climate issues or lack of participation, good ideas for active learning do not always translate to inclusive learning.  Key strategies for making it more effective to that aim include:

For teams and pairs that will be meeting over time, construct the group intentionally. One strategy is to ask students to respond to questions in a 3-2-1 format to help compose groups: (1) What are three characteristics of successful groups for you? (2) What are two strengths that you would bring to the group? (3) Who is one student in the class with whom you would or would not like to work? (adapted from Reid & Garson, 2017). Some instructors also find CATME to be a helpful tool for intentional group assignment. Although there may be times where same- or cross-identity teams are beneficial (Freeman, Theobald, Crowe, & Wenderoth, 2017), it is clear that isolating women or underrepresented groups on a team tends to negatively affect their performance and therefore, should be avoided (Meadows & Sekaquaptewa, 2013).

Professor of biology and engineering Sharon Swartz uses a survey to build teams, asking students to select topics of interest (and not of interest) and provide some background information about themselves, such as academic area. She then uses the surveys to compose the group and finds that "shy students and those who didn't know many class members no longer felt anxious about finding a group to work with, and with 'leaders' distributed among the groups, the group projects improved hugely."

Check in with the group periodically. Scheduled check-ins with group members allow faculty to make adjustments when needed and also provide some accountability for group members. Sharon Swartz (see textbox above) also distributes evaluation sheets that allow each student to assess contributions made by each member of the team in terms of (1) intellectual involvement in planning/research, (2) effort toward achieving group goals, (3) cooperation and support of others, and (4) their own contribution. She finds that “students are reassured by knowing that they will have a chance to talk about any challenges that arose in their groups.” Swartz adds, “Typically, knowing that they will be telling me about their experiences with each other ensures that everyone pulls their weight!”

Assign clear roles and expectations. Some research indicates that, especially in STEM contexts, men tend to answer more questions in group presentations, take more technical roles, and underestimate their female classmates’ performance  (Grunspan, et al., 2016; Meadows & Sekaquaptewa, 2013). However, one study promisingly suggests that showing students examples of balanced group work in advance (e.g., a video of a presentation or a sample paper) can mitigate these tendencies (Meadows, et al., 2015). Faculty may also wish to assign roles and deliberately rotate them. Defining clear expectations (both verbally and in writing) for classroom participation and group work can also help to include learners who have previously been educated in cultural contexts where active learning techniques may not be as common. 

If you would like to discuss active learning strategies for your own classroom, please contact the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning for a consultation: [email protected].

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This newsletter was originally published in March 2018 and revised in September 2020 and July 2023.