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.
Interconnection of elements in Fink's Holistic View of Active Learning: experiences (doing, observing; actual and simulated; "rich learning experiences"); information and ideas (primary and secondary; accessing them in class, out of class and online); and reflecting (on what one is learning and how one is learning; alone and with others).

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.

CEI Quick Tips

Group Work as Essential

CEI Quick Tips: Group Work as Essential for Learning

Active Learning

CEI Quick Tips: Active Learning

Running an Active Learning Classroom

CEI Quick Tips: Running an Active Learning Classroom

Using Activities

CEI Quick Tips: Using Activities

Mid-Semester Feedback

CEI Quick Tips: Mid-Semester Feedback

Different Means of Active Learning

CEI Quick Tips: Different Means of Active Learning