Active Learning Strategies

Published: Tues., February 6, 2018

What is Active Learning?

You may have heard the term active learning before, but you might not know what it actually means. “Anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” is a form of active learning. Active learning requires students to meaningfully interact with the course content, think about meaning, or investigate connections with their prior knowledge. Therefore, active learning can include a wide range of experiences and activities such as small group work, debates, problem-based learning, or large class discussions. Active learning is most effective when it involves more than one instructional strategy—rather than being expected to sit and listen, students are encouraged to think critically about the information, interact with others, share their thoughts, and create new ideas.

Every college student has attended many, many lectures because it’s very common for instructors to communicate their knowledge to their students in this way. A lecture is often characterized by students passively listening and maybe taking notes. However, by incorporating questions and activities, you can easily involve students in a lecture, making it an active, student-centered experience. Lectures may also feature active learning, where students are listening to the instructor, but also practicing problem-solving and teaching their fellow students.

Benefits of Active Learning

Research has shown that active learning experiences improve student learning (e.g., Freeman et al., 2014; Prince, 2004). Something as simple as taking breaks every fifteen minutes during a lecture and allowing students to compare and discuss their notes can improve student comprehension and retention of lecture information (e.g., Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987; Ruhl, Hughes, & Gajar, 1990). Allowing students to work on small group activities during class (e.g., Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998), participate in classroom discussions (e.g., Roehling et al., 2011), and solve problems (e.g., Davidson, Major, & Michaelsen, 2014) are all examples of active learning strategies that are linked with increased academic achievement, such as improved quiz scores or higher course grades. These findings provide compelling evidence for the effectiveness of active learning experiences and the need for instructors to incorporate these strategies into their classrooms when appropriate.

In addition to these benefits to your students' learning, many instructors find that students enjoy classes that incorporate active learning. Because active learning asks students to be involved in the class, these strategies can help them feel more engaged in class and more excited about participating in the class. Active learning can often be used to break up a lecture. Most students will struggle to focus on a 50-minute lecture with no interruption, however a short active learning activity can also be used to break up that lecture into more reasonable parts.

Strategies for the Classroom

Integrating active learning into your classroom, doesn't need to take a lot of time or effort. Below are some strategies that instructors in all fields could implement in their classroom.

    • Think-Pair-Share

Begin by posing a question to your students. The type of question you ask is important; one that requires considerable thought and reflection is best (as opposed to a simple knowledge question). Give your students sufficient time to THINK about their individual answer. You may want to ask them to write down some of their thoughts. Next, assign students to PAIR up with a fellow student to discuss answers their notes. Finally, give student pairs a chance to SHARE their answers with the class. This technique can help students feel more comfortable participating, which increases discussion in your classroom. When more students share their thoughts about the content, you can assess how effective your instruction was for helping them understand the material.

    • Minute Paper

Midway through a lecture or discussion, ask your students to write (or type) for one minute, summarizing what they’ve learned so far. You can collect the resulting Minute Papers to assess if their learning is on track, or you can ask them to share their answer with their neighbor. It's also appropriate to conduct a Minute Paper exercise at the end of a lesson, either to summarize what they learned or to share with you what’s still unclear. This variation is sometimes called a Muddiest Point. Using this technique allows you to assess the the effectiveness of your classroom activities and identify topics for which you may need to address.

    • Case Studies

Case studies are situational stories used to show students how theories or concepts can be applied to real-world situations. Present small teams of students with a complex open-ended problem in your field that may have no clear solution. The situations typically start with “What would you propose if...” or “How would you figure out...” Ask the students to answer the question using the theories or concepts you’ve learned about in class. You can give students the problem very early in the class period—in the absence of further information—and encourage them to identify the information they’ll need to solve the problem. This type of approach requires more planning and preparation from the instructor to ensure the problem and other learning materials are sufficient for student success and that the exercise addresses the learning objectives of the course. Fortunately, many case studies are published in texts and online that you can adapt for your students.

    • Jigsaw

Imagine you’re starting a new unit of your course which features a multi-step process or multiple viewpoints your students should consider. Using a jigsaw activity helps students learn a topic and then teach one another with your guidance. Begin by assigning students into groups. Members of each group will be assigned to study one part of the larger lesson, discussing it within their group and learning all they can about it. Later that day or during the next class period, new groups are formed. Each new group has one member from each of the old groups. Each member then is responsible for teaching the new group members about what they have learned. This strategy is a form of Peer Teaching. Following the group work, you would conduct a brief lecture or lead a class discussion to review and integrate the main points, and address student questions.

Choose a strategy that you feel comfortable with and that would make sense in your classroom and try it out.


Boswell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. Washington, DC: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Smith, K. (1998). Cooperative learning returns to college: What evidence is there that it works? Change, 30(4), 26-35.

Lang, J. M. (2008). On Course. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.

Michaelsen, L. K., Davidson, N., & Major, C. H. (2014). Team-based learning practices and principles in comparison with cooperative learning and problem-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3-4), 57-84.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.

Roehling, P. V., Vander Kooi, T. L., Dykema, S., Quisenberry, B., & Vandlen, C. (2011). Engaging the millennial generation in class discussions. College Teaching, 59, 1-6.

Ruhl, K. L., Hughes, C. A., & Gajar, A. H. (1990). Efficacy of the pause procedure for enhancing learning disabled and nondisabled college students' long-and short-term recall of facts presented through lecture. Learning Disability Quarterly, 13(1), 55-64.

Ruhl, K. L., Hughes, C. A., & Schloss, P. J. (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, 10(1), 14-18.