Active Learning

The guide below introduces the concept of active learning and outlines best practices for its implementation, which can help students make connections between their prior knowledge and new concepts and meet their learning objectives.

What is active learning?

Active learning is a term used to describe instructional strategies that promote students’ active participation in knowledge construction processes. Such strategies may include hands-on activities, brief writing and discussion assignments, problem solving tasks, information gathering and synthesis, question generation, and reflection-based activities, among others. Together, these approaches seek to engage learners’ higher order thinking skills through the production and articulation of knowledge, as opposed to through the passive transmission of facts and ideas.

Active learning strategies are built upon constructivist theories of learning, which emphasize the importance of building connections between one’s prior knowledge and new experiences and concepts. As such, active learning tasks are designed to tease out learners’ current understanding, make that understanding explicit, and then create opportunities for learners to integrate new knowledge into their understanding.

Typically, active learning strategies involve a mixture of individual and collaborative tasks, giving students the chance to reflect or predict outcomes, and then to share and discuss their ideas with peers. Activities can last anywhere from mere minutes to large segments of a class period; the point is simply to activate learners’ cognitive processes while they are in class. The information below will help you design and implement strategies that support this decidedly broad category of instructional methods.

What are the benefits?

Active learning helps students reflect on their understanding by encouraging them to make connections between their prior knowledge and new concepts. Often, active learning tasks ask students to make their thinking explicit, which also allows instructors to gauge student learning. Although most of the literature on active learning has focused on STEM disciplines, research suggests that active learning may benefit students in any field, particularly students who have had fewer educational opportunities, or encounters with active learning in high school. Several studies have shown that students in active learning classrooms have a lower rate of failure, and perform better on assessments than students in a traditional lecture.

Best practices

Because active learning encompasses so many different varieties of classroom activity, it is important to keep in mind a few core principles when designing active learning tasks:

  1. Active learning tasks should help your students meet their learning objectives
  2. Active learning tasks should create a low bar for student participation
  3. Active learning tasks should provide students with feedback on their learning

Help students meet their learning objectives

Above all, active learning tasks should target specific learning objectives. That is, they should help students develop the knowledge and skills that they are expected to acquire in your course. Identifying an argument, using evidence to support a claim, organizing information, and defining a given problem are all skills that support complex learning objectives, such as writing and problem solving. Active learning tasks should aim to provide students with opportunities to practice and gain proficiency in such skills.

Encourage student participation

Active learning tasks should provide a low barrier-to-entry, and invite involvement among all students. Therefore, tasks should be simple or discrete. For more complex tasks, instructors should provide clear instructions that outline (and model) how students will participate in the activity. How will students engage with each other in the activity? What are the ground rules or guidelines for group interaction? Answering these questions explicitly will help students understand what is expected of their participation.

Provide opportunities for feedback and reflection

Ideally, feedback should not only target the skills and knowledge students are expected to acquire from the course learning objectives, it should clearly indicate how students can improve their performance or enhance their understanding of the topic at hand. While providing detailed, individual feedback is often time consuming for individual instructors, and therefore difficult to achieve in a single class period, feedback from an active learning task can come from a variety of sources. Personal Response Systems (e.g., “clickers”), for instance, can collect input on student thinking at large scale. Instructors can, in turn, compare this information with experimental data or examples of expert thinking to reveal “gaps” or discrepancies in student knowledge.

Peer-based discussions or review sessions in which students receive a rubric with which to assess their classmates’ learning also provide opportunities for students to both make their thinking explicit, and to obtain informal feedback. The purpose of feedback in such cases is to provide students with information on their understanding or performance that can guide them towards a desired learning goal. Whether it come from a digital tool such as a clicker, or from a classmate, active learning tasks should give students a sense of their learning progress, and help them hone further practice.

Examples of active learning

To be sure, there are many examples of classroom tasks that might be classified as “active learning.” Some of the most common examples include think-pair-share exercises, jigsaw discussions, and even simply pausing for clarification during a lecture. Members of the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching have created a useful list of active learning techniques, which they have sorted according to a “continuum” of complexity and time commitment. These techniques include:

  • Minute Papers: at some point during lecture, students are asked to for one or two minutes on a given topic.
  • Self-Assessment: similar to concept inventories and diagnostic assessments, these ungraded exercises, typically delivered at the beginning of a term or new unit, are used to help identify gaps in student understanding.
  • Interactive Lectures: often in the form of brief polls, these activities take place during lectures, giving students a chance to make predictions, solve short problems, etc.
  • Inquiry Learning: larger in scope, these exercises commonly involve having students conduct different aspects of scientific inquiry, such as observing phenomena, analyzing data, predicting outcomes, etc.
  • Video demonstrating active learning techniques in a large enrollment STEM course here at BU:

For a full list of techniques, download the UMich CRLT’s handout on active learning.

Quick tips for getting started with active learning

  1. Assess the needs of the class
    1. What topics or ideas do students struggle with most in your course?
    2. What data or information will help you understand what students are learning?
    3. Which active learning strategies will provide this data, and ultimately help your students meet their learning objectives?
  2. Design the activity
    1. Prepare a timeline to help you manage the activity. Will it take place in the classroom? How long will it last? What instructions will students need to participate in the activity?
    2. Establish ground rules for the activity. How should students interact with each other? What are they expected to do during the activity?
  3. Evaluate the activity
    1. Consider any roadblocks or challenges that you and your students experienced in carrying out the activity. How might these be overcome?
    2. Elicit feedback from students on whether or not the activity assisted in their learning. Did they find the activity helpful?
    3. Assess the usefulness of the information the activity provided you. Did the students improve their understanding of the topic or concept? Can you use data from the activity to make further improvements to future activities or instruction in general?

Additional Resources

Overview and Examples of Active Learning (Harvard Bok Center for Teaching and Learning)

Steps to Creating an Active Learning Environment (NYU Center for the Advancement of Teaching)

Active Learning Resources and Research (UMich Center for Research on Learning and Teaching