Active Learning – What, Why and How

Lisa Benson, Associate Professor, Engineering and Science Education

“Don’t lecture, teach!”

I was talking recently with a post-doc who is trying to figure out if he wants a career in industry or academe. He thinks he would prefer academe. “I love my research. I love mentoring students. But,” he adds, “I hate lecturing.” As someone who embraces active learning and promotes it among colleagues near and far, I did a double take. I blurted back, “Well, just don’t lecture.” He thought I meant that he should refuse to teach. “No, no – I mean don’t lecture, teach!”

Our conversation reminded me of how little grad students, post-docs and even some faculty know about different ways of engaging students in the classroom and about different approaches to teaching besides lecturing. But the effort put into teaching is not often recognized or rewarded, at least not at the same level as effort in the research lab. Is it worth it?

A recent meta-analysis of over 150 research studies on active learning indicates that there are indeed positive outcomes from active learning that make it worth the effort of going beyond lecturing in the classroom1. Authors  Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor, Jordt and Wenderoth from the Department of Biology at the University of Washington analyzed outcomes of studies comparing student performance data on exams and concept inventories in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses that were primarily lecture format versus those employing active learning techniques. Accounting for variations in study methodologies, “publication bias” (the tendency to not publish results with small effect sizes), student quality and instructor identity, the analysis revealed that students in active learning classes scored higher on course exams and even higher on concept inventories than their peers in traditional lecture-based classes. Students in lecture-based classes were 1.5 more likely to fail than those in active learning classes. Although the effects were more pronounced in small classes (n ≤ 50), they were consistent across all class sizes, as well as across all STEM disciplines.

Empirical evidence is powerful stuff, but in spite of these new findings, many instructors still resist the idea of changing the way they teach. Maybe some small steps are in order rather than giant leaps. Active learning doesn’t have to turn a class inside out; but it can effectively take that love of research and love of mentoring that my colleague enthusiastically identified with and transfer it to the classroom.

What is active learning?  Any activity that engages students beyond just listening is technically active learning. When we lecture, we are basically telling students what they need to know. But students remember far more of what they say and do than of what they hear and see. Sometimes you have to lecture, but even lecturing can be broken up by short activities that help students learn more effectively.

What are the benefits of active learning?

  • Improved attendance – class is now something different and is attending is more worthwhile
  • Deeper questioning – students get to practice answering and generating questions
  • Higher grades and lower failing rates – research is providing evidence of this!1

How do I implement active learning?

  • Explain what you are doing and why up front; get student buy-in. This limits complaints from students that you are not actually teaching.
  • For paired or group activities, have the students form into groups of 2 – 4 where they are sitting. This saves time in regrouping, and gives students a sense of control over the activity.
  • Assign roles; most often groups need a recorder to capture ideas, but occasionally different roles might be appropriate (timekeeper, monitor, technician)
  • Explain the task, and this can typically be done orally. For more complicated problems or activities, a slide, handout or steps written on the board would be helpful.
  • Call on individuals randomly, both while working and when the activity ends. This is an important step to keep students accountable.
  • Keep activities short to keep students from wandering off task and to reduce frustration for groups that are struggling.
  • Always circulate around the room to listen in, give hints, and check for understanding.
  • Vary the activities you do with students rather than rely on the same in-class activity or format. Use different structures (pairs, groups, reflections, etc.) to keep the class interesting.

How do I find the time to fit in active learning and still cover everything?!  Our job as educators isn’t to cover material, it is to uncover it! You can’t afford not to engage students to help them learn.

  • Reduce the time needed for note-taking. Free up time by putting some of your class material on handouts, leaving gaps and inserting questions.
  • Reduce the time needed for lecturing. Record some of your lectures online and assign viewing it outside of class (aka “flipped classroom”). Follow up with directed questions or applying concepts in a problem during an activity.
  • Assign readings or post videos to be viewed online to introduce the topic you are teaching. Follow up with directed questions or applying concepts in a problem during an activity.

Some examples of active learning methods2:

  • In-class teams: Form teams of 2 – 4 students, and choose team recorders. Give teams 30 seconds – 3 minutes to do reflect on course material:
    • Recall prior material or a previous lecture
    • Answer or generate a question
    • Start a problem solution
    • Work out the next step in a derivation
    • Think of an example or application
    • Explain a concept
    • Figure out why a given result may be wrong
    • Summarize a lecture

Collect responses by randomly calling on team recorders. Some instructors call on people in the back of the room first to bring them into the discussion.

  • Think-Pair-Share: Pose questions for students to think about individually. (See question starters below.) Have students form pairs that first produce joint answers and then share them with the class. Pairs may discuss answers with other pairs before sharing.
    • How does ___ relate to what I’ve learned before?
    • What conclusions can I draw about ___?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of ___?
    • What is the main idea about ___?
    • What is the best ___ and why?
    • What if …?
    • Explain why…
    • How are ___ and ___ similar?
    • Why is ___ important?
    • How would I use ___ to …?
    • How does ___ affect …?
  • Cooperative Note-Taking Pairs 3: Students form pairs to work together during the class period. After a short lecture segment, one partner summarizes his or her notes to the other. The other partner adds information or corrects. The goal is for everyone to improve his or her notes. This takes about 2 minutes and can be repeated 2 – 3 times during a class period.
  • Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning4: Students work in groups of 3 or 4 and are provided with a set of generic question starters. (See question starter list above.) Each student individually prepares 2 or 3 thought-provoking questions about the course material from lecture or a reading. Questions are discussed in small groups at the beginning of class, and the whole class then discusses questions that were especially interesting or controversial in the group discussions.
  • Paired Programming: Two students actively collaborate on a computer-related task. One is the pilot, who does the keyboarding, and the other is the navigator, who identifies problems and thinks strategically. The two switch roles frequently.
  • TAPPS: Thinking Aloud Paired Problem Solving: Similar to paired programming, students form pairs, with one being the problem solver/explainer, and one being the listener/questioner.
    • The instructor defines the activity or problem
    • The problem solver talks through the first part of the solution or derivation.
    • The listener questions, gives hints where needed, and keeps the problem solver talking.
    • After several minutes the instructor stops the activity, collects solutions from several listeners to make sure everyone in class understands up to that point.
    • Pairs reverse roles and continue.

This can be used 7 – 8 minutes at a time, followed by a review of the problem solution with the whole class. Or it can be used for a complex problem that takes the whole class period to work through, with roles being reversed periodically.

  • Minute Paper5: End the lecture or lesson about two minutes before the end of the class period. Ask students to anonymously write down on index cards or a half-sheet of paper:
    • Main points
    • Muddiest (least clear) points

Collect the papers and use responses as “formative assessment” – in other words, use it to inform your own teaching practice. Determine what students do and do not understand, and adjust your next lecture/lesson or even online support materials to address common questions. You can also provide students the option of including their names so you can address individual questions via email or during office hours.



1 Freeman, Scott; Eddy, Sarah L.; McDonough, Miles; Smith, Michelle K.; Okoroafor, Nnadozie; Jordt, Hannah; and Wenderoth, Mary Pat. 2014. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, published ahead of print May 12, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111

2National Effective Teaching Institute Workshop Handout

3 Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K. A. 1998. Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom (2nd ed.) Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co.

4 King, A. 1993. From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41(1), 30-35.

5 Angelo, T. A. and Cross, K. P. 1993. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A handbook for college teaching (2nd ed.), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


2 thoughts on “Active Learning – What, Why and How

  1. Pingback: Implementing Classroom Demonstrations – Incorporating Student Inquiry | Teaching Fluid Mechanics

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