Active Learning

What is active learning?

“Active learning” 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, 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).

Why use active learning?

Students learn more in classes that integrate active learning -- across courses of different sizes, levels, and audiences (majors and non-majors) (Freeman et al., 2014; Hake, 1998). In fact, the data supporting the use of active learning are so compelling that some have suggested that it is unethical for instructors to continue to use a purely lecture-based approach (Freeman et al., 2014).

Active learning strategies are also an important component of inclusive teaching, because they promote the 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 misunderstanding 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). In fact, most instructors tend to use a combination of lecture and active learning strategies (Campbell, Cabrera, Michel, & Patel, 2017).

How do I use an active learning approach?

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 large and small classes, organized by in-class time commitment. 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 their understanding.

  Small Discussion Large Lecture

Low time commitment

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

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).

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).

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

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

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 spend with students in groups working on focused tasks or problem-solving (Michaelson, Bauman-Knight & Fink, 2003).

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).

What do I need to do to teach well with active learning?

The key precursors to start using active learning techniques involve only a willingness to try something new in the classroom, gather feedback, and plan an activity that furthers your 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). Helpful strategies to mitigate resistance include (DeMonbrun et al., 2017; Wiggins et al., 2017):

  • explaining the purpose or value of an activity
  • previewing what might be challenging
  • clearly describing the process and student “deliverables”
  • being available to answer questions by inviting questions or walking around the room during an activity

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.



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