Active Learning

Active learning

I do not remember too much from my student teaching experience almost ten years ago. I remember that I was student teaching 10th grade world history.  I remember quite a few of the student’s faces and names. I remember the teacher I was working with, but I don’t remember much about the content I taught. Except for World War I.

I vividly remember teaching the basics of how World War I started. I remember, because each student was given a piece of paper with a country, person’s name, political ideology, etc. on it, and we used the classroom to build a world map and walk the students through the events that took place.

books in a library shelf with ladder When I look back at the teaching I have done in the college classroom, I most distinctly remember topics covered that involved the class moving around, taking on roles, or engaging in deep discussions as small groups or as a class. As a student, those kinds of things are the specific moments I remember from classes I have attended, as well. Those activities are considered active learning. 

What is Active Learning?

Active learning involves engagement. It involves application and higher order thinking. It involves doing. A growing body of studies is finding that active learning techniques improve student success and achievement in the classroom across all levels of learning.2, 3, 4, 5

The old saying “Give a man a fish, he’s fed for a day; teach a man to fish and he’s fed for a lifetime” really sums up the concept. Transmission of knowledge isn’t enough; we “get it” when we do it.

Man fishing in water with waves

This is not to say that lecture does not have its place in the classroom, but lecture alone is not going to do nearly as much for student success as a classroom that incorporates active learning techniques. Many classrooms use a mix of lecture and active learning techniques.

Some classes are “flipped,” with students doing reading and general knowledge/information gathering before class, and then class time is spent engaging in active learning applying that knowledge.5 Some classes are “scrambled,” meaning lecture, activity, and even “flipping” are used in different ways and combinations throughout the duration of the course.5

There’s really no wrong way to do it. At the core, it is about engaging the students with the material. Check out this video on Flipped Learning.

How to Do It:

eggs in a pan In addition to techniques and changes like the “flipped” and “scrambled” methods previously mentioned, there are several models that provide direction for developing an active learning immersed course.

The Transformed Teacher touches on some specific techniques in Group Work Part 1 – Let’s Get Real and Group Work Part 2 – What’s in a Name.

Team-Based Learning

People put one hand on top of each other hand 

One such example is Team-Based Learning. A 2019 study examined Team-Based Learning and the positive outcomes it leads to as it creates an active learning course.4

Team-Based Learning is broken into two phases where certain activities occur:

      1. Phase One: Readiness Assurance
        • Students read materials and study basic content knowledge outside of class.
        • In class, students are tested individually.
        • Students are put into permanent groups.
        • Students take the quiz again as a group.
        • Prompt feedback is given, and groups may appeal questions they got wrong by making a case for the answer they provided.
      2. Phase Two: Concept Application
        • The groups do knowledge application activities.
        • At the end of the unit/semester students conduct evaluations on their overall success and teammate’s contributions.

Team Based graph
Figure 1. Reference 4 
Figure 1 illustrates the process for Team-Based Learning. The study teams report positive student outcomes, recommends this method for courses with a “significant body of information,” and recommends groups be comprised of five or less students.4

Inquiry Based Model

Faculty was looking a frog with students

A 2006 study examined an Inquiry Based Model developed by seven faculty across six different disciplines.2 This active learning model focused on students engaging with the content immediately and forming the direction of the course through a process of inquiry.

Inquiry Based Learning chart

Figure 2 illustrates the inquiry process, which involves interaction with other peers as the questions are explored, more information is gathered, and new questions emerge. Tasks in class are assigned to build critical thinking skills and foster real-life application of the material. The process was used during twelve, three hour class sessions, across seven different courses, with no more than 25 students per class.2 

There are many other methods of including active learning in your classroom that do not require a total overhaul of current course design. Some suggestions are:3

    • Encourage students to challenge ideas and engage in in-class discussion on those challenges.
    • Encourage students to bring articles, readings, and new assignment ideas.
    • Give students actual problems or situations to analyze.
    • Use role-play, simulation, or hands-on experiments.
    • Have students compare/contrast different theories, authors, etc.
    • Create opportunities for them to try out ideas.
    • Use or have them use personal examples or life experiences (as appropriate).
    • Use authentic tasks that build on what they know (scaffolding).
    • Provide prompt feedback.


