Active Learning

Active learning is an instructional approach that requires students to both “do” and “think” about what they’re learning.

On this page:

What is active learning?

In order for students to learn they need to make meaning of the material presented to them.

Constructivist learning theory (see Constructivism) emphasizes that students build their own knowledge, rather than just storing received information. Students must actively think about and connect new ideas and experiences to previous ones and often revise their previous understandings. This requires active work, not just passive reception of information.

Why use active learning?

While traditional lectures are efficient at delivering information from one (faculty) to many (students), they are often inefficient at engaging students to create meaning, especially at higher levels of cognition.

An active learning framework

There are many ways to incorporate active learning into your course. For these to be effective, however, three key elements need to be in place (Fink, 2003).

  • First, students still need to learn material but can do so by accessing information and ideas before and sometimes during class. Without learning content knowledge first students will be unable to actively work with ideas.
  • Second, students must “do” or “observe” to gain rich learning experiences.
  • Finally, and most importantly, students must reflect on what they’ve done to consolidate their ideas and make meaning out of the experience. You should build reflection into each activity instead of hoping it will occur.
Fink's Holistic View of Active Learning

Active learning techniques

Active engagement activities can exist both within lectures and alongside them.

Using educational technology to engage students

Educational technology is often used to overcome the difficulties of implementing active learning due to:

  • Time.
  • Physical barriers in the classroom.
  • Ratio of students to faculty.
  • Complexity of active learning tasks.

If used appropriately, educational technology can support both teaching and learning by expanding experiences and learning materials, supporting learning outside the classroom and potentially increasing student engagement and motivation.

Addressing active learning concerns

The idea of implementing active learning in a large course or with inexperienced students will feel daunting for most faculty. We address many of these concerns and offer potential solutions.

Additional resources

  • Agile Learning
    Blog by Derek Bruff on Topics in Teaching & Technology; Blog posts are categorized and presented in a user-friendly sidebar on the side of the page, making it easy to narrow the scope of the posts you see. Categories include: assessment, course design, evaluating teaching, pedagogical change, productivity, and student motivation, just to name a few.
  • Active Learning for the College Classroom (Cal State LA, Dept. of Chemistry & Biochemistry)
    List of 29 specific techniques for active learning to use in the college classroom, organized by activities for individual students and for groups.
  • Learning through Digital Media: Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy 
    Nearly 200-page book featuring brief articles presenting the findings of experiments conducted at The New School on learning through digital media.
  • How Can You Incorporate Active Learning into Your Classroom? (University of Michigan CRLT)
    List of several active learning activities mapped on a spectrum indicating complexity and time commitment.  

Literature

  • Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wi Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bas.
  •  Bonwell, C. C. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. The George Washington University, ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. Retrieved from Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED336049
  • Boyle, E. A., Hainey, T., Connolly, T. M., Gray, G., Earp, J., Ott, M., ... & Pereira, J. (2016). An update to the systematic literature review of empirical evidence of the impacts and outcomes of computer games and serious games. Computers & Education, 94, 178-192.
  • Brame, C. A. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C. : National Academy Press.
  • Brame, C. J. (2015). Test-enhanced learning: the potential for testing to promote greater learning in undergraduate science courses. CBE-Life Sciences Education.
  • Finelli, C. J., Nguyen, K., DeMonbrun, M., Borrego, M., Prince, M., Husman, J., ... & Waters, C. K. (2018). Reducing Student Resistance to Active Learning: Strategies for Instructors. Journal of College Science Teaching47(5), 80-91.
  • Fink, L. D. (2003). A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning. University of Oklahoma27, p11.
  • Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Freeman, S. E. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 8410-8415.
  • Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American journal of Physics66(1), 64-74.
  • Handelsman, J. M. (2007). Scientific Teaching. Macmillan.
  • Honeycutt, B. (2016). Five Ways to Motivate Unprepared Students in the Flipped Classroom. Faculty Focus, April, 4TH.
  • Lathram, B. ,. (2016). Preparing student for a project-based world. Retrieved from Getting Smart: http://www.gettingsmart.com/
  • Managing Classroom Conflict (2004). Center for Faculty Excellence – University of North Carolina, 22. https://s3.amazonaws.com/vu-wp0/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2017/03/01130813/Managing_Classroom_Conflict-Center_for_Faculty_Excellence-UNC_Chapel_Hill.pdf
  • Michael, J. (2006). Where's the evidence that active learning works?. Advances in physiology education30(4), 159-167.
  • Morrissette, P.J. (2001). Reducing Incivility in the University/College Classroom. International Electronic Journal for Leadership in Learning – University of Calgary Press, 5 (4). Retrieved from https://cetl.olemiss.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/83/2016/03/ClassroomIncivility.pdf
  • Novak, J. D. (2008). The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them. Pensacola: Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.
  • Backlund, P., & Hendrix, M. (2013, September). Educational games-are they worth the effort? A literature survey of the effectiveness of serious games. In Games and virtual worlds for serious applications (VS-GAMES), 2013 5th international conference on (pp. 1-8). IEEE.
  • Rowe, M. B. (1980). Pausing principles and their effects on reasoning in science. New directions for community colleges, 27-34.
  • Ruhl, K. L. (1987). Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 14-18.ley & Sons.