Active learning is a category of teaching methods that seek to engage students in their learning.
Active learning includes a broad swath of learning activities, such as reading and reflection writing, discussion and debate, practicing skills while solving problems, and participating in simulations, role plays and case studies. The level of thinking involved often includes critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The Greenwood Dictionary of Education defines active learning as the process of:
- Having students engage in some activity that requires them to reflect upon concepts and how they make sense of those concepts.
- Requiring students to regularly assess their own degree of understanding and skill at handling concepts or problems.
- Attaining knowledge and skills by participating or contributing.
- Keeping students mentally, and often physically, active in their learning through activities that involve them in gathering information, thinking and problem solving. (Collins & O'Brien, 2003, p. 5)
Active learning is designed to:
- Provide students with opportunities for thought and reflection.
- Awaken students to their current knowledge and skills – and then enable students to build upon those knowledge and skills.
- Encourage students to engage with course content and materials, as well as with one another and the course instructor.
Adapting an active learning approach is about creating learning opportunities with these elements in mind, and there are numerous benefits to incorporating an active learning approach. Active learning allows students to engage meaningfully not only with course content but also with one another and you, the instructor. Active learning activities can be implemented to facilitate interactions between students and help them to learn about and connect with one another, thereby creating a sense of class community. While students are engaged in active learning, the instructor can often identify students' level of understanding of course content and any gaps that might exist. In addition, active engagement with course content might whet students' appetite for future course topics and concepts.
Listed below are several active learning activities that you can integrate into your lecture or session. Don’t feel limited to this list. Any level of student engagement, however brief, is a movement in the direction of active learning. For example, 15 minutes into your lecture, you may pause to ask your students to share their notes with one another – this is a form of active learning. You may also pause and ask your students to tackle a short problem or discuss a specific question about the lecture. Simple strategies such as these engage students in thinking about and trying to make sense of the lecture content. The following is a small sample of active learning activities.
Active learning strategies
Ask students what they know (or think they know) about a given topic. Students volunteer ideas, which the instructor writes on the whiteboard, including contributions that might be incorrect. The activity continues until students cannot think of anything else or until the topic is sufficiently explored for the time being. Comment on the various pieces of information that students have contributed, making connections, elaborating, and correcting any errors. When using a brainstorming activity, it is essential to acknowledge every student idea by writing it down and save any critiquing until after the initial period of idea generation.
Three step interview
Common as an ice breaker or a team-building exercise, this structure, developed by Kagan (1989), also helps students reinforce and internalize important concept-related information based on lectures or textbook material. The instructor usually poses the interview questions, focused on content material and having no right or wrong solutions. In a Three-Step Interview, one student interviews another within specified time limits (Step 1). The two then reverse roles and conduct the interview again (Step 2). Two pairs combine to form a foursome, and the students introduce to the rest of the group the ideas posed by their partners (Step 3). An extra question can be added for pairs working more rapidly than others, an “extension” or “sponge” activity recommended to reduce off-task behaviors and to allow fast-moving pairs or groups to tackle more challenging problems.
At any point during a class lecture, have students answer a short question (multiple choice, True/False, etc.) about the content provided using polling software such as iClicker or Mentimeter. Class answers can then be presented, and the correct answers reviewed together.
Pose a question and allow students a few minutes to think independently about the question. This is a key step of the activity as some students need time to gather their thoughts before they feel comfortable speaking. Ask students to discuss the question with a partner, sharing their thoughts and ideas. When students explain concepts to one another, they often learn the material better. Bring the class together and ask some or all groups to share what they discussed, thus allowing opportunities for student feedback from both the instructor and their peers.
At the start of class, students write a short paragraph to update a hypothetical student who missed the previous class. (Alternatively, students could do this at the end of class to update a student who missed the current class they have just attended.) Students can submit their updates to the instructor or share with a partner or with the entire class.
Provide students with notes that contain only the organization/structure of the lecture, such as the main headings, sub-headings and key terms. While listening to the class lecture, students complete their notes with the missing details. With more advanced classes, less of the organization/structure needs to be included in the notes given to students, thus requiring students to fill in more details on their own.
At the end of a class, pause and ask students to write a one- or two-sentence summary of the class that focuses on the key points. Students can share with a partner or with the class or submit to the instructor.
Students take a few minutes to write down on a slip of paper which concept explored in class they are still unsure about and would like some clarification. These slips are submitted to the instructor, who then reviews them and selects which topics to revisit during the following class.
Write different but related questions or problems for students to explore onto four or five different spots on the whiteboards or on poster paper set up around the classroom. Assign students to groups and assign each group to start with one whiteboard/poster. Give students a set amount of time to jot down ideas pertaining to the question/problem. Have each group then rotate to the next whiteboard/poster, jotting down their ideas pertaining to that question/problem. Groups can add new ideas or elaborate on ideas written by the previous group. Ask groups to keep rotating until each group has commented on all the questions/problems. Bring the class together and review students’ answers to the different questions/problems.
Identify or create a case study that presents a scenario situated in the field. Effective case studies are realistic and detailed, present a conflict or unresolved situation, and have no obvious right answer. Distribute the case study to students and assign them to small groups. It is often a good idea to assign the case study ahead of time to give students ample time to reflect, particularly if the case study is complex. Provide students with the questions and/or prompts you want them to consider. After groups have explored the case study, have students share their thoughts as a whole class. Clarify issues raised and synthesize the discussion. For more on information on case studies, see the Eberly Center’s Case Studies.
For many students, taking part in a role play activity helps them better understand certain concepts. Identify a real-world situation or problem which students are likely to encounter when in the field and which requires students to apply content or practice skills acquired in the course. Create roles that would likely be seen in this real-world situation/problem. Give students the real-world situation/problem and the different roles and explain that students are to tackle this situation/problem by taking on the individual roles. Assign students to groups. Assign individual roles or allow students to choose their individual role. Give students time to work through the situation/problem through the perspective of their role, acting out an impromptu script. (Give students the option of writing a script if that reduces any anxiety they might feel about ‘winging it’. Bring the class together and ask students to perform their role plays and/or share their thoughts on the situation/problem from the different perspectives (roles).
Barkley, E. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. Jossey-Bass.
Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.
Centre for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.). Active learning activities. University of Waterloo.
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. Jossey-Bass.
Millis, B. (2014, November 1). Active learning strategies in face-to-face courses – IDEA Paper 53. IDEA.
Nilson, L. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Jossey-Bass.
O’Neal, C., & Pinder-Grover, T. (n.d.) How can you incorporate active learning into your classroom? Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan.
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Collins, J. W., & O’Brien, N. P. (Eds.). (2013). Active learning. In The Greenwood dictionary of education (2nd ed., p. 5). Greenwood Press.