Some general techniques that can be integrated into lecture include:3

  • Starting with a question or interspersing questions for mini discussion throughout lecture.
  • Providing skeleton notes.
  • Taking breaks every 15 minutes to see if there are questions.
  • Having students write down what they learned this class and what unanswered questions they have at the end of class, to be addressed at the start of the next class.
  • Dividing into teams before lecture and assigning each team a duty to complete during the lecture (such as writing down questions they suspect others may have, providing examples to demonstrate key concepts, or playing devil’s advocate) and sharing with the class at the end.
  • Giving out cards with a true or false question on them, to be gone over after the students have found the answers to the questions.
  • Journaling what they’re learning.
  • Using formative quizzes that are not graded, but rather discussed after they are finished.

Some Things to Consider:

Alarm clock

Discussions in the classroom change the dynamic. It is very likely you are going to lose “control” of the classroom to a degree as students move chairs, conversations begin, and groups finish at different times. Be ready for this and have a method for calling things back to order, whether it be a bell, an alarm, or simply saying something.

It can be helpful to give students warnings that group discussions will need to wrap up soon, or letting each group know as you go and check in with them. On the other hand, you may have some difficulty engaging students in participating in discussion. A previous OTL post discusses ways to deal with that situation.

Discussions, whether as a class or in small groups should be done with purpose; making sure subject material is not too easy or too hard, and making sure that you provide clarification for students regarding what they may be tested on.1 A frustration often shared by students regarding group discussion is leaving the room and not knowing if they gathered all the information they need.1

A frustration often shared by students regarding group discussion is leaving the room and not knowing if they gathered all the information they need.

What comes out of small group or class discussion can be fluid and nonspecific in some classes, for example philosophy, but concrete answers would likely need to be specifically stated in a class like chemistry. Managing the information shared is the instructor’s responsibility, and an important part of making discussions a worthwhile activity.

Read more on classroom discussions in this OTL blog post.

Students report that active learning activities that are useful and truly serve their purpose are going to be meaningful, their purpose explained, and the instructor will be engaged in guiding and supporting the group or groups while not turning their interactions into a lecture.1

A positive active learning environment is also enhanced when instructors repeat questions so everyone hears them, model acceptance of differing views, and by not shaming students when they have an answer different than the one expected.3

Classroom design is another element that comes into play when considering active learning. Some classrooms are designed specifically for active learning, with tables and chairs that can easily be moved or rearranged, smart boards, or other technologies.

Empty classroom with chairs in rows A study conducted in 2018 reported that classroom design did not, however, significantly impact student performance when active learning techniques were used.5 Even if your classroom’s chairs are bolted to the floor or you are limited to an overhead projector, a little creativity is all it takes to make a classroom work for active learning. 


Active learning is extremely important to developing creative, insightful, and questioning students. Even little changes in a classroom can make a difference for our students and what they take away from the class.

Students are oftentimes not going to want to do active learning activities. In the end, however, many express appreciation for the change of pace from traditional lecture classes and how much easier it was to retain the information after engaging in an active learning environment.5

It takes a little extra work and maybe some redesign on the part of the instructor, but the difference our efforts make will truly impact the students we educate and send into the larger world.

Here are some suggestions when it comes to making changes in your classroom.

Do you have any particular techniques or models you use to bring active learning to your classroom? Share them below in the comments section!


More Resources:


    1. Herrmann, K. J. (2013). The impact of cooperative learning on student engagement: Results from an intervention. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14: 3, 175-187. DOI: 10.1177/1469787413498035
    2. Justice, C., Rice, J., Warry, W., Inglis, S., Miller, S., Sammon, S. (2006). Inquiry in higher education: Reflections and directions on course design and teaching methods. Innovative Higher Education, 31: 4, 201-214. DOI: 10.1007/s10755-006-9021-9
    3. Royse, D. D. (2001). Teaching tips for college and university instructors: A practical guide. Needham Heights, MA, Allyn & Bacon.
    4. Swanson, E., McCulley, L. V., Osman, D. J., Lewis, N. S., & Solis, M. (2019). The effect of team-based learning on content knowledge: a meta-analysis. Active Learning in Higher Education, 20:1, 39-50. DOI: 10.1177/1469787417731201
    5. Vercelloti, M. L. (2018). Do interactive learning spaces increase student achievement? A comparison of classroom context. Active Learning in Higher Education, 19:3, 197-210. DOI: 10.1177/1469787417735606

KeywordsInstructional, What is?, OTL Blog   Doc ID131696
OwnerLinda C.GroupIT Knowledge Base
Created2023-09-26 10:49:17Updated2023-10-04 09:05:26
